I recently heard of a movie made nineteen years ago. (I’m usually twenty-five years behind, so nineteen years late is up-to-date for me.) The movie Max is about Adolf Hitler, but not the monster. Rather it follows a fictionalized younger man as an aspiring but failed painter. The director said he wanted to humanize Hitler.
Just hearing about an attempt to “humanize” Hitler horrified me. Then it nauseated me. I couldn’t (and still can’t) bring myself to watch the movie. I thought,
This is our modern world. We used to call shameful actions “sinful,” but then we ditched the biblical idea of shame, so we redefined “sinful” to “sick.” And now, today, we’ve recast formerly shameful things as “normal and healthy.” It’s the 1984 Doublethink:
“War is peace, Freedom is slavery, and Ignorance is strength.” And Hitler is human.
While I couldn’t (and can’t) watch the movie, I was fascinated by its cultural implications. I hunted for articles and reviews, and I found a discussion with the director. He said,
The movie isn’t about Hitler’s great crimes. The audience already knows about them. This is about his small sins — his emotional cowardice, his relentless self-pity, his envy, his frustration, the way he collects and nurtures offenses — because those are the sins we can see when we look in a mirror.
Hitler obliges us by representing an uncomplicated picture of evil. But nobody wakes up one day and slaughters thousands. They make choices, one at a time.
Someone once said, “History has a way of distorting villains so that we can no longer see ourselves in them.” While Hitler really was an unspeakable monster, the director wasn’t “double-thinking” Hitler’s monstrosity into a misunderstood man; he wasn’t un-shaming Hitler.
He was shaming me, in the most biblical way.
Swimming to Tokyo
If I were asked to name the vilest monster of the 20th Century, I would choose Hitler, though Stalin and Mao are contenders. The three brutally killed scores of millions through purges, re-education programs, and cold-blooded ruthlessness.
Who knows which one was most evil? It’s sort of like standing knee-deep in the surf off Malibu beach and asking which Japanese island would be hardest to swim to. They are all so far away.
And it is right, good, true, and biblical to see their lives as wicked, evil, sinful, and shameful.
But the director’s brilliant insight continues to haunt me … Nobody wakes up one day and slaughters thousands. They make choices one at a time. What are my petty sins? How have I nourished little grievances or delighted in self-pity? Or (even more damning), how often I have whispered to myself, “At least I’m not as bad as them! I would never do that!”?
If the distance between me and Hitler is the miles from Malibu to Tokyo, then the distance between me and God’s Goodness is from the earth to the far edge of the Milky Way. Which means I’m knee-deep in the surf next to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. With no discernable difference.
Perhaps my greatest sin is my inner refusal to admit my sinfulness. Sure, my little self-pity-parties are sinful, and I would hate to have my all my thoughts Twittered to the world. But I’m a decent chap: I tip the waitstaff generously; I smile at cashiers; I pray and read the Bible.
Somehow, my heart refuses to admit that Jesus had to die because of my wickedness.
I Am Capable Exactly Like He
Yehiel De-Nur was a Holocaust survivor. Adolf Eichmann was one of the major architects of the Holocaust, and De-Nur was invited to testify at Eichmann’s trial. When De-Nur walked into the courtroom, he looked over at Eichmann. Then he froze and collapsed.
Years later, Mike Wallace interviewed De-Nur on 60 Minutes about that experience. Wallace asked what had overwhelmed him: Was it hatred of the man who killed so many people? Was it fear of the monster? Was it post-traumatic stress?
De-Nur replied, no, it was none of those things. He said,
When I walked in and saw him, I suddenly realized he was no demon or superman. He was an ordinary human being exactly like me. And suddenly I became terrified about myself because I saw that I was capable of the exact same things.
I saw I am capable to do this. I am capable exactly like he.
The first—and in a sense, the only—Commandment is to worship the Lord alone. It’s not, “Do not murder” or “Do not commit adultery.” Because we only murder (covet and lie) precisely because we are worshipping another god in that moment: reputation, wealth, or romance.
Our idolatry is constant adultery against the One who loves us. It’s hard to be humble enough to admit He died because of our unfaithfulness. But without the humility to admit the shame of our sin, Jesus says, “You have nothing to do with me.”
But I still can’t bring myself to watch the movie.
