The Dehumanization of Christianity

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 51 seconds.

Many Christians have come to believe dehumanization of others is an acceptable—and yes, a necessary practice.

Dehumanizing others is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, the human spirit, and, for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith. How does this happen?

Professor Michelle Maiese defines dehumanization as “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment.”

Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.

Once we see people on “the other side” of a conflict as morally inferior and even dangerous, the conflict starts being framed as good versus evil. Maiese writes, “Once the parties have framed the conflict in this way, their positions become more rigid. In some cases, zero-sum thinking develops as parties come to believe that they must either secure their own victory or face defeat.

Maiese explains that most of us believe that people’s basic human rights should not be violated—that crimes like murder, rape, and torture are wrong. Successful dehumanizing, however, creates moral exclusion.

Groups targeted based on their identity—gender, ideology, skin color, ethnicity, religion, age—are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.

I know it’s hard to believe that we ourselves could ever get to a place where we would exclude people from equal moral treatment, from our basic moral values, but we’re fighting biology here. We’re hardwired to believe what we see and to attach meaning to the words we hear. We can’t pretend that every citizen who participated in or was a bystander to human atrocities was a violent psychopath.

The point is that we are all vulnerable to the slow and insidious practice of dehumanizing, therefore we are all responsible for recognizing it and stopping it.

And social media and religion are the primary platforms for our dehumanizing behavior. On Twitter and Facebook and at church we can rapidly push the people with whom we disagree into the dangerous territory of moral exclusion, with little to no accountability, and often in complete anonymity.

We must never tolerate dehumanization—the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history. 

(Most of the words above have been excerpted from Brene Brown’s thought-provoking book Braving The Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. I strongly encourage you to buy and read now. Thanks so much to my new friend LeAnne Frank for recommending it to me.)

The following words are mine:

I have found Christians to be merciless dehumanizers towards their leaders and peers who have “sinned” but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they are committed by leaders in the name of the proper politics. As a former Christian leader and a present victim of dehumanization, Ms. Brown’s words strike a painful and chilling chord.

Having served as a minister in two of America’s largest mega-churches and as an early adopter of social media, I did not have the luxury of anonymity when I sinned. I lived in a glass house. And on one fateful day in June 2011 thousands of Christians chose to dehumanize me. There are other words and phrases for it: unfollow, unfriend, block, ostracize, estrange, ghost, judge, shake the dust off their feet, and shame—to name only a few.

They began to say I was no longer the man they used to know. I was rendered invisible and untouchable. I was targeted as a non-human based on my sins—depicted as “less than” and evil.

My Christian friends and even my family took sides, discarded trust that had been built for a lifetime, and got angrier and angrier—they solidified me as an idea of the enemy, they lost their ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.

Not one of my nuclear family and only two of my thousands of former Christian friends stood up and said something like, “Wow, Randy screwed up twice in a row after a lifetime of integrity and leadership—I wonder if there could be something wrong with Randy? Perhaps he’s dealing with some sort of crisis. I wonder how I can help?”

But friends and neighbors listen up—I am the same Randy Elrod I have always been. I am a kind, loving, gentle yet tough, sensitive and sensual artistic man with feet of clay.

And I’m very hard to hate close up.

All of which makes me empathize with the children (now ladies) that were sexually mistreated by Roy Moore, and with the myriad ladies who have been verbally and sexually assaulted by Donald Trump. I cringe as I watch those men and their cohorts publicly dehumanize their accusers—and watch these politicians as they demonize and bully anyone who disagrees with them.

And it makes me question the faith of the people who dehumanized me—as I watch those same people stand behind and justify the sins of these leaders in the name of politics.

The powerful words of Brene Brown have inspired me to continue to speak out: “Sometimes owning our pain and bearing witness to struggle means getting angry. When we deny ourselves the right to be angry, we deny our pain. There are a lot of coded shame messages in the rhetoric of ‘Why so hostile?’ ‘Don’t get hysterical,’ ‘I’m sensing so much anger!’ and ‘Don’t take it so personally.’”

She continues, “All of these responses are normally code for your emotion or opinion is making me uncomfortable.”

I can hear my Christian friends and my family say as they read this, “C’mon, Randy, suck it up and stay quiet, or as a fine christian lady said to me yesterday, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”.

But if I did that, you would definitely know I’m not the same Randy Elrod you’ve always known—and used to love.

4 Responses to “The Dehumanization of Christianity”

  1. Lori Moore Thompson December 7, 2017 at 17:40

    Randy, I have to say first, that what you describe here is a human condition that is definitely not limited to Christians. It isn’t. I’ve seen it, and it’s a poison that kills the soul.

    That being said, I know first-hand the pain of having those Christian friends I held so dear unfriend, shun, turn their back on, dehumanize, etc.

    It’s is a pain that is hard to wrap your mind around. It’s confusing; it’s devastating. It diminishes you (you, as in globally.) as a person, who was seemingly only ever worth the sum of what people’s assessment of you was, in the moment. If that were not true, you would not be rendered untouchable- unworthy of the time it takes to look a little deeper.

    Years later, I’ve bumped into the same folks who prayed next to me, who sent me off with blessings into the mission field, who swore their support.– The look on their faces, as we chanced to meet, was as if they were themselves in real physical pain. They did not speak, but turned a pained face away.

    I have come to realize that I was the personage of their own shame. They look pained because they can’t believe they were such a bad judge of character, that they allowed themselves to go all in, but we’re duped. That the success they saw for themselves in properly mentoring and discipling was an abject failure, from what they could see.

    The saddest thing of all is that the judgements they have placed on me were born of what they think took place, and how I so deeply disappointed them. The thing is, that what they thought, or think still, isn’t even the real story. I didn’t do what they thought I did, although I don’t claim complete innocence. Still, they believed the worst, even after knowing me for so long. Even after serving with me. Only one stood by me, and dared anyone to say a word. No one else stopped to ask what really happened, or wanted to see that I had been crushed.

    Like you, it’s years since I lost my church family. I still haven’t found my way back to church. Thankfully, God has been patient with me and I can embrace His grace, though I still struggle with feelings of unworthiness.

    I’ve rambled on, and don’t mean to say we’ve shared the same experience, but I have had a glimpse of what you’re talking about. A glimpse is enough for me. In the final analysis, I think people’s disdain for fallen (read: real) people is a cover for what they know about themselves, but cannot reveal. To anyone They ARE you. And me In the dark, they are the same. And it’s just easier to live with ourselves if we make a devil out of someone else.

    I pray for the healing of your heart, and for mine. And that we remember not to demonize “them” too.

    • Thanks so much, Lori, for your heartfelt words. So many Christians think they know your story—when in reality they know very little of one side and they draw their conclusions from that. I have learned so much from this and hopefully it gives me more grace when I hear a story to realize there really are two sides to every story. Life is NOT a melodrama. Agh. So sorry for your hurt. We truly empathize.

  2. Deborah M Rettino December 19, 2017 at 14:03

    We need someone to be the “other” so we can justify being an insular group. It is a form of self protection and a way to preserve cultures. People can do this and still be in healthy relationships with others. BuT…. What is going on now in our churches and with seminary leaders is horrifying. I have been reading a lot of your stuff Randy. Thank you for having the courage to say it. Someday we’ll talk in person.

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