We are a cynical lot these days. News people feed into that and drive us deeper into identity politics and divisive culture battles and snarky social media communications, and we are willingly complicit. It takes a startling reality check to make us even think about what we’re doing to ourselves and each other.
I had that recently when Immaculee Ilibagiza was my guest on radio, in a powerfully moving hour of testimony to human dignity amidst the drama of war, hatred, violence and brutality. Although it was set in the Rwandan genocide, the story has plenty of similiarities in our so-called civilized, developed, advanced culture.
Immaculee’s family was brutally murdered in the Rwandan genocide and she had to hide out for 91 days in a cramped bathroom of a pastor’s residence with a group of other women while men with machetes hunted her. But the breathtaking story got worse. She eventually had to face one of those men, she told me, who wielded the murderous weapon with blood-red eyes blazing in a surreal face-off which by any other account would have ended her life instantly.
But by her account, she clutched the rosary her father gave her before he was taken, praying as she had for weeks on end, and stared him in the eyes, unblinking. She had hope and faith and compassion and humanity. He had nothing but rage and hatred and a machete. And he blinked first.
The fact that she’s here to share that account firsthand is a witness to human triumph and divine intervention, and her book has one of the most aptly named titles I have ever heard.
She reminded listeners that when we say harsh or angry things to people online or in print or in any form of comments, when we demean or belittle with nasty words, we deny the humanity of the other person and diminish ourselves in the process.
I was reminded of the interview I saw on CNN of the New York Times journalists kidnapped in Libya who lived to tell about it.
Especially the core message that they saved their lives by maintaining fundamental human dignity. Their captors ordered them to lie face down on the ground, and they refused, knowing it would be easier to shoot them in the back than having to face them. One said he knelt, but maintained eye contact with the captors, which made it harder to shoot him because looking a man in the eyes humanized him.
I’ve been thinking about these interviews lately, and the reminder they serve to put a human face on everyone in and behind the stories of daily life. And show everyone the face of dignity ourselves.