The Church and the Banality of Evil

By Suzie Lahoud

“For Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” 2 Cor.11:14

The Banality of Evil

When the great political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, agreed to cover the trial of Nazi leader, Adolf Eichmann, it is doubtful that she or anyone could have predicted the shocking conclusion she was to reach. Coining the term, “the banality of evil,” Arendt exposed the frightening normality of the Nazi machine in executing its Final Solution.[1] In what Arendt described as a “show trial,” the villain put on display proved to have been motivated less by psychopathic sadism and more by an unwavering obedience and sense of duty.[2] Equally disconcerting was the description of Eichmann’s own dislike of gratuitous violence and weak stomach for gore. Here stood before the court, not the very portrait of a deranged, cold-blooded murderer, but rather, an ordinary “law-abiding citizen.”[3]

Arendt’s point was not to belittle the unspeakable horrors of the crimes committed, but rather, to challenge the common portrayal of the perpetrators themselves based on the evidence.[4] While controversial, one might argue that her conclusion was more, not less, disturbing. “The trouble with Eichmann,” Arendt surmised, “was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal… this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”[5]

Too quickly, we forget.

Another frequently misplaced bit of history from that same dark period is the internal struggle that racked the German church at the time. While 21st century Evangelicals, particularly those in the West, still revere the moral courage of German theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, we seem to have forgotten that church leaders like these were devastatingly in the minority. The Kirchenkampf, as the church struggle came to be known, pitted the majority of Protestant churches, who aligned themselves with the Nazi State, against the Confessing Church (a movement founded by Bonhoeffer, Barth and others), who fought for the church’s autonomy from State control.[6] This was further complicated by those who merely wanted to avoid conflict from without and to prevent schism from within.[7] Yet even this struggle was primarily framed in political terms of church sovereignty and only in the case of Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and a few others was couched in terms of real moral outrage.

One might argue that we are witnessing a similar struggle today in Western Evangelicalism, particularly within the church in America.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”[8]

Culpability in a Post-Truth Era

Today, we are told that we are living in a post-truth era. The truth is, society has been here before. In another treatise, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt’s observations of totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia are frighteningly familiar,

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true… Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.[9]

Too easily, we are deceived. Yet rather than pointing the finger at our leaders, the media, fearful masses crowding at our borders, unnamed terrorists cowering in every corner, perhaps it’s time that we, the Church, began to take responsibility for our own actions.

To what extent are we culpable in the mess that we are currently in?

While there is a rich koinonia in collective living, collective reasoning, collective worldview, this same communal meaning-making is so easily led astray down the path of totalitarian violence. The problem, so often, is not that we do not know. The problem is that we often fail to do the hard work of truth-seeking.  We lose sight of the fundamental fact that truth is not always readily apparent. Truth must be pursued. Truth must be tested and tried. Truth must be grasped at all costs, even to ourselves.

Yet perhaps we do not want to know because deep down, we already know. So we hide in the crowd. Hide in the pews. Hide in the coffee shops. Try to escape the madness in anonymity.

But where then in our hiding is our repentance? When God cries out, “Where are you?” where then in the lost paradise of our souls and our societies can we commune with our Maker? For to come into the light we must first admit that we are hiding, and to come out of hiding means to expose our own nakedness.

The weight of our guilt requires so much more of sackcloth and ashes. And even if we maintain that we are blameless, as the Prophet Ezra cries, if we are not to rend our souls over our own loss of truth, then surely we must weep over a collective loss of truth. We must surely confess that we have failed to be salt and light. That we are, perhaps, more a symptom of the problem than a symbol of the solution. This confession must be collective, but it must also be personal, lest we fall back into apathy and avoid concrete action.

“When all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing.”[10]

Never Again

“Never again,” is not the cry of the victor; it is an admission of guilt. It is a cry of repentance. “It happened once, but it will not happen again.” It is a promise of vigilance. Yet where is that vigilance when this same evil reemerges in a different form, and we know it not? When nationalist ideologies take center stage in the name of protecting our borders over welcoming the stranger? When Muslims are persecuted in the West in the name of Christians persecuted in the East? We are venting our fear and rage on innocent human beings who are in fact, more the victims than the perpetrators, and that is the very definition of scapegoating.

Evil is not always easy to identify. It is often easy to mistake – clothed in the vestments of patriotism, protection, and yes, even moral obligation.

In the battle for justice and truth, no one is allowed to sit by the sidelines. It is not a spectator sport; it is a lifelong struggle, and each of us will give an account. And when we have settled our own repentance, there is a higher way than judgment, lest we bring judgment back on ourselves. It is forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.”[11]

Arendt further emphasizes the transcendent power of forgiveness in her musings on The Human Condition. “The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility ─ of being unable to undo what one has done ─ is the faculty of forgiving.”[12] This is Arendt’s second profound conclusion: the only force strong enough to break the relentless cycle of evil and violence is forgiveness.

