Did you know that public executions were once entertainment?
We think we’re desensitized today, but imagine what those scenes were like. In some cases, the execution was by hanging. Others by decapitation. Sometimes the executioner botched the killing and was himself killed by the crowd. Some were hours long, where the victim was kept alive to be the object of torture for the amusement of the crowd.
You might think the crowds that showed up were an angry mob, and sure – some of them were. But in certain places and times, public executions were like, say, going to watch the horses run. People would bring food and drink and get all dressed up. Move over, you’re blocking my view. That kind of thing.
Oh yeah, but those were ancient people, right? Different times, right? The picture attached to this post is from 1936 in Kentucky.
Would you go to an execution if all of your friends were going? Maybe not the first one. But what if it became customary in your town, state, and country? Would you go then? Would you watch someone die?
We like to think we’re good people. That we make some bad choices, but our bad choices aren’t really us. But they are. And we need to know it.
In 1942, a group of middle-aged men were drafted into the German military. These guys weren’t warriors, they were truck drivers and salesmen. These were, as described by Christopher Browning in his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, rather ordinary men.
Slowly but surely, they became icy-veined executioners.
At first many of the men couldn’t handle the mass killings. They’d run away or get fall down drunk. But as time went on, the men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 got used to routinely taking large groups of Jewish men, women, and children into the woods and shooting them as they lay face down in the grass.
What makes ordinary men become killers?
We have a heart problem. Jeremiah 17:9 says:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
When Jesus taught us to pray, he taught us to pray that God would “lead us not into temptation”. In other words, God please protect our choices, our motives, and our desires. Protect us from temptation by Satan and protect us from ourselves. He himself had been tempted by Satan, and though Jesus did not have a depraved heart, it was still hard for Jesus. He understood that we sinful and weak-minded people would be not only more susceptible to temptation, but also to committing evil on our own.
Lead us not into temptation.
We have to understand this. I know it’s not fun. And I’m not even done yet. But we must understand that we are capable of doing just about anything given the right situation. We must understand we are not the good guys.
We must understand what Jesus saves us from and what he continually prevents. Are we demons? No, of course not. But we are a lot darker than we think we are – or we at least have the capacity to do horrible things. And we’ve done horrible things. We’ve lied, cheated, and stolen. We need redemption and forgiveness. Badly.
The reason I started with public executions is because it reveals what happens when we don’t check ourselves, when we don’t look at ourselves with skepticism. That’s how mobs happen. That’s how genocides happen. That’s how slavery happens.
That’s how sin happens.
When we look for evil only outside of ourselves, we will find it – but we will miss the terrors within. If we don’t question our motives, we might go along with mobs. We might be ideologues instead of independent thinkers. We might dehumanize other people.
We will miss the most dangerous person in our lives: us.
If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 had questioned themselves as they were lacing up their boots, they might have woken up. They might have considered the humanity of their victims and the insanity of the Nazi regime. Things could have been different for them.
Okay, let’s be real here. Christians do not have a monopoly on goodness. Just because someone says they’re a Christian, it doesn’t mean they’re good.
There were tons of Christian slave owners. How about the Salem Witch trials? What about The Crusades?
I hope this turns your stomach like it turns mine.
Mere behavior modification isn’t enough. That’s like those people who think it’s a good idea to keep a pet tiger. The tiger one day gets hungry and does what the tiger does and eats its owner like a gazelle. Our sin is much too dangerous to gamify it or white knuckle it.
We need complete transformation. We need rebirth.
FUMBLING FOR LIGHT
We have a great capacity for sin and darkness. All of us. But what will make us better – what will make us Christ-like – is to get up close to the light.
Life is complicated and we are complicated. We do things we don’t want to do and don’t do what we should do. Other people hurt us. It’s like we’re walking through an unknown house in the dark. Bump, trip, fall.
We need to find the light switch.
Darkness cannot dwell with light. Light wins. Sin cannot dwell with Jesus. Jesus wins.
If we know our depravity, we know our need for salvation. We understand the magnitude of grace. If we think God’s grace is a religious conversion or a really smart life change, we completely miss the point. And the truth. And we’re doing nothing to address our need for help and forgiveness.
The opposite of depravity isn’t morality. Let me repeat: the opposite of depravity isn’t morality. We aren’t talking about “being a good boy” and keeping your mouth clean.
The opposite of depravity is love.
Love is light, and Jesus is the source. Love is not mitigation of depravity, it’s an overwhelm of goodness. It’s cosmic offense.
As the Spirit moves in our hearts, he inclines us toward love and compassion. We grow in our capacity for humanity and shrink in our capacity for depravity. We grow in our capacity for – and inclination toward – love.
Darkness doesn’t scare our King. He went into the belly of darkness and rose victorious. He was the victim of a public execution – the most horrible kind – and through his death we are given life. We are given love. And grace invades our souls like a heavenly disease, we will start to show symptoms of love, kindness, and humanity.
Know your darkness, and look to the Light.