“There is a path to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, honesty, cleanliness, sobriety, hard work, discipline, sacrifice, truthfulness, love of your homeland.” Words to live by. Some might even say, words to die by. The first time I read them, I was struck by the strength of these words, the soundness of these words, the rightness of these words. “Many people might find their life’s purpose in this creed,” I muttered to myself. “You could build a nation on these ideals then teach citizens to defend them at all costs.” Then I thought of how many people died under the banner of these words.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened to thousands of people—they died with these words hanging over their heads. That’s because this saying was painted on the roof of the long, narrow maintenance building at the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Every sighted prisoner saw it as they entered the building—the beginning of horrors of what we call the holocaust. The maintenance building housed the Schubraum (literally, “shoving room”), where new prisoners were stripped of their clothes and dignity, where humans were treated like animals prepared for torture and slaughter. The victims were Jews, German priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals. The Nazis rounded up these “misfits” and imprisoned them in their concentration camps all over Germany in order to clean up the neighborhood and reorient these prisoners to the “proper” way of life. What happened behind those prison walls is well-known. The atrocities suffered by Jews, priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals at the hands of their tormentors were hell on earth. What I couldn’t understand, as I stood there one summer day in front of the maintenance building at this notorious concentration camp, was how the men who did such horrible things could believe they were living up to this creed. Why not be honest, tell the truth? The sign should have read: “Obey or not: we will kill you anyway.” Instead, these murderers acted like they were doing something noble, something virtuous, something lawful—the sign proved it. How could words that sound so right lead men to do so wrong?
It must have seemed like a cruel joke to the prisoners inside. The ultimate “bait-and-switch.” The big lie. “Work hard and you will find freedom.” Instead, what these prisoners were forced to do was not “work,” and the end for most of them was not “freedom.” Even the entrance to the camp—a gate through which every prisoner passed—had iron bars bent to shape the words, “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes freedom”). Such words may have made sense when they entered the prison. Yet, viewed from inside the concentration camp, the words must have appeared completely backwards—figuratively and literally. No matter how hard the prisoners tried, regardless of how much they obeyed their taskmasters, all they got was more slavery, more abuse, more death. Inside the prison, “work makes freedom” makes no sense at all, no matter how many times you read the sign.
How do we explain the atrocities that took place behind these prison walls? The starvation, the torture, the sadistic experiments, the barbaric treatment. How could one human being treat another with such hatred, such heartless cruelty, such hellish intention? Evil. We blame evil. We blame sinister forces. We blame the devil. But, Paul wouldn’t. Paul didn’t blame the horrendous evil of sinful man on Satan—especially when he considered his own horrible past. A onetime persecutor, Paul never said, “The devil made me do it.” He never shifted the blame of his sinful behavior to the evil one. Rather, when dealing with the unrelenting power of sin, Paul blamed two agents. First of all, sin resides in the flesh—the baser appetites of humanity. For Paul the root of the problem of human sin is the flesh. And yet, as pervasive as Paul’s talk is about the flesh, he will not attribute the cause of all sin to human selfishness. The flesh has a partner in crime, a co-conspirator. As a divine agent of such great potential, many have been fooled by its universal appeal. It is a power that was supposed to make things better but actually made things worse. Rather than curb sin, it increases it. Instead of taming the flesh, it provokes it. Paul saw the law as the main instigator, a manipulated tool, the provocateur of human sin. In fact, Paul goes so far as to suggest that “apart from the law sin lies dead” (Rom. 7:8). That which was supposed to be the solution turned out to be the problem.