This week Twitter brought me the horrific news (and video if I had wanted it, which I did not) of Russian guards castrating a Ukrainian Army officer and prisoner of war before murdering him via a bullet to the head. While I allow for the fog of war and the power of propaganda, this story seems to be true. Indeed, some say this event was not a one-of, but just the first to have a widely circulated video.
News like this could make anyone despair of humanity altogether. I am tempted to weep. I am tempted to go spit on the Russian embassy. I am tempted to turn away from the news. How can I stand to even hear about such atrocities? How can any of us?
But this week Twitter also brought me the story of Raymund Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who was imprisoned in Auschwitz for hiding Jews. In 1941, a prisoner escaped and the Deputy Commander ordered that 10 men from the same block be starved to death. One of the men selected cried out for mercy, for the sake of his wife and children. Kolbe offered himself in the man’s place and was put in a cell with nine other men. They were given no food or water. Two weeks later Kolbe was still alive; he was then murdered via lethal injection.
This bare-bones story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe neatly captures the extremes of the human condition: one man who imprisoned and murdered others; another man who gave up his life for a stranger.
Feeling like weeping about these stories — current and historical — may be unavoidable. Feeling like lashing out against the perpetrators may be understandable. But feeling like turning away from the reality is unworthy. Sometimes all I can do is *not* turn away from another’s pain: I can’t prevent it, or fix it, or enforce justice for it, but I can at least see it.
If I see the depths of human depravity and cruelty — current and historical — then I can react calmly and helpfully and even hopefully to offenses in my community, knowing that they usually fall short of the worst we are capable of.
If I see the heights of human love and self-sacrifice — current and historical — then I can be inspired by the example of others to be the best I am capable of, if and when I do encounter evil.