Saturday, June 14, 2008

Churches, Political Dialogue, and the Banality of Evil

Philosopher Hannah Arendt has added immeasurably to our understanding of evil—and, in particular, how evil gets a foothold in a world or in a culture in which one would not expect people to entertain the notion of patent, systemic, humanity-crushing evil.

Such as the Holocaust. As a German Jewish woman and a philosopher, Arendt was perplexed at the Holocaust. How could a supposedly highly civilized nation—a nation full of churches—have engaged in an act of evil so singular that this planned and engineered act of mass murder has come to stand as a shorthand for all such atrocities after the middle of the twentieth century?
In studying the Holocaust, Arendt came to the startling conclusion that those who set it into motion—its perpetrators, yes, but also the German people, who permitted the small group of leaders to carry out their plan of mass destruction—simply did not see the evil they were perpetrating in the Holocaust. Not with clear eyes. They were unable to see their resolution of the “Jewish problem” for what it was: stark evil, evil so stark that it is now impossible to speak of social evil without speaking of the Holocaust.
The German people were able to buy into the solution of the Jewish problem because evil is banal. It does not appear to us with horns on its head, a pitchfork, a long tail trying to ensnare us. It appears in a sober uniform—that of a CEO, for instance, or a soccer mom. Or in a Roman collar or religious habit. Or perhaps waving a sign that says “open hearts, open minds, open doors.”
Evil gets a foothold in a culture because it does not appear as evil. It appears as normal. It appears as sober reality, as a description of what is. As a solution to a problem—the Jewish problem—rather than mass murder.
Evil is banal because it can imagine nothing, effect nothing but destruction. Evil does not build. It destroys. It stands astride history and shouts stop: to all progressive shifts that promise a social order in which fewer are excluded from the table, in which more have access to basic human rights.
Evil keeps trying the same show-stopping tactics even when it is evident that those tactics are no longer effective—when it is evident that the humane and progressive changes it seeks to undermine and destroy will inevitably be accepted by a culture shaped by the belief that the moral arc of the universe bends always in the direction of justice.
I am thinking about the banality of evil these days as I continue pondering some of the politico-religious tactics of posters these days on the blog threads of the National Catholic Reporter internet discussion café. Some of these posters show up only when when an election cycle is underway. When they do so, they employ the same tired old tactics again and again: divide and conquer by setting one progressive group against another, making it appear that the quest for justice in one group is oblivious to the needs of the other; create semantic traps that have people endless arguing over what is plainly misleading or untrue; throw out false dichotomies that seek to corner people and thus stop the flow of constructive dialogue.
What interests me about these tactics is not much their predictability. It’s their futility. There is all kinds of statistical evidence that the Catholic vote in the coming elections will not predictably go to the candidates these posters want elected. There is all kinds of evidence that the Catholic vote is in play as it has not been in recent elections, and that attempts of hierarchical figures or right-wing Catholic activists to swing the vote in the “right” direction are simply not going to work as they have done in the past.
There are sound reasons for this, and it perplexes me that those trying to throw cogs into the wheel of Catholic public discourse seem not to see these—or, better perhaps, are unwilling to discuss these.
One overriding reason is that the president whom many bishops worked so hard to bully Catholic voters into electing in the previous presidential election has egregiously betrayed core Catholic values—over and over. The weak, not to say non-existent, response to the Midwest flooding this week is reminding people all over again of the similar non-response to Katrina. A pro-life federal administration again and again acts in shockingly anti-life ways . . . .
I am aware that Mr. Bush just met with Pope Benedict, and that the media have been falling all over themselves to portray this as a warm, engaging meeting in which the pope noted that his fundamental values and those of Mr. Bush are the same. I’m also aware that this photo-op event is being exploited—and was no doubt staged—by those who want to herd Catholic voters to the polls to vote Republican in the coming election.
But I’m also aware that the pope met recently as well with the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, to be photographed with him, as these two esteemed leaders issued a statement about their joint support for family values. Family values. Yes. Berlusconi. Berlusconi and family values. That Berlusconi. Yes, Pope Benedict and that Berlusconi, issuing a joint statement about their support for family values.
The same Silvio Berlusconi who divorced his lawfully (and sacramentally) wedded wife in 1985 after having had two children by her. While already having had one child by his current wife, an actress, prior to 1985, and two more prior to their marriage in 1990.
No, the Catholic church hasn’t changed its teaching about the indissolubility of marriage—that is, between a man and a woman—or about the sinfulness of having sexual relationships outside marriage.
But, you see, family values now means something different. It now means standing with anyone who opposes the marriage of two people of the same sex, no matter how unworthy of close inspection that person’s own sexual behavior and family life are.
When I put the meeting of Benedict and Bush beside the meeting of Benedict and Berlusconi, and note that in both instances the pope professes his collusion with the fundamental values of the leader in question, I am not inclined to be impressed. Or convinced.
The banality of evil. When churches, and church authority figures, and good church people, can only keep saying the same old thing over and over, as movements for progressive social change unfold outside the perimeter of the churches—when that word is no and again no—the churches and church authority figures and good church people are dangerously close to succumbing to the banality of evil.
When the only word the church is capable of saying to progressive social changes is no, when the church loses the ability to engage the imagination of culture because it has itself stopped imagining a more humane and inclusive future, the church is in serious danger of becoming ensnared by the banality of evil.
From God’s first statement to the world that God had made—it is good—to the incarnation, God’s fundamental word to the world is always yes and not no. A church capable of saying only no has lost its grounding in the incarnation, in the choice of God to love the world so much that God takes flesh to be joined to the world.
A church that loses its grounding in the incarnation is a church that loses its ability to represent the divine in sacramentally effective ways. A church that is not grounded in incarnation and incapable of being sacramentally effective no longer shapes culture, because the church’s ability to shape culture depends on its being incarnate within the world as a sacramental sign of God’s loving embrace of the world.
Churches that can say only no end up choosing cultic status, in the negative sense of that world. They choose to become defensive enclaves holding onto (and implicitly sacralizing and idolizing) cultural models of the past, while the culture around them moves into the future—a future of which God is the horizon.
In their at-all-costs defense of male domination and female subordination as the only thinkable model for organizing societies, the churches today are not merely fighting a losing cultural battle (because the moral arc of the universe always bends towards justice). They are also betraying their fundamental mission in the world—to be sacramental signs of God’s redemptive presence in the world, speaking a constructive word of affirmation to the world.
And, in doing so, they are letting themselves be ensnared by the banality of evil, an evil that finds it much easier to destroy than to create, to say no than to say yes, to refrain from imagining a more humane world than to participate in a fruitful dialogue with culture to help craft an imagination of a future in which everyone might have a place at the table.

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