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IDEMA: Recognizing the 'banality of evil' in ourselves

• Nov 15, 2017 at 1:00 PM

Hannah Arendt was a Jewish political theorist who escaped from Germany during the Holocaust. In 1961, she observed and wrote about the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann. While observing this plain-looking man on trial for the murder of millions of Jews, she coined the phrase, "the banality of evil."

What an apt observation for the evil we are seeing in our own society. The mass murderer Stephen Paddock would hardly turn heads in the aisles of a grocery store. Nor would Putin or Stalin or Hitler. What makes evil so dangerous is that it does not walk around with horns or a tail like our Halloween devils. Evil is hard to recognize, even within ourselves.

Which brings up my first point: Is the church failing to preach Satan, which is the symbol for evil in Scripture? One theory about the church's failure to stop the rise of Hitler was that its doctrine of evil had been put so far on the back burner of preaching that the German Christians simply did not have the imagery, not to speak of the understanding of evil, which then engulfed them.

Jesus saw life as a battle between good and evil, God and Satan, and that battle as depicted in the New Testament has at times been an embarrassment to the church, especially now with the popularity of the gospel of prosperity. Do you think God wants all of us to be rich and be obsessed with money in light of all evil we see in our world — hunger, poverty, sex slavery, war, and on and on?

The magazine "The Week" in its Oct. 20 issue put on its cover — under the title, "See no evil" — three rather unflattering overweight men in the kind of white bathrobes you sometimes get in a hotel: Donald Trump, Bill O'Reilly and Harvey Weinstein. The magazine could have included Bill Clinton and many other politicians and celebrities. The article on this cover was titled "Why Hollywood liberals were silent." We might very well ask that of ourselves during the last presidential election when then candidate Trump admitted to adultery in his marriages, not to speak of sexual abuse.

Where lies this failure of us to recognize evil? The church and other religious institutions are partly to blame in their failures to preach and teach about evil. The power of money plays a role, as well, such as in the case of Weinstein. Many people, especially his female victims, were afraid to come forth to tell of his abuse because of the fear of being black-balled in an industry famous for its casting couches. Washington stinks from the same cesspool.

Many writers besides Hannah Arendt have explored the dual nature of human beings, which is where I think the problem of evil lies. We are a mixture of good and evil. Freud wrote about the id (literally it means "the it") as the dark unconscious forces within us fighting for expression; Carl Jung talked about the shadow side of ourselves; the writer of Genesis depicts the flaw of humankind as being our will to power, our desire to control other people. Jesus saw Satan as the tempter, and he warned against our susceptibility to temptation, which he saw as Judas' fatal flaw and a weakness within Peter.

Robert Lewis Stevenson grew up in Scotland, where he was heavily influenced by the Calvinism in the Presbyterian Church. He often explored in his writings how our sinful nature manifests itself in acts of evil. The most famous of these writings is "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," published in 1886, well before the discoveries of depth psychology began emerging into western society. For Stevenson, this is a story about the battle within all of us between good, represented by Dr. Jekyll, and the evil side of his nature, Mr. Hyde. This is how Dr. Jekyll describes his failure to recognize the evil of Mr. Hyde: "Neither had I ... made enough allowance for the complete insensibility and insensate readiness to evil which were the leading characters of Edward Hyde."

Stevenson, through his character of Dr. Jekyll, concludes, "All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil." Even though Dr. Jekyll was transformed into Mr. Hyde through drinking a concoction of chemicals, Stevenson's main point holds sway, that all of us are mixtures of good and evil.

Rather than recognizing the evil within ourselves, we too often project it onto God, blaming God for the evil in our world. Or we blame others; or we blame the government; or we blame Satan, without realizing the only power Satan has is when we give into his power (Satan being in the Bible the personification of evil).

Evil cannot be reduced into its component parts, e.g, the nature of society, genetics, human development, the id or shadow side of ourselves, etc. Some people — perhaps the least recognizable among us — choose to cave in to the evil within themselves and commit heinous acts. Why will always remain a mystery. A failure of defense against evil impulses is one way of thinking about it.

Considering that we all have an evil side of our nature, perhaps we should be thankful that there isn't even more evil each day on the nightly news. Acts of goodness less often make the news, but they exist in greater abundance. The first step in combating evil is its recognition within ourselves, and then using all the resources of religion, psychiatry, family, love, faith and community to keep at bay the Mr. Hyde that can burst out of all of us when we least expect it.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune community columnist

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