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  • Reverend James Squire

Dehumanization




                                              

 I am currently reading The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson which recounts the events that led up to the Civil War. I find that few writers do the research that he and his team do in writing any of his books. What he also captures is the atmosphere and what is needed as one event leads to another. Like my beloved Professor Dr. Edward Rochie Hardy at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, he goes behind pure history so that you have the “story behind the story.”

 

When it comes down to what changes lives to have a Civil War you must have several issues that you can see in Larson’s story to have that kind of significant change. The events that made the Civil War possible are fear, classism in a clear division between the haves and have nots, and greed. There are two ingredients that powered the Civil War more so than others. Dehumanization and a requirement to see one group better than another largely through who controls the money. Greed is a component.

 

In ethics class, I told my students to follow the money as they are trying to see the context that surrounds a good many decisions. What I saw in Larson’s book were the same issues that we are confronting now where people are attempting to save our democracy particularly after Trump’s trial when he was found guilty on all counts.

 

We sometimes forget that it was Democrats in the South who wanted the Civil War that started at Fort Sumter in the waters outside of Charlestown. The Republicans on the other hand were the party that wanted slavery stopped. Lincoln was a Republican.

 

Some of the plantation owners owned hundreds of slaves. As I was reading Larson’s book, I had watched a movie streaming about how Isabel Wilkerson came to write Caste.  Caste is regarded as the best book that Oprah ever read. She sent a copy to every leader in the nation including owners of professional sports teams. Caste makes the case that slavery wasn’t based on race. It is based more on caste (or class).

 

Wilkerson demonstrates that slavery in America, the Jews in Germany under Hitler, and the Dalits in India contain three different races but have one common denominator. They each have in common that they are from the same class or caste regardless of their race. Each of those three groups, slave, Jew, and Dalit, become regarded as less than human. All start by one group of people believing that they are superior to them.

 

I am aware of the words of Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician to the poor at a global level, that “some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” That is a one sentence that summarizes Wilkerson’s thesis in her book, Caste.

 

Caste and Larson’s words come together as truth. Slavery would not have happened if there wasn’t a dehumanization of black people. Both authors depict in rather graphic terms what it was like to be a slave where they were treated like animals not people. The slaves were the source of labor that enabled a few to have great amounts of money. Millions of dollars of what the plantation owners would have if we considered their profits in today’s money.

 

Hitler turned to the American model of slavery, studied it, and adopted it to have control over the Jews so that the Nazi’s could feel superior to another group. They used our template of slavery to persecute the Jewish population. They set about eradicating the Jews though concentration camps. The Jews were not considered as people. They were the cause of all of problems of Germany and were an easy scapegoat for Hitler and his caste of the Nazi ideal of an Aryan Nation.

 

I had read much and thought that I knew what it was like to be a Dalit in India which also has a caste system of different groups with the Dalits at the bottom. They used to be called the untouchables. I found Origin to be particularly difficult to watch as it overlays all three caste systems, slavery, antisemitism, and the Dalits in such a way that you are reminded throughout the film how caste is the common ground of three depictions that have caste and not race as the common theme.

 

The Dalits are depicted in Origin as the people who must clean the public toilets in India. I recalled when I graduated valedictorian of my class and was class president that within forty-eight hours, I was cleaning the public toilets in the same school. They gave me a scholarship to work as a janitor between my graduation and the start of college. The Superintendent knew that my family and I fell on difficult financial times after my father’s stroke when I was in tenth grade. I thought that being a janitor was difficult to do for a naïve kid. I was thankful for the job but not for that task of cleaning public toilets. I went from the top of the heap to what I considered then to be the bottom. But it motivated me to say the least!

 

What I learned recently by watching Origin is that I had it good. The public toilets in India drain into what looks like small swimming pools where all the feces and urine become one. The Dalits climb into those small pools and are neck deep in the sewage. A Dalit could walk to the side of the pool and have a fellow member of his caste wipe his face.

 

I recently quoted the words from Dr. Paul Farmer that “the idea that some lives matter less is the root of what is wrong with the world.”

 

I am bothered by Trump’s policies, but I am bothered even more with his descriptions of others as scum, trash, rapists, our troops are suckers, etc. The list is so long, in addition there are harsh nicknames. He does this to dehumanize people having no real value. That’s where the caste system of slavery, antisemitism, and the world of the Dalits begins. Beware of him!

 

The bottom line of our social/political problems is caste or class.

 

I chaperoned a group of students once who were studying how to purify our water system. We went to a sewer plant. It was run by a family. There was a little boy who was about nine who was also giving the tour. I think that he questioned the fact the student group was taking him seriously although they were well behaved. I have never forgotten his words. He looked the students right in the eyes and said, “It may be sh__t to you, but it is food to us.”  I wanted to clap and cheer him out loud. Out of the mouths of babes!  It was a one boy response to anyone thinking that he was less than them. No dehumanization for him. Keep that little boy in mind as you listen to Trump between now and the election.

 

I have far more than enough blogs for another book. If I decide to publish it, I may have the title be From Janitor to Yale and Duke: Living From a Deeper Spot. 

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