Lent is a good time to reflect on sin and evil. Some of what I write here is based on an article by Alice Camille one of my favorite writers. The article, entitled “Unoriginal Sin” appeared in the March 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic.
Evil is rampant in our world. Because we are basically people of good will (or we think we are), we label evil as monstrous. The people who propagate atrocities of all kinds, we think of as monsters. In this group we would include people like Stalin, Hitler, serial killers, terrorists, sexual predators, and individuals who shoot people in our work places, churches, and even schools.
The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt used to think of evil in those terms too. She, who escaped from Germany just before Hitler’s “Final Solution” was put into place, had thought that Hitler and the Nazis were “fiends of the first order.” But after the war, she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the incarceration and destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. She learned that Eichmann was not a fiend or a monster, but a rather ordinary man, “a paper pusher” with ordinary ambitions.
What ambitions? Eichmann wanted to do well the task he was asked to do. He wanted to make a decent living, please his bosses, and further his career. (Sound familiar?) But here’s the terrifying part: Eichmann never considered the horrific consequences that his “good job” had on flesh and blood human beings. He never weighed the morality of his actions. He never wondered if it might be evil to imprison, starve, and exterminate millions of people simply because they belonged to a particular religious group. “Eichmann didn’t think at all,” says Camille. “He just followed orders and did his job.”
But massive evil demands massive complicity. Yes, fanatics such as Hitler conceived and promoted the horrors of the Holocaust. But Hitler’s “success” was due to millions of functionaries complicit with his crimes, functionaries who went to work day after day in offices, guard towers, and concentration camps. We also wonder: who were the individuals who designed the camps and crematoriums, the company that manufactured the poisonous gas, the railroad personnel who ran the trains? They all did their jobs well. But (if they were like Eichmann) they did their jobs without reflection. And there’s the crux: without reflection.
Says Camille: “Unreflective adherence to a group identity that requires us to jettison the workings of our conscience… is the very definition of sin.” Evil burrows into our hearts when we are “undisturbed by doubt,” when we dismiss new questions and new information, or when we presume that a particular terrible injustice is none of our business.
Jesus knew what it was like to be tempted by evil (Mt. 4:1-11). After fasting for 40 days in the desert, Jesus encountered the devil who offered him essentially three things: food, social power, and personal security. The devil never offers us something that looks evil. He never told Eichmann, “Murder 6 million Jews.” The devil’s message is “smoother and more familiar.” The devil tells us to “eat your supper, go to church, do your job, earn your promotion, and you will be fine, safe, and comfortable.”
We know how Jesus responded to the devil’s proposals. Jesus chose the bread from heaven over earthly bread; he chose yielding to divine authority over human authority; and he found his security only in God’s love and protection. In making these choices, Jesus chose “to dance with the Spirit of God rather than the spirit of self-Interest.” Camille concludes: “Dancing with the devil is more common than we think. Dancing with the Spirit requires deliberate, conscious, and ongoing determination.”
Is there anything in today’s blog that stands out for you? If so, what? Why?
Do you ever prefer to dance with the spirit of self-interest rather than the Spirit of God?
Do you have a “blind allegiance” to any group you belong to—whether it is family, friends, religious congregation, church, political party, state, country? Or do you regularly reflect on the group and appraise the values the group is espousing?
Do you reflect on the consequences of your daily choices—the food you buy, the food you eat, the entertainment you choose, the people you associate with, the way you use your time—and the impact these choices have on such things as those who are marginalized, the environment, the common good, or the large social issues of our day?
Reflecting on sin and evil is not easy. But the fact that you have persevered to this final paragraph is a hopeful sign. It shows that you are open to reflection, to possibly new questions and information, and to personal appraisal and discernment. And that is good! Very good!
This video is drone footage of Auschwitz today. There is background music, a few captions, but no narrative. I used this video on my blog several years ago. But it is so powerful, I’m using it again. As we “tour” Auschwitz, let us remember: 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz in the 4 1/2 years of its existence. And let us say, “Never again… Never again.” And pray for all who suffer the consequences of evil in our time.
I invite your comments below. Thank you.