Wow. This is really excellent, Sam. “Standing knee-deep in the surf with Hitler.” Aaaaagh! Yikes.
Thought-provoking, Sam. I sometimes wonder how any of us will deal with it if one of these monsters makes it into heaven through a deathbed repentance. How would God prepare us to deal with them? And how would he prepare them to face us all? I’ve hypothesized that he would make these monsters children again so we could better stomach them, and so they could grow up afresh without making those deadly one-at-a time choices that led them to evil.
Regardless, it’s good to ponder how closely related we are to monsters, and how Jesus has made provision for it all.
It’s much easier to write it than to believe it.
But, little by little, we are humbled, and in that humility, I think we are more grateful to the God who loved the undeserving and made them his treasure.
Michael Knower, MD
Sam, thanks for the reminder regarding our tendency to let ourselves off the hook with, “But at least I’m not as bad as….” One of my medical school mentors challenged us to read Robert Jay Lifton’s “The Nazi Doctors.” With the possible exception of Josef Mengele, these were all very ordinary physicians. The path to committing great evil is walked one decision at a time. As Solomon admonishes us, “Guard your heart, for from it proceed the wellsprings of life [or death].”
FYI, “Chariots of Fire” is still my favorite.
Yes, the path to evil is walked one step at a time.
Kind of scary, eh?
Wow, Sam, so well expressed, thank you. I have felt this way for many years, that each and every person is capable of amazing acts of love and grace, but equally so of terrible acts of destruction. The only difference is in how we have come to think about ourselves in relation to others. And like you said, it’s a journey of many small moments and decisions. It is very uncomfortable for us to acknowledge that dark potential within us, and so we prefer to create a sense of distance between ourselves and the “monsters, animals, sick” ones. My favourite part of your article is the reminder of the first commandment and the insidious nature of idolatry that allows us to blind ourselves to the fullness of our nature, thus allowing a duality of thinking we are “good” Christians whilst still harbouring anger, unforgiveness, prejudice etc in ways that both our society and, shamefully, our church communities accept and allow. May God continue to bless you and your articles to bless us.
I always appreciate your comments. I love your line “It is very uncomfortable for us to acknowledge that dark potential within us.”
But the humility that comes actually makes us safer to be around. And that humility only can come from God.
Thank you for this article, Sam. While I have no intention of watching this movie, or any other that glorifies those types of men, what caught me up short is the movie director’s comment that he was portraying Hitler’s “small sins.” I agree that we are all guilty of what he calls small sins, but I remember being taught that God does not talk about degrees of sin. That means that something like “a little white lie” is still a lie. In God’s eyes, sin is sin. Period. Our repentance needs to be as heartfelt for an untruth as it is for embezzlement.
Yes, I completely agree. There are no “small” sins since all since are a kind of idol worship, they all break the first commandment. As James said, “when we break one sin, we are guilty of all.”
And yet, we all try to pacify our consciences by saying, “At least I’m not as bad as them.”
Which is wrong.
A well written article that addresses the excuse “at least I’m not as bad as him.”
I once had a young man in my Bible Study group say that about me! So I am familiar with “degrees of sin”.
Yet, as you say, all sin is sin, no matter how small.
We all need to be constantly connected ,in our minds and hearts, to the Holy Spirit who lives within us, then judgement of others will fade into the backdrop of our lives!
That’s so funny.
I OFTEN hear of Christians who say they no longer sin (which is not biblical nor humble).
I always want to ask for their spouse’s opinion!
What a gut punch! But well deserved by any of us. I really appreciate De-Nur’s honest self-awareness. I get sick of spending so much time asking God to help me be a better person, because it feels selfish. Yet, this article reminds me it is, and always will be, necessary for us to remain self-aware and remember we are not “good”. Thank God for Jesus!
I’ve been studying Deuteronomy for six months now, and I’m amazed at how often God tells Israel to “remember” they were slaves in Egypt.
I find it equally valuable to “remember” what God had to save me from. It brings humility (I hope) and a renewed dependence on Him.
Yes, Thank You God for Jesus.
Yes sin is ugly but remember as John says in his 1st Letter, Chapter 5 (RSV) “If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal. (1John (RSV) 5)
Be repentent over your sin but do not loose hope.
Absolutely great advice: let us not lose hope for our brothers and sisters. Or for ourselves.
(And let’s not lose our self-honesty either 🙂 ).