Making sense of the world in madness

On July 10, 1941 half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half who were Jewish.

Courtesy of Robin Schumacher
Courtesy of Robin Schumacher

Of the many Jews that lived in the town, only about a dozen or so survived to tell the story that’s chronicled in Jan Gross’ book Neighbors. Poles and Jews had been living peacefully side by side for many years in Jedwabne until the Nazis arrived. Just after the German occupation, a simple question was raised by the Poles: “Is it now permissible to kill the Jews?”

Upon receiving an affirmative answer, half of the town turned on the other. Although the killings were coordinated by the town mayor, Gross says that townspeople were “free to improvise”.

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Some Jews were decapitated and their heads kicked around for fun. To escape their killers, Jewish mothers fled to a nearby pond and drowned their own children, but most were caught and burned alive in a large barn.

Writing in a Newsweek article about the atrocity, George Will says it was not the German army who murdered half the town of Jedwabne, but rather, “the last faces seen by Jedwabne's Jews were the familiar faces of neighbors.” But why did they do it?

Will’s answer is a disturbing one: “Why in Jedwabne did neighbors murder their neighbors? Because it was permitted. Because they could.”

Universal madness

If you’re like me, you find yourself picking your jaw up from the ground almost daily after reading about or seeing the most recent current events. How can people and organizations advocate for the murder of unborn children and then traffic their body parts for money? How can individuals burn down and loot businesses, feel justified in doing so, and have the nodding approval of government officials? How can someone like NAACP Vice President Michelle Leete, referring to opponents of critical race theory (CRT), scream “Let them die!”[1]

As George Will would say, “Because it was permitted. Because they could.”

But, as wild as things seem today, we’ve seen it before. Like Solomon said, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9).

During WWII, people were asking similar questions about all the horrors they saw. They, too, were trying to make sense of it all.

In her book Creed or Chaos, Christian and author Dorothy Sayers captures the disillusionment of the people of Europe at that time and their crumbling naturalistic worldview:

“The people who are most discouraged and made despondent by the barbarity and stupidity of human behavior at this time are those who think highly of Homo Sapiens as a product of evolution, and who still cling to an optimistic belief in the civilizing influence of progress and enlightenment. To them, the appalling outbursts of bestial ferocity in the Totalitarian States, and the obstinate selfishness and stupid greed of Capitalist Society, are not merely shocking and alarming.

For them, these things are the utter negation of everything in which they have believed. It is as though the bottom had dropped out of their universe. The whole thing looks like a denial of all reason, and they feel as if they and the world had gone mad together.”

The atheist philosopher Frederick Nietzsche had predicted that just such a universal madness would break out and horrible events occur because, in his words, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him”.  

Biblically bringing the world into focus

Nietzsche was right in his prediction. And the Bible agrees with him.

In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul discusses what happens when people “kill God” in their lives: “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (vs. 28). Three times (vs. 24, 26, 28) Paul says that God gives people who abandon Him over to themselves, with awful consequences.

Unlike the anti-God crowd who believe humanity is evolving into a better morality, the Bible says that things will get worse before it gets better: “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).

Reread Paul’s list again slowly and ask yourself if this isn’t the stuff of most everyday news articles.

Knowing this helps us make sense of the world’s actions. Sayers comments on this when she compares the Christian’s response to WWII events with non-Christians, and the futility of thinking that the passing of more laws will set society right: “Now for the Christian, this is not so. He is as deeply shocked and grieved as anybody else, but he is not astonished. He has never thought very highly of human nature left to itself. He has been accustomed to the idea that there is a deep interior dislocation in the very centre of human personality, and that you can never, as they say, ‘make people good by Act of Parliament’, just because laws are man-made and therefore partake of the imperfect and self-contradictory nature of man.”

Hope for the future

Although it’s good to have a right understanding about such things, a person can quickly become despondent over the realization. Are we forever to have repeats of what happened in Jedwabne?

A number of philosophers like Nietzsche, as well as other world religions, believe so. They hold to a cyclical view of life; in an eternal recurrence, which is a theory that states the universe and all existence is perpetually recurring.   

By contrast, Scripture teaches a linear view of life; one that is moving forward and heading somewhere. Although difficult times lie ahead, so does a perfect existence when God will, “wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true”” (Rev. 21:4-5).

Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a Christian, asserted that all human beings know and long for this deep down: “Christians understand why human beings cannot get rid of those longings. They are memory trees. Deep inside our soul, they are memory trees of what the world was created to be, but it’s not, because we turned away from God. That’s what the whole Bible is about.”

Given that, perhaps there’s never been a better time in history to loudly and proudly share the good news of Christ with people who are desperately trying to make sense of the world and looking for hope.

[1] Note also that her comment was met with a round of applause from the audience gathered at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church, VA.

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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