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Sleepwalking to Hell

September 5, 2013

HannahArendtThe Film Festival movie which is searing its way most profoundly into my consciousness this month is “Hannah Arendt“. It is based on the life of the Jewish American political philosopher of the mid-twentieth century whose fame as the author of an important book on totalitarianism was suddenly eclipsed by the storm of controversy she courted when as a guest correspondent for the New Yorker she covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The trial was a landmark event in 20th century history – essentially a show trial in which the fledgling state of Israel under Ben Gurion took on the evils of the Nazi regime. However, as Arendt discovered, the defendant who was supposed to be the epitome of radical evil turned out to be a plain bureaucrat whose distinguishing characteristic was his willingness to follow orders and go home to his family at night like everyone else. He was an ordinary citizen who believed in ‘doing his job’ above all else. Arendt’s principle insight was that evil, far from being powerful or radical was better described as, for the most part, banal. Moreover, it was no less evil for being banal. Eichmann was a representative of evil simply in his failure to think passionately about his life. He was not the dramatic scapegoat that the Jewish movement wanted. The other observation that got Arendt into enormous difficulty was that this phenomenon was not limited to Germans. Many Jewish leaders chose to cooperate in the transportation of their fellow Jews and this also came to light during the trial. These facts together meant that Arendt was forced into hiding and was in danger of losing her job at Harvard University. Many of her friends abandoned her and she was deluged in hate-mail.

What is striking about Arendt, though is her intensity and focus. In her passionate determination to speak the truth she is determined not to go the way of Eichmann. It all comes to a head when she is given the opportunity to defend her New Yorker article before colleagues and students at Harvard when all present were reminded that the banality of evil is not merely a Nazi phenomenon. We too are constantly at risk of sleepwalking to hell as good citizens who are too busy working or too busy being entertained to reflect passionately on the shape of their every day lives

I am reminded of Francis Fukuyama’s notion that the neo-liberal democracies we now live in locate us at the ‘end of history’. Basically he believed that the systems we now live in are the best we can hope for, the best of all possible worlds. Thus having reached the pinnacle of evolution we should stop believing that things can be different. History with its revolutions has come to rest with us. Does this sound familiar? It may sound crazy, but I fear it is more or less a common assumption of many people who get on with the job of being good citizens (i.e. consumers), effectively abandoning Christian hope for a kind of escapist spirituality.

Two other movies helped to give me some perspective on this situation. They were both about China. The first, “The Last Train Home“, was a documentary style story of a poor family who leave the children with grandparents and voyage by train with millions of others to the factories in the cities, returning annually for New Year to see their children. The second, “A Touch of Sin“, made no pretence of being documentary but interwove the stories of three or four different characters whose lives were trapped in violence and the struggle to survive in the brutality of the new order. Rather than telling us the familiar story of how Communism undermines human rights instead it told how Capitalism, in situations of great inequality, undermines human being.

We could, of course, allow extreme examples like this blind us to the banality of evil in our own worlds. Or we could continue to struggle in the hope that the coming Kingdom of God is still being born in the midst of all this sleepwalking.

[recently published in Coastal Press, newsletter for Coastal Unity Presbyterian Parish in Dunedin, New Zealand]


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