The Banality of Evil


St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly  

Sunday 19th July 

Genesis 28.10-19a  

Psalm 139.1-11, 139.23-24  

Romans 8.12-25 

Matthew 13.24-43 

The Banality of Evil ©Suzanne Grimmett 

Hannah Arendt, reflecting on 1962 trial of the Nazi leader Adolf  Eichmann, commented that “the lesson that this long course in human  wickedness had taught us…is of the fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality of evil.” 

For evil to flourish does not seem to require a dramatic demonic  visitation to wreak havoc on earth. It seems that evil may grow up  quietly in a society alongside that which is wholesome, and indeed,  may be fed by the will of those who believe they are acting with good  intentions or out of a sensible, realistic assessment of human nature.  

In today’s Gospel we hear a parable of good and evil growing together in the same field; 

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed  good seed in his field;  but while everybody was asleep, an enemy  came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 

There can seem to be many opportunities today also for us to feel we  can identify where weeds are flourishing and robbing us of life and  peace. The news we hear each day keeps us identifying evil behaviour  in others and it seems sensible to expect very little of our fellow men  and women.  

In a book entitled, “Humankind: A Hopeful History” Rutger Bregman  tells many stories of the way people have apparently justified ‘veneer  theory’- the idea that you only need peel away a layer of civility and  human beings are revealed as fundamentally selfish and capable of  great evil. Bregman explores this idea, from novels like “Lord of the  Flies” to historic anthropological theses and studies like the Milgram  experiment that claimed to explain how human beings were capable of  evil like the Holocaust.

One story he retells is the famous account of the murder of New York  woman, Kitty Gervase in 1964. Kitty was a young woman returning  home when she is repeatedly stabbed to death by a stranger outside  her apartment building. The attack takes half an hour during which time  observers watch and no help comes. A media storm followed which  reported that “38 respectable law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a  killer” and did nothing, leaving her to die alone. A call reached police  when it was too late and the caller excused himself saying, “I didn’t  want to get involved.”This story attracted attention because it seemed  to verify a painful truth that we really are alone, and apathy is the natural  state of humanity. 

It is the sort of case study where we see such callous behaviour as  evidence of the self-interest that is the way the world will always be. We  listen to the media bites and we sadly shake our head about the way of  the world and feel just a bit more despairing…a bit more alone.  

But Bregman’s book is not subtitled “A Hopeful History” for no reason.  When he looks thoroughly at the case of the 38 callous bystanders, he  finds a completely different story. For starters, the number 38 refers to  all those in the apartment block who were interviewed. Of those, most  had not witnessed anything at all, a few had heard a scream and some  had not even been awakened from sleep. The ones who did call the  police straight away were told the incident had already been reported. It  appears to have been categorised as a husband beating his wife;  something which in the 60s was not always seen as a criminal offence.  The man who did witness the assault and eventually called police with  more information should no doubt have acted sooner, but since he was  gay he was frightened that his involvement would reveal his  homosexuality which at that time was illegal. What this man did do was  climb over the roof to a neighbour’s apartment, alerting a friend who ran  to help Kitty while he called the police. This friend ran straight to the  scene, cradling Kitty in her arms as she died. Kitty did not die alone and  forsaken, although her family did not have the comfort of knowing this  until many years later, so determined was the media to portray this  event as an example of the baseness of human nature.  

What if the parable of the wheat and the weeds is a powerful reminder  not of the division between good and evil people, but of the dangers of  judging one another lest we all lose hope and forget the goodness of  God and the beauty of all that God has created us to do and to be? In the tragic case of Kitty Gervase, it is the kind of ideology that turned a  blind eye to domestic violence and punished people for their sexuality  which provided the conditions where the innate humane instinct to  assist was overridden, and the media fanned a story that was  fundamentally untrue, but which influenced social sciences for many  years.  

Too often we seem willing to allow a few loud and insistent voices in  society to rob us of our belief in the goodness of one another. Perhaps  this is partly what Hannah Arendt means by “the banality of evil”; we  too easily give up our faith in one another to believe the subtle and  seductive lie that we have to be on our guard, always suspicious of the  next way someone will let us down. What if these strangling weeds  sown by the evil one in secret are actually some of the lies we believe  about ourselves? We stop being able, as Paul’s letter to the Romans  emphasises, to hope for things that are not yet seen, because we have  a fixed view of the way things always are, and the way humanity will  always be.  

But we have so many stories that would show us the hopeful truth.  Stories of people who didn’t hesitate to risk their life for the life a  stranger. Stories of whole communities banding together to provide  help for those in need, such as during the floods in Brisbane. Stories  like the 100 year old Englishman Tom Moore who committed to walking  lap after lap of his garden and raised millions for the NHS in a show of  ridiculous persistence which gave hope to many in this time of  pandemic. 

In referring to the “banality of evil” Arendt was also alluding to the way  people do evil things because they are masquerading as the good. Evil  is not always recognisable like the monsters of fairy tales and so much has been done by people who believed their actions were justified by  their ideology or personal loyalties. The church itself through history has  allowed evil to exist in the name of good; the weeds it seems, can  easily be disguised as wheat. The good news here is that we are not  responsible for the harvest! Jesus comes to show us that not only are  we not condemned, but we do not have to carry the weighty burden of  condemning one another.  

While we are not required to judge, we do have a responsibility of  discernment; discerning what is harming the life and health of God’s  kingdom on earth and doing what we can. Of course this discernment happens not just as we recognise what is life-giving or death-dealing in  the world, but also when we can see the same movements for good  and evil within ourselves. We are all a weed strewn garden. Christianity  is about following a way of openness before God and one another,  trusting in the grace that is always being offered to us. Only then can  we have the courage to turn away from the lies that trip us up and  begin again to live in love and be loved more fully. God is not seeking to  condemn us, but instead will end the evil that sows fear and doubt,  dividing us one from another and robbing us of the love we need to live. 

We need to be careful how we narrate our own stories. The lies we  believe can choke the life out of us. The sower’s field is a place of  beauty, even amongst pain and struggle and the banality of the evil  which appears to prosper and thrive. Love will win, and the flame of  hope will never be extinguished. The Spirit is working to transform, not  destroy us, gently allowing us time and space to grow when our  goodness and innocence has become entangled with our fears and  hurts. 

Ultimately love wins because hope does not depend on our own  personal triumph over evil but on the grace that hems us in with  forgiveness and love, reminding us that we belong to one another, held in  the palm of God’s hand.  


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