Without God, our sense of human dignity quickly erodes. Although we tend to equate civilization with an increase in wealth and comfort, its real health stems from genuine human flourishing, which arises much more from the interior life. The 20th century was a time of great material progress, yet it also witnessed a terrible interior collapse. Perhaps it was precisely this material progress that led to such a large scale and systematic destruction of human life: the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, Communist mass starvations and purges, and the Rwandan Genocide. As Catholics, we should be deeply concerned against any affront to human dignity and moved to action, imitating the Good Samaritan, who did not help a fellow countryman or believer, but was moved to compassion for a fellow human being. Christians are called to care for everyone — no matter their age, race, or religion, whether they are born or unborn. Allowing the exploitation of innocent human beings fundamentally undermines the common good of our country, questioning even the basic adherence to the principles of justice.
Unfortunately, the 21st century is continuing this terrible trajectory. Pope Francis recently met for the second time with Nobel Peace Laureate Nadia Murad, advocate for her people, the Yazidis, who recently experienced genocide in Iraq and Syria at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS). Her personal story, captured in her book The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight against the Islamic State (Tim Duggan Books, 2017), provides both a horrifying account of systematic extermination and an inspiring witness of the fight to survive and preserve hope. The title expresses Nadia’s desire to be “the last girl in the world with a story like mine,” as she describes the horrifying experience of watching her brothers and mother taken to be murdered and then forced into sex slavery (306). Throughout her narrative she continually ponders how so many people could be complicit in these atrocities. “I couldn’t understand,” she asks, “why a woman would join the jihadists and openly celebrate the enslavement of girls the way Morteja’s mother did.” So many people “stood by while the terrorists killed or pushed out the city’s Christians and Shiites, people the Sunnis had lived with for over a thousand years” (153). She escapes only when one Sunni family risked their lives to help her cross the border: “They took a huge risk in helping me … I wish that every human being acted with the same courage as Nasser’s family did” (229).
The manipulation of other human beings happens only with mass complicity and stops when people refuse to cooperate. A unique book, recently translated from Japanese, points to the extent of Christian love and its power to stand against evil. The novelist Sono Akayo, intrigued by the claims of miracles related to the beatification of Maximillian Kolbe in the 1970s, set off on a personal quest of faith to investigate if miracles really exist. Her book, Miracles (Wiseblood Books, 2021), followed the saint’s steps, and those touched by him, from Poland to Italy. Kolbe, also facing a situation of extreme suffering and degradation at Auschwitz, shows the real cost of standing up for the dignity of others, freely giving his life to save another man. Akayo came to realize the deepest miracle came from finding men “who, regardless of whether they felt like doing it or not, ‘would quietly, and on their own, carry out good works without fear, even if it cost them their life, all the while being trampled on by others’” (186). Christians know there are worse things than death and refusing to cower before it takes the power out of the oppressor’s hands.
It costs us something to stand up for human dignity, as we break ourselves out of complacency. There may be economic costs, such as breaking financial arrangements that draw from exploitative labor, especially the ongoing Uyghur genocide in China. Although our society may not have a visible sex slavery trade like ISIS or concentration camps like in China, we have accepted too much sexual and economic exploitation as commonplace in our “throw away culture,” as Pope Francis calls it. There are things that we can do. We can absolutely refuse to go along with the mass exploitation of women through pornography and other media that degrades the person and contributes to sex trafficking. We can cut into our own consumption, that keeps us focused on self, so that we can offer more charity, along with prayer and fasting. Fundamentally, we have to be ready, like Kolbe, to step in, to put our foot down, and to overcome exploitation through a genuine concern and sacrifice for others. If Nadia Murad is to be the last girl, it will take a love with that kind of cost.