Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 3: What is Evil?

The trial of the century happened in the late 1960’s. It started with a daring kidnapping when Israeli agents went to South America and caught the most notorious Nazi not yet convicted of war crimes – Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann was the architect of the Holocaust – he came up with the idea of gassing Jews because even if one bullet could kill three people, that was still too expensive! They took him to Jerusalem for trial. David Ben-Gurion wanted this to be a show trial – to put all the horrors of Nazism on display for the entire world to see. Watching that trial was an Israeli journalist – Hannah Arendt – who then wrote a book called: Eichmann in Jerusalem. But the subtitle of the book is what caught everyone’s attention: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt says that the trial would have been easy had Eichmann been a monster. But he’s not. He’s just a petty bureaucrat. He’s not very smart. He’s ambitious in the way small men are. He doesn’t have much of a philosophy of life. He’s only anti-Semitic out of convenience. He’s petty. But that’s more troubling – that small, petty, insignificant, ordinary people can do such atrocious evil! But that’s Eichmann. That’s not us. We would never do that. We know better.

Also in the 1960’s, psychologist, Stanley Milgram, came up with a fascinating psychological experiment. Milgram told his subjects that he was studying the effects of negative reinforcement on learning – does punishment make us learn better? So he had two people – a teacher and a learner – and the teacher sat at a control panel where a button produced electric shocks. The learner was sitting behind a glass partition, and every time they got an answer wrong, the teacher had to press the button, and give them a shock – and with every subsequent shock, the voltage was increased. But here’s what you need to know – the real test subject was the teacher – the learner only acted like he was being shocked. There was no electricity connection. Milgram was wondering if the teacher would keep giving the learner electric shocks just because someone in a lab coat told them to. Finally, the learner started yelling in pain. They would say, “Stop. I have heart trouble.” Finally the learner would quit making sounds altogether – which meant they were passed out or dead! How far would ordinary people go? 60 percent of people never stopped hitting that button! They did outrageous, immoral, murderous things because someone with authority in a lab coat told them to! Milgram labeled his results the “Nazi guard syndrome.”

Here’s the point. Evil is not deep. It’s shallow. It’s superficial. Evil is the failure to see clearly. The shallowness of evil is the inability to see below the skin. It is to see the world in terms of “us vs. them.” How is it that Eichmann, who had Jewish friends, could be the architect of the Holocaust, and ship off millions of Jews to be killed? Because they didn’t have a name! They were a problem to be solved! If we can boil life down to “us vs. them” we can demonize anybody. It’s easy to hate people if all they are is “The Russians” or The Chinese” or The French” or “Terrorists” or “Catholics” or “Baptists” or “New Yorkers” or “Republicans” or “Democrats.” You can hate anybody who has no face and no name. Evil is the failure to see that all people were created in the Image of God, and that God created them all for Himself, and He will not be satisfied until all people and all things are redeemed for Him! Evil does not recognize human connectedness.

I try to be optimistic and positive, but evil is winning. We have allowed ourselves to be broken up a thousand different ways into a thousand different groups – and Christians are not helping – because we are real good at seeing the world as “us vs. them.” God’s desire is that walls get torn down, and in a world of shallow tribalism, that is a powerful message!

1 comment:

Charles North said...

One more note to add. I believe that the worst kind of evil one can do is to inflict hurt on another human being in the name of God.