A New Type of Criminal
This spring I have been teaching a senior Religion elective at Cranbrook/Kingswood, a course called “Ethics: The Problem of Evil”. It’s a class of long standing in the curriculum there, taught for many years by my predecessor as Chaplain, Dave Tidwell.
“The Problem of Evil” is a major topic in human thought. As British philosopher/critic Terry Eagleton notes in his 2010 book, On Evil, prior to the twentieth century the problem of evil was primarily a theological topic. Taking as example an event like the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, in which somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 people were killed, Western religious thinkers defined evil as cosmic: how could a good God permit so much innocent suffering in a natural disaster like a plague, earthquake, or other calamity?
In the twentieth century, the problem of evil came to be defined less as a religious problem and more a secular one. The focusing event this time was Auschwitz, where 1.1 million people were killed between 1942 and 1945. The question this time: how could people we define as “human”, who share fundamental qualities and values with us, perpetrate such a massive slaughter of innocent human beings?
I have to confess that before I read Eagleton’s book and taught this course, I did not think much about the problem of evil. Don’t get me wrong: I was, of course, horrified and outraged by innocent suffering on a large scale, but I never found the existence of evil in the universe and society something that shook either my faith in God or my solidarity with fellow human beings. As God says to Job in the 38th chapter of the Book of Job, the theological problem seems to be what theologian Marilyn McCord Adams calls the “size gap” between God and me. God is God and I am not. The disparity between us pains both God and me. All I can do in the face of suffering is to lament the pain of it in trust that doing so will enable God and me jointly to grieve and heal together. And as for the persistence of sin in human beings: I have what Robert Frost called enough experience of my own personal, internal “desert places” that I should not be surprised when I encounter them in others.
The last major work we engaged in the Problem of Evil class was Hannah Arendt’s famous 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt was a noted German Jewish philosopher who emigrated to America at the start of World War II. Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi bureaucrat put in charge of the “final solution” to “the Jewish problem”, i.e. the planned extermination of all Jews in Germany and its occupied territory. In 1960 he was captured by the Israelis in Argentina and tried in Jerusalem for “crimes against the Jewish people”. Sent by The New Yorker to report on the trial, Arendt gradually began to become aware that in Eichmann we were seeing what she called a “new type of criminal”. The problem with Eichmann was not that he was an inhuman monster; the problem was that he was so “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” She went on to say that this new type of criminal “commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing something wrong.” [Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 276]
I have found it helpful, in thinking about both Adolf Eichmann and the Lisbon Earthquake, to remember the renunciations in the Prayer Book’s service of Holy Baptism. As part of that liturgy, the candidates (or their sponsors) renounce evil in the following interchange:
Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer I renounce them.
Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer I renounce them.
Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer I renounce them.
When we present ourselves for Baptism, we’re asked to renounce evil in three forms: first cosmic (Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness), next social (the evil powers of this world), and finally personal (sinful desires). In America, we tend to think of Evil and Sin as personal attributes or shortcomings. But long before Hannah Arendt looked at Eichmann and saw “not a monster but a clown” our tradition has understood that before evil is personal it is cosmic and social.
I draw two implications from all this. First: because we are enmeshed in systems, we often do not perceive the many hidden ways in which our actions—innocent in and of themselves—can contribute to the pain or suffering of others. So we’re guiltier than we think we are. Second: as guilty as we may be, we are often caught up in systems that control and govern us. In other words, we’re more innocent than we think we are.
Teaching this course has helped me see that the problem of evil is finally not an invitation to affix blame. The problem of evil is instead an opportunity to explore my enmeshment in systems bigger than myself, to investigate the ways I am complicit in others’ pain and suffering even when I think I’m innocent, and to lament with God the pain that causes God, them, and me. Evil is cosmic, social, and personal in that order. Let us dedicate ourselves to working with God to heal it in all its forms.