St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Sunday 19th July
Psalm 139.1-11, 139.23-24
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.