Sunday, November 04, 2007

"But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation."

I've been reading Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963. It's one of those things I should have read a long time ago.

A brief guide to the perplexed. Hannah Arendt was a German Jewish political theorist and philosopher who covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Eichmann was a colonel in the SS, a specialist in the technology of mass deportation who really had no hatred of the Jews but who did his job as well as he could. His job included arranging for the annihilation of 400,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944. Like many other Nazis he escaped to Argentina after the war, where Israeli agents had picked him up in 1960 for trial.

Banality, for those unused to the word, means triteness and total lack of originality - a remarkable insight, since people think of evil as fascinating, whereas its alienation from the Creator must eventually result in its being totally uncreative. Pornography, the titilllating details of celebrity lives and their immoralities, various drug experiences, conquests, and mens' empty praise are frustrating because in the end they're completely boring. "Futility of futilities, all is futility!"

Consider just this paragraph at the end of Chapter 8, "Duties of a Law-Abiding citizen:"

And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody "Thou shalt not kill," even though man's natural desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler's land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: "Thou shalt kill," although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it - the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.

Jesus of Nazareth, although I had never seen it quite this way before, puts it far more starkly in Luke 16:15. "That which is high among men is detestable before God." This is no exaggeration. Men don't generate big campaigns to do really decent things like treating others justly, showing mercy, or doing the truth. Big campaigns with shouted slogans are always for shameful things, like bombing and robbing others, forcing peasants into collective farms, fulfilling 5-Year Plans by grinding up mere human beings, spying on and denouncing our neighbors, and such like.

In Acts 12, Herod picked up Peter and put him in a cage, not because he had done anything wrong, but because he would gain favor with religious leaders by publicly executing him after Passover. He assigned 16 soldiers to guard him, but the angel of the Lord led him out of there. The soldiers, having obeyed Herod's law by holding him to be murdered, had ignored God's law, which says, "Justice, justice, you shall pursue." They didn't earn Herod's gratitude for their obedience to the law of evil. Herod "examined" them and ordered them to be "led away" - suffering the fate they were bringing about for Peter. Were they tempted not to participate in the murder of this innocent man? Probably, but being servants of Herod and not of God, they had learned to resist temptation.

The son-in-law of a woman we know went off to Iraq for the noble task of freeing the Iraqis and their petroleum from themselves. Their American Christoid world agreed that this was a noble deed, although she knew well that she wouldn't have felt that way about the Chinese army acting just that way in her own neighborhood, and she has heard how Jesus said, "Whatever you want men to do to you, do so to them." She, her daughter, and her son-in-law were certainly tempted to avoid harming themselves and others by participating in this evil. But her "Christian" friends were all shouting "Support the troops!" The world defined this wickedness as his duty, so off he went, and they all rejoiced in their noble service to the world and its lie.

What reward have they found? His wife played the whore and became a drunk while he was away. Their marriage is over, and the lives of their little kids are shattered. How has the world rewarded them for obeying its law of murder and robbery? Now Mom feels forsaken by God, but where does God promise to reward us for being conformed to this world, with its lies and cruelties?

They would have done better to yield to the temptation to be decent human beings and not to suffer in order to do criminal acts to other people that they would not want done to themselves - even though their "Christian" friends were telling them how noble it was. But, God knows, they had learned to resist temptation.

On September 11th, 2001, men grabbed and flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, killing thousands of people. I bet they were tempted not to kill themselves in this way, and not to kill thousands of people they didn't know. But, God knows, they had learned to resist temptation.

Roman Catholic bishops all over the world have covered up the criminal acts of pedophile "priests" to keep their organization looking good at the expense of the victims, even shipping the perps from parish to parish. The current pope has even counseled the bishops to obstruct justice in American courts. Were any of them tempted instead to protect the victims, even at the expense of the perps and their bureaucracy? Probably. But, God knows, they had learned to resist temptation.

Was the school administrator that sent Linda Casas to traumatize, falsely imprison, and defame my son tempted not to commit such an act of abuse to a 14-year-old child? Probably. Did Casas have the common human decency to be tempted not to lie to the cop in order to have Stephen dragged away and terrorized as she did? Most likely. Was Superintendent Heatley, who came up in special education, tempted to admit that Stephen had been wronged and to try to figure out a way to make it right instead of how to cover up and justify this abuse, like those bishops? I bet he was. But, God knows, they had learned to resist temptation.

Are these people all like Eichmann and other Nazi mass murderers? No, what's rather more alarming - this is Hannah Arendt's point - Eichmann and the other Nazis were like these ordinary men of the world, cynically destroying fellow human beings to obey the world's law of inhumanity. You don't have to be unusually bad to be a reliable servant of Satan; you just have to blow off justice and mercy in the interest of some higher purpose.

I think I see better now why Christians and other religious people tend to be even worse than others in this way. They think God is calling us to resist temptation, and virtue is the strength to do so. That's why the scribes and the Pharisees, resisting temptation and proud of it (Luke 18:9-14), were so much more criminal, much farther from the kingdom of God, than the whores and tax gatherers, who were guilty of ordinary human corruption but also capable of ordinary human decency.

God is not calling us to resist temptation. God is calling us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. If we're tempted to do that when the world calls us to noble acts of domination and injustice, cruelty, and pride, let's give way to that "temptation." Real temptation, in the biblical sense, is any incitement to abandon justice, mercy, and the love of God, however noble the world says it is to do that - and nothing else.


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