Banality of Evil

This is the way of an adulteress:
she eats and wipes her mouth
and say, “I have done no wrong.”


Adolf Eichman had a desk job, and his pleasant secretary set down a steaming cup of coffee by his papers every morning. His title was “Transportation Administrator” (insert long, guttural, many-consonant German word here). The specific agenda he had to accomplish was heavy on logistics: how to collect hundreds of thousands of European Jews, board them onto trains, and send them into various death camps. By all accounts Eichman was up to the logistic challenge: in 1944 alone he arranged 430000 Hungarian Jews to be sent efficiently to their death.

Some of you old timers remember the headlines from the early 60’s, when 17 years after disappearing from Germany Eichman turned up in Argentina, was subsequently nabbed by a clandestine Israeli police force, then secretly deported to Israel to face trial (by being drugged and then forcibly disguised as a drunken, off-duty flight attendant – ingenious Israelis!).

The New Yorker sent over a American Jewish writer to report on the trial, the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Over the days in the courtroom, as she observed Eichman’s understated mannerisms and heard his commonplace replies, she was struck by one thing: she wasn’t struck.

Here was a man who had merely accepted a premise or two, then found himself a desk and filled out a couple of forms. Move along folks – nothing really to see here. Watching him, Arendt had to keep reminding herself that sitting before her was a man who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Arendt returned to the US and wrote a book: Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. 

The Banality of Evil – Did Arendt have the phrase close at hand from exposure to our proverb? The adulteress  – that wrecker of marriage, the one who brings tears, who installs nervousness into the next few generations, who destroys society at its foundations – does her thing and languidly wipes her mouth.

We believe in action and consequences – good.  But don’t think that the actions transparently show their consequences.  There are no lightning strikes or foreboding chords or descending darkness in the transgression. We do evil and the world moves on.  Nothing to see here.

Do you understand? Did the chill just pass over you? Because evil and sin and transgression don’t often feel like evil and sin and transgression.  So then we cannot rely on our conscience or shame index or society’s disapproval or any sign in the heavens to let us know that we’ve gone off the straight way. 

But we have the Word. And if God is gracious, perhaps he’ll give us repentance.

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