In March of 1968, a demoralized company of American infantrymen entered the village of My Lai. Their orders were to destroy the village. Whether the orders included mass extermination of the local populace is a matter of debate, but they did just that, to a heinous degree. It is said that Charlie Company murdered around 500 people that day, nearly all civilians and many of them women and children. They raped, tortured, and slaughtered the village.
It could have been even worse, but Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson was flying through the area in his chopper on a reconnaissance mission. What he saw from the air was incomprehensible. Charlie Company was chasing the retreating villagers, mowing them down as they ran. Thompson acted. He landed his helicopter between Charlie Company and the villagers, right in the crossfire. Thompson threatened to open fire on Charlie Company if they did not immediately cease their attack on the villagers. In what must have been a very tense moment, Charlie Company backed down and Thompson’s heroic move thus ended the massacre.
Charlie Company was a typical group of American soldiers. Some were from farms and others from big cities. They had various upbringings. So what could cause a group of ordinary men to commit such an atrocity? What led to this bloodlust?
I am not qualified to answer this question in detail. I wasn’t there that day and I’ve never set foot on a battlefield. But I can tell you this for sure: they objectified the villagers. Charlie Company had lost a lot of their men from booby traps and fighting, and they saw villagers walk safely in areas where shortly after Americans were killed by traps. Charlie Company decided the villagers were the problem and regardless of their orders, they violently extinguished the problem. The tender faces of babies and the pleading faces of their mothers were from somewhere beyond humanity to Charlie Company, and they struck them down like roaches.
Examples of the objectification are endless. The recent ambush and murder of five Dallas police officers. The terrorism in Nice, France. Racial profiling. Nazis. The Rwandan Massacre. Slavery. The sex trade. Objectification yields hatred and violence. And we do it all the time.
In his sermon entitled “What’s The Problem?” Pastor Scott explained the mechanics of objectification of other people. He explained that when we idolize something, we in turn objectify the opposite or the resistance to our idol. This empowers everything from college rivalries to mass murder, because often we see people as the thing getting in between us and our idols.
Atrocities happen every day in corners of the world that our eyes don’t see, suicide bombs and rapes and slavery. In our white picket fence America, we don’t see the blood, but lately the darkness has become too much too ignore. It seems violence is bubbling up in unexpected places – and we want answers. What is causing all of this and how to avoid it and when will this end?
It’s easy to assign blame to other people. It’s the terrorists or the racists. And yes, there are evil people doing horrible things, and we should seek justice. But what about us? What about me? It’s not so easy to condemn the man in the mirror. But I am the problem, and so are you. It is the idolatry in our hearts that perpetuates objectification of other people. We must start our work on the darkness in our hearts. It starts with us.
We must kill our idols and repent.
Jesus offers his hand to us. He sees our false gods and he offers a better way. When we place our worship rightly on Jesus, the world is made better from the oozing of grace, love, and truth that emanates from our hearts. When we idolize false gods, we are violence in waiting.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). I don’t know about you, but with all of the recent violence, I’m pretty heavy laden with grief. It seems like it’s closing in on all sides. Amidst the pain and confusion, Jesus again offers his hand.
When we start with ourselves, with repentance and submission to Jesus, our institutions change (police departments, schools, churches, political parties, etc.). After all, institutions are made up of individuals, of people like you and me. Instead of running frantically down the line of people to blame, we must start with owning the problem ourselves. What idols do we keep on the shelf? How do these idols create objectification of other people? How do we kill these idols?
John Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” I would add that our sin might also kill others.
What, if it were taken away from you, would make your life not worth living? What is the one thing that you cannot live without? What in your life, if God were to remove it, would cause you to lose your identity? These are probably inherently good things, mind you. Maybe the answer is your kids or success or a hobby. But when we make good things god things, they become violent things. You may never have thought of that, but it’s the truth.
The answer, as always, is Jesus. Not the idea of him, or tradition, or the good stuff he offers, but a personal relationship with him. The gospel is not merely a story or an idea – it is a relationship. Jesus purchased an eternal union with him for you. Just as infidelity kills marriages, our idolatry kills our relationship with Jesus.
It starts with us. It starts with our idols. When we repent and put on the light and easy yoke of Christ, the world changes.