“Mercy triumphs over judgement.”[13]

The Church would do well to remember that even when we feel justified in our response in the name of wrongs committed against us, to forgive is divine. New spates of attacks continue to rip the scab off past crimes committed, and tragically, we are unable to turn back time. We are unable to resuscitate lives that have been lost. We cannot remove the scars from our collective psyche. Yet if we fail to forgive, as theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us, we are in danger of transforming into the very image of the perpetrator.[14]

Relentless pursuit of truth.  Repentance. Forgiveness. This is what the Church is called to at such a time as this.

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”[15]

How much more tragic for those who claim to represent the God who defines goodness? How much more inconceivable when a people who claim to follow the Truth are incapable of discerning it themselves?  How much more incomprehensible when those who claim to walk in the light are so blind to the signs of the time?

Followers of Christ, of all people, should be the first to recognize that evil is not a vague and sinister force “out there.” It more readily masquerades in religious garb and blind obedience. It is the battle within every human heart, and it is easily lost by those who refuse to fight.

Too many times the Church has been on the wrong side of history, and each time we cry: “Never again!”

________________

[1] Arendt, Hannah, and Amos Elon. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Butler, Judith. “Hannah Arendt’s Challenge to Adolf Eichmann.” The Guardian. August 29, 2011. Accessed February 16, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/aug/29/hannah-arendt-adolf-eichmann-banality-of-evil.

[5] Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem.

[6] “Kirchenkampf.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Encyclopedia.com. (February 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/kirchenkampf

[7] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The German Churches and the Nazi State.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Accessed February 16, 2017. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005206; Littell, Franklin H. “’Kirchenkampf’ and Holocaust: The German Church Struggle and Nazi Anti-Semitism in Retrospect.” Journal of Church and State 13, no. 2 (1971): 209-26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23914357.

[8] Edmund Burke

[9] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, New York, Brace & World, 1968.

[10] Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. S.l.: Important Books, 2014.

[11] Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem.

[12] Arendt, Hannah, and Margaret Canovan. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

[13] James 2:13

[14] Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008.

[15] Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

6 thoughts on “The Church and the Banality of Evil

  1. Arendt provides brilliant insight but also, unfortunately, offers considerable confusion. Does she really mean to say that governments cab or should live by The Sermon on the Mount? When country A is brutally attacked, without any justification, by country B, should it respond with nothing but love, mercy and forgiveness? Arendt’s error can be illustrated thus, if I read her correctly. The right response to Hitler’s great holocaust
    should have been forgiveness.

    • Dear Dr. Redekop,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree that Arendt’s writings as a whole are by no means infallible. As to the specific insights that I draw on in this piece, I believe that we often confuse forgiveness with apathy or inaction. Moreover, we often assume a false dichotomy whereby mercy is the opposite of justice. This is not the case. From my understanding of Arendt’s interpretation of the Eichmann trial, for example, what she objected to was not the trial prima facie, but that it proved to be a mockery of justice. Arendt paints the scene as theater-like- a show trial carefully constructed as a political maneuver by Ben Gurion to allow for the unleashing of collective rage on the one man they would portray as responsible for the entire Holocaust. But Eichmann was not the only party responsible. Moreover, the nature of his involvement proved to be much more complex.

      As to your comment on nations abiding by the Sermon on the Mount, what I am objecting to in this piece is not Country A blaming Country B, but rather the scapegoating of communities based on their ethnoreligious identity, which was the very crime of the Holocaust. This is the danger of the rhetoric that has infiltrated foreign policy in the post 9/11 era. It is no longer nation versus nation, and as a result, we are seeing more civilian casualties than ever before and the demonizing of innocent people based on their identity. The laws of diplomacy and reciprocity have begun to break down. But yes, I do believe that when even nations choose to forgive, it allows them to move forward and to heal. Otherwise war begets war, and the violence and destruction will go on and on and on. How else do we explain the rise of the Third Reich in post-WWI Germany, or the Palestinian apartheid state in Israel, or Japanese internment in WWII America? There is a difference between tit-for-tat diplomacy and vindictive foreign policy.

      Sincerely,
      Suzie Lahoud

  2. Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    Warning: This is a prophetic text. Read at your own risk. Here is the proof in a quote:
    ‘The problem, so often, is not that we do not know. The problem is that we often fail to do the hard work of truth-seeking. We lose sight of the fundamental fact that truth is not always readily apparent. Truth must be pursued. Truth must be tested and tried. Truth must be grasped at all costs, even to ourselves.
    Yet perhaps we do not want to know because deep down, we already know. So we hide in the crowd. Hide in the pews. Hide in the coffee shops. Try to escape the madness in anonymity.’

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful entry, Suzie. I (sadly) believe Arendt is becoming one of the most important commentators on the 21st Century.

    • Hi Brent- I would, unfortunately, agree. What’s even more tragic is that I believe that much of Arendt’s writing was meant to serve as a sort of cautionary tale, and yet, here we are, re-living the same mistakes less than a century later.

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