One of the characters in Ursula Hegi’s brilliant novel on Nazi Germany, Stones from the River, is named Ilse Abramowitz.
Ilse is a Jewish woman whose husband, Michael, had been arrested, beaten, and humiliated by a group of young Nazis. They had come to her home, vandalized it, beaten her husband, and taken him away. One of the young Nazis is an eighteen year-old boy named Helmut Eberhardt whom she knows well. She’s friends with his mother and knows too that he is getting married in church the very next day. As Helmut, among others, drags her husband away …
“She pitied the young wife whose body would lie beneath Helmut’s in the nights to come. A thought came to her that had insisted on settling with her for some time now, a thought that would anger Michael if she ever told him: given a choice, she would rather be the one who was persecuted than the one who did the persecuting. Both had a terrible price to pay, but she would rather endure humiliation and fear than grow numb to what it was to be human.”
Better to be persecuted than numb to what’s human. That’s a mature, moral comment, though a risky one. We know the axiom: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely!” There’s both an important truth and a deadly warning there. What isn’t as evident is its opposite: Powerlessness too can corrupt and absolute powerlessness can corrupt absolutely. Many of our worst criminals, terrorists, and others who have precisely numbed themselves to what it means to be human, got that way not through the experience of power but through its opposite, the experience of powerlessness and humiliation. Timothy McVeigh and many of the today’s terrorists certainly bear that out. Their hatred and violence take their origin not in the experience of power, but in the experience of humiliation, frustration, and the lack of power to do anything about it, except violence.
That’s always a risk in any experience of humiliation. Martin Luther King once used a very strong image to make this point: Imagine, he said, a young boy using a public bathroom. He’s alone and defenceless when a group of young thugs enter. To make sport for themselves and to act out their mindless self-hatred, they humiliate him by pushing his face into the urinal so as to make him taste their own urine. Among all the experiences of powerlessness and humilation, few have the power to so violate and unravel one’s humanity as does such an experience. At that moment, this boy’s soul is literally up for grabs. As King put it: In that urine he can taste an humiliation that brings permanent bitterness or he can taste the blood of the crucified Christ. But he’s a young boy, not Mother Theresa, and such an experience can just as easily leave him bitter and prone to violence as it can leave him feeling that privileged powerlessness that Jesus called blessed.
“Blessed are you when you are poor, powerless, and persecuted!” Jesus said that. He praised little children and told us that they enter the kingdom of God easily, not because of their innocence (which has its own stunning beauty) but because of their powerlessness. They’re helpless and need to rely on others, even to eat. Jesus also praised the poor, telling us that they too enter the kingdom easily, for the same reason. He wasn’t glorifying poverty (which is an evil to be eliminated) but pointing to the potential blessings inherent in the experience of being poor and powerless.
What Jesus is challenging us to here is not easily understood, and even less easily lived. Why, one wonders, isn’t it more blessed to be rich than to be poor? If one is gifted, respected, and able to achieve one’s dreams, shouldn’t that naturally lead to gratitude? Sometimes it does, and you see that gratitude and greatness in people of noble soul, but, more commonly, it doesn’t. It leads instead to an attitude of entitlement, to a resentment that some have more than we do, to a greedy, jealous, bitter spirit, and to precisely what Ursula Hegi names as a moral numbing- down, a necessary blindness to many of the things of what it means to be human. That’s the corruption of power.
And it sets us on a slippery slope. To numb ourselves to what’s best inside of us – our innate moral sensitivity, our natural compassion, and our deep-down desire for what’s best – forces us to live a lie. When we do this we need to keep lying ourselves and we need to keep putting pressure on those around us to lie too. That’s where our violence begins and it continues, in some form, as long as we are unfaithful to what’s true.
Yes, there’s a risk in powerlessness and humiliation, but there’s even a great risk in its opposite. Ursula Hegi’s Ilse Abramowitz chooses the better part: Better to be persecuted than to be numb to what’s human.