The Hitler Youth is not exactly a subject that inspires laughter. The Hitler Youth was an organization composed of young German boys before and during WWII. These young boys were indoctrinated with Nazi ideology and taught racism—primarily against Jews. After abolishing the boy scouts and other youth organizations, Hitler used this vast organization to indoctrinate the youth and spread Nazi ideology in the families of Germany.1
The horrific persecution and extermination of the Jews that followed Hitler’s rise to power was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the world. It is good and right that we should remember this tragedy and the indoctrination that occurred to make many people complicit in this persecution. We must never forget, lest we find ourselves in such a place again.
Somehow, in Jojo Rabbit, Waititi manages to make us laugh while also emphasizing the tragedy of racism and the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews. While many movies about the holocaust are harrowing and focus on the Jews affected, this film is a comedy that follows a fanatical devotee of the Hitler Youth—Jojo.
Through a Child’s Eyes
Jojo is a young impressionable boy who has been completely caught up in Nazi propaganda. As a faithful member of the Hitler Youth, he is dedicated to the Aryan race and loathes Jews. However, after he is sent home from training camp due to an injury, he is forced to reckon with a young Jewish girl that Jojo’s mother is hiding in their attic.
Through the eyes of Jojo, we experience the effects of indoctrination, racism, and hatred. We experience confusion, fear, and uncertainty along with Jojo, but also, kindness, forgiveness, and love. We alternatively laugh and cry as we watch Jojo change from a blinded Hitler fanatic, into a more mature and humane person.
Of course, we look at the sort of hatred that was propagated against Jews during WWII as utterly perverse. The film helps us further see how absurd this racism was. Throughout the film, Jojo works on a book called “Yoohoo Jew,” in which he depicts Jews as monstrous animals with horns and minds controlled by the devil. In many other scenes, Jojo spews out the nonsense that has been hammered into his head about Jews.
Part of the reason we can laugh at times in the movie, is because Jojo is just a naive child. As the young Jewish girl says to him: “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” But it’s harder to laugh at the people in the opening scene who are fawning over Hitler and swearing allegiance.
The people of Germany were trained to think of Jews as “less-than.” Jews were the “other” people who were causing all the trouble. It is easy to look back with horror on how a whole nation was swept along by this racist ideology; and well we should look back on it and shudder. But we should also look at our own hearts and ask, “Who are the people that I see as ‘less-than,’ as the ‘other’ people?”
The “Other” People
Many of us have been subtly trained, either intentionally or unintentionally, by our culture, our family, our friends, or even our church to look down on some other group of people—the black people, the white people, the republicans, the democrats, the Californians, the Texans, the northerners, the southerners, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Americans, the homeless, the homosexuals, the overweight, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the smokers, the women, the men, the rich, the poor, the Jews, the Muslims, the hippies, and the list goes on and on.
In our pride, we tend to fixate on some stereotypical characteristics of these “other” people and look down on them. We say things like: “If only those ________ would get it together.” “Oh that’s just ________ for you.” “Of course he would say that, he’s a ________.” “Ugh, those ________ are disgusting.” “The ________s are out to destroy our country.”
Fortunately, at least in America, we don’t exterminate the “other” people like they tried to do in Nazi Germany. However, we do move away from them. We find people who are like us and huddle together. We stay out of the “other’s” neighborhood. We look the other way or cross the street when we see them sitting by the side of the road. We’re all guilty.
In culture, we often run into an exclusive “tolerance:” You’re allowed to believe whatever you want, as long as you agree with us. This results in intolerance. However, in the church, we sometimes run into something similar: All are welcome, as long as they get their act together first. In his classic book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning retells the story of a sinner who isn’t welcome in church:
“The story goes that a public sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry to the church. He took his woes to God. ‘They won’t let me in, Lord, because I am a sinner.’ ‘What are you complaining about?’ said God. ‘They won’t let Me in either.’”2
What the story illustrates is that our failure to welcome the “other” people is, in fact, a failure to welcome Christ. We like to think that if we had been alive when Jesus lived, we wouldn’t have persecuted him and put him to death. But would we? How we treat the “other” people in our world is a good indication. After all, Jesus was “other” to many of the religious leaders of his day.
Failure of Imagination
I’m not suggesting here that we’re all inveterate, vindictive racists. I don’t think most of us have been intentionally taught to hate other people. It’s more that we are unintentional about loving others; it’s more that we look out for the interests of our own group and forget our common humanity with other people.
But slapping people with the “racist” or “prejudice” label isn’t helping us to solve these problems. To hate people for their prejudice is the same failure. It is calling someone the “other” all over again.
Instead of calling names, we need to change the way we think. In his novel, The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene says that the failure to love is really a failure of the imagination.3 We fail to understand the reasons that people are the way they are. We can’t imagine what they have gone through or are going through, and we don’t take the time to find out. If we could get in their shoes a little bit, if we could learn why they think and act the way they do, perhaps then we could understand. But our imaginations are shrunken and stuck in our own concerns.
In the film, Jojo is impressionable, and like most children, he is a sponge—he absorbs what the culture tells him, which is partly why we feel compassion for him almost as much as we feel it for the young Jewish girl, Elsa. This recognition should help us have grace for one another as we learn to knock down the walls between us and the “other.”
Some of us have never really gotten to know the “other” people. Some of us have had bad experiences with them. Some of us hold stereotypes and misconceptions about them because we’ve never taken the time to talk to them, never stretched our imaginations to think about what they have been through or are going through. Again, we learn from Jojo. As he gets to know Elsa, he slowly realizes that she is human, just like himself. He learns that all the things he’s been taught about Jews is utter nonsense.
Humans will always find something to fight about. If it weren’t skin color, it would be the shape of our noses or the color of our eyes. We tend to look down on others because we are insecure in our own identities. We find our value in comparison to others, instead of resting in our God-given identity as image-bearers. It has been so since the Fall (Genesis 3).
But the good news is that the Fall did not secure our fate, as the Bible itself indicates.4 After Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God in Genesis 4, God gave him a choice. He warned Cain that sin was waiting to devour him, but he was not fated to murder Abel. Cain could rule over hatred if he chose (Genesis 4:6-7). It was the same with Israel; God set before them two ways—the way of life in obedience to God’s loving commands, and the way of death in obedience to their sinful desires—and he urged them to choose the way of life (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
So too, we are not fated by our upbringing, or by any cultural indoctrination, to continue or repeat cycles of looking down on or despising our fellow humans for any reason. Those who have trusted in Jesus are called to leave their prejudice behind and instead be transformed by love. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be transformed into people who truly love our neighbors as ourselves, sharing the good news of reconciliation through Jesus to all.
The church, when it is functioning rightly, is meant to be a place where people from all backgrounds, cultures, and situations in life can gather together to worship the One who did not stand aloof from sinners, but instead, came down to save all the “other” people—that is, you and me.
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