Keeping the Human in Humanity

By Jim Tonkowich Published on September 10, 2015

The above-the-fold photo on the front page of the Washington Post my first day back from vacation was of the police officer recovering the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi dead the surf on a Turkish beach. According to the Wall Street Journal, Aylan was one of twelve who drowned after the fifteen-foot boat carrying them from Turkey to Greece capsized. Aylan’s family, refugees from Syria, was on route to freedom and safety in Europe. The illegal trip had cost €4,000 ($4,460) in addition to the deaths of Aylan, his five-year-old brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehan.

In the movie Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Given a world with more than seven billion people, it may be only natural and reasonable for us to think of nameless, faceless masses. The crowds of Middle Eastern immigrants marching from Hungary to Austria seem to be just that: crowds, mobs, hordes, multitudes. But it’s merely a coping trick of the mind, not reality.

Where we see crowds, God sees individuals. Each has a name and a face, a history and a future, a family and a purpose. “There are no ordinary people,” C. S. Lewis declared in The Weight of Glory. “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Yet we allow individuals to become abstractions and when that happens it is to the detriment of the individuals in need, the world, and our souls.

Those in Need

Nationwide Insurance touched a nerve with it’s commercial showing a little girl in line at the DMV, a little boy so frustrated on hold that he throws his phone, and two children vying for a waiter’s attention. We all know how it feels to be ignored in our need. We hate it and rightly so. We are, as a 2003 study from the Institute for American Values puts it, “Hardwired to Connect” person-to-person, face-to-face. It’s the reason local, typically faith-based organizations are so much better equipped to help those in need than state or federal bureaucracies where people become “cases,” “clients,” or “files.” Broken machines need servicing. Broken people need love.

The World

The history of the twentieth century serves as the record of what happens to the world when those in power package individuals into faceless groups and declare those groups undesirable, expendable, or non-human. “We have to assume,” wrote scholar Paul Johnson in Modern Times, “that what drove Lenin to do what he did was a burning humanitarianism, akin to the love of the saints for God — but his humanitarianism was a very abstract passion. It embraced humanity in general but he seemed to have had little love for or even interest in, humanity in particular.”

The result? Unlike the saints, Lenin killed more than four million men, women, and children in his newly formed Soviet Union. Of course for Lenin they weren’t men, women, and children. They were the masses who ran afoul of his vision. His successor, Joseph Stalin, killed 42 million.

Pope Francis’ call for every parish and religious community in Europe to adopt one immigrant family attempts to turn these new “masses” back into men, women, and children. And the whole world will be better for it.

Our Own Souls

“You shall love your neighbor,” said Jesus, “as you love yourself (Mark 12:30a).” How do we love ourselves? With knowledge, respect, and sacrifice. The refusal to love our neighbors with knowledge, respect, and sacrifice results in a coarsening of our souls and a distortion of the image of God in us.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, “to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.”

A fifteen-foot boat is designed to carry four people safely. Packing it with more than a dozen courted disaster. Yet there is a deeply human instinct behind daring great danger for a better future for oneself and one’s children. And while the sheer number of refugees constitutes a monumental crisis, the humans behind that human instinct should never be forgotten.

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