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Monday, 15 April 2013

The not-so-Surprising Spread of Evil

Eichmann and the Holocaust
Otto Adolf Eichmann was one of the major organisers of the holocaust. In a classic short book about his involvement and trial, Hannah Arendt says some remarkable things.

The thoughtlessness of evil
First, she says "It was sheer thoughtlessness that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of the period", meaning that he didn't think deeply enough, and didn't think critically enough, about the series of activities he was drawn into and which he then planned.  Thoughtlessness of course doesn't excuse anyone. In fact since God has given us a wonderful mind, it is an inexcusable abuse not to use it.

As an example - or a consequence - of this thoughtlessness, his mind contained all sorts of inconsistencies. So at his trial he claimed to be a Gottglaubiger - 'God-believing' but in Nazi-speak someone who was not a Christian and didn't believe in life after death. But in the next breaths he inconsistently said "After a short while, gentlemen, we shall meet again...." and "I shall not forget them..."

Arendt sums up the thoughtlessness of wickedness like this:

"It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us - the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil." (page 90)

Perhaps of course, his refusal to think was a guilty-conscience suppression mechanism for refusing to come to terms with his personal wickedness.

There is a lesson here: God expects us to use our minds. We are to love God with our minds and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. On the last day a man won't get away with the plea "I just didn't think about what I was doing", or "I stumbled into evil." 

The ordinariness of evil men
The second lesson from this account is the ordinariness of evil. We are not to think of two-horned creatures with shifty red eyes and pitchfork in hand - just ordinary human beings, like you and like me (hard as that is to believe, and harder for most people to accept).

"The trouble with Eichmann 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." (page 103)

No disciple of Jesus is in the least surprised at this, for one of his apostles - Paul - taught that we are all sinners. None of can say "I wouldn't do that"; all must say "there but by the grace of God go I."

The spread of Evil
A third lesson from Arendt's study of his life and trial is the incredible spread of evil in a community. I didn't know this before, but slowly the idea of killing thousands spread like an oil slick on water right across whole swathes of German society. And more: the second world war demonstrated the "totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused in respectable European society" (page 73). And this is no more striking in this shocking sentence:

"Wherever Jews lived, there were recognised Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis." (page 72)

As  the extreme example of this cooperation, Jews were involved in building the gas chambers, working them and pulling gold teeth from the corpses (page 70), of course under the pain of death.

Evil spreads in a culture. Imperceptibly, perhaps initially with resistance, but then drip by drip, it becomes acceptable and accepted.

So it has happened in Western Culture many times. Slavery became acceptable. Now abortion has become acceptable. And so has homosexual practice. What was thought of as 'beyond the pale' by another generation drip by drip becomes acceptable in culture at large.

And so, even in the church. If sin is not recognized, repented of or disciplined it will spread. We should not be shocked at the presence of wicked behaviour in the church at Pergamum or Thyatira for example (Revelation 2). If sin is allowed to exist and grow sooner or later it will become established. This is simply a fact - and only prayerful vigilance on the part of leaders will prevent it.

We are seeing this in the Church of England. For many years it has refused to discipline openly homosexual people in its midst and now some of them are vociferous in propagating this sin in their own community and in our society.

Leaders let us "watch our own lives and doctrine" closely, lest we put up with sins in our own lives, which then will spread to other. May the Lord guard and protect his church. 

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