News and History

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.


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18 Responses to News and History

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Good thoughts. I know that I cannot fix the world; all I can do is “try to” fix the little bits and pieces that are available to me, and shed a little light and warmth as I go along.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – That’s the challenge for many of us, I think – to see the world for what it is, but to keep on sluggin’.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Profound observations, Isabel, and deeply moving. They provide the sermon that I won’t be getting this morning, because my own church is shut down for three weeks, and the other church I might go to is only Zoom for July, and I don’t have the password to get in. Thank you.

    Jim T

  3. Lorna says:

    Thank you for those observations Isabel. They offer a helpful perspective for me to adopt as I head towards despair at mankind’s inhumanity that is so brutally on display in too many countries at the moment.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Lorna – I find that it’s easy to fall off one end or the other – despair or senseless optimism (usually by ignoring the world). Realistic hope is harder to maintain, for sure.

      • barbara carlson says:

        I look at the news as Bearing Witness. We must do better. Random acts of kindness hardly tip the scale, but if everyone took even a tiny measure of responsibility for each other’s well-being… what would happen?

        What I grieve seeing is a sense of an entitlement of freedom with no responsibility. Or trust. Without that there can be no Civilization.

        This hastening drift is as socially infectious & deadly as any virus.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Yes, a good approach (“bearing witness”). And yes, there are no rights without responsibilities. We maybe need to be explicitly reminded of that from time to time.

          • barbara carlson says:

            If only France had sent, along with the Statue of Liberty, another one called Responsibility. (Too preachy?) As if “huddled masses yearning to breathe free [ly]” isn’t challenging enough.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Barbara – 🙂 Well, maybe a bit preachy. But imagine the license plates: Give me responsibility, or give me death!

  4. Thank you for sharing your perspective on these news items that filtered through the blur I am walking through at the moment. The tornadoes that swept through here last week missed us but did shocking damage nearby. Other disasters have settled in and grown roots. Yet, I am not miserable. Just tired and frustrated as I try to peel back the layers of each problem and apply what I may towards change. We are so fortunate to live here rather than in Ukraine or Russia or China or … I pray for the outpouring of Grace that will keep me able to continue being useful. I find some of that Grace in your writing.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I am sorry for your troubles and share your hope that you will continue to find the strength to tackle every day. Not to be flip, but we can all take a lesson from the concussion protocols in football, where players are now explicitly taught to tackle by hitting with their shoulder and arms first, rather than their head.

  5. Good advice, I think, Isabel. And your scale of woes is a useful check on how successfully I am managing to stay afloat when I am surrounded by people who are suffering much more than I am. Also, music helps!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Our own woes hurt the most, even when they aren’t objectively the worst. But it can’t hurt (no pun intended) to work at perspective. Take my advice, I’m not using it. 🙂

  6. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – this is a truly ugly story, and there are so many thoughts and things I could say, but I will limit myself to just saying,

    Sī vīs pācem, parā bellum
    (If you want peace, prepare for war);

    which is something many people have forgotten in this day and age.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Yes, it’s one of the saddest aspects of the human condition that peace can’t be achieved only by niceness. I’m not saying niceness isn’t necessary in this world, but it does seem to be insufficient.

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