During major human tragedies I often look at local news stories. Right now the world’s attention is focused on the atrocities in the Ukraine. This focus is entirely justified. Our horror at the human devastation and our righteous indignation at Vladimir Putin is not misplaced. However, in moments like these, one must also realize that similar atrocities are occurring all around us, every day.
Atrocities like this one and this one are no less evil, no less malevolent and no less bizarre than Putin’s unprovoked attack on Russia’s neighbor. In fact, they are in some ways worse, as one stumbles in the darkness trying to find any justifying reason for them at all. At least Putin has some semblance of a geo-political argument for his terrorizing of the Ukraine, even if it is a bad one. These other atrocities seem truly mindless.
But what does this show? Why compare the acts of a Wisconsin woman and some 12-year old girls in Indiana to those of someone who now appears to be one of history’s great tyrants?
We All Come Auschwitz Enabled
My old professor at seminary used to say in his class on the problem of evil: “we all come Auschwitz enabled.” A truer statement could not be made. Of course what Dr. Jones (not “Indiana,” but “California”) was referencing in that pithy phrase was the foundational theological doctrine of original sin. One of the books assigned in the class was Christopher Browning’s harrowing account of the German 101st Reserve Police Battalion, Ordinary Men. In the book, Browning details the history of a group of very ordinary men from Hamburg who became one of the most efficient Jewish killing teams in Eastern Europe.
In the Afterword to the account, Browning presents a series of possible explanations for such cruelty: 1) that by the time Hitler rose to power an ideology of radical anti-semitism was already firmly embedded in the collective German psyche (Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis), 2) that anti-semitism and the final solution were only tangentially related to a more fundamental German need for self-determination and national pride, 3) that the humiliation and total degradation of Jews was psychologically necessary to carry out the functional, yet gruesome, task of killing people, and 4) social-psychological theories about the submission to authority (see Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments).
Ultimately Browning, in contrast to Goldhagen who sees anti-semitism as monocausal for the atrocities of Nazi Germany, opts for a multi-causal explanation for how such ordinary men could do such extraordinary evil. For Browning, the social scientist writing for a secular audience, ideological motivations, peer pressure, deference to authority and the “intensifying effects of war and racism” (216) all lend to the overall explanatory thesis. Given this analysis, at the end of the book, the author makes an incisive and unsettling statement:
In short, the fundamental problem is not to explain why ordinary Germans, as members of a people utterly different from us and shaped by a culture that permitted them to think and act in no other way than to want to be genocidal executioners, eagerly killed Jews when the opportunity [was] offered. The fundamental problem is to explain why ordinary men–shaped by a culture that had its own particularities but was nonetheless within the mainstream of western, Christian, and Enlightenment traditions–under specific circumstances willingly carried out the most extreme genocide in human history.
Browning, 222 [emphasis added]
In other words, there is nothing unique about 1920’s Germans that compelled them to do what they did. And so too is there nothing unique about 2020’s Russians compelling them to do what they are doing now. There are multi-causal factors for such actions, to be sure. But clearly ideological motivations, peer pressure, deference to authority and desensitization to violence are themselves only features of something far more fundamental to human beings.
After all, all cultures share in these psycho-social features. But certainly having these features doesn’t necessitate such barbarism. We can easily imagine, at least, benevolent ideologies, positive peer pressure (like the kind we see on an athletic field), appropriate deference to relevant authorities (children to parents) and a reasonable desensitization to violence (not having a nervous breakdown at the sight of a cut finger). There must be something else, something that underlies these social and psychological features that they only exacerbate.
Moreover, as the local cases I referenced above prove, cruelty is by no means limited to men. Apparently 12-year old Indiana girls can be as cruel and unusual as ex-KGB agents and Nazi executioners.
According to Daniel Goldhagen, it was anti-semitic ideology that made all Germans “of one mind” with Hitler. Browning shows, however, that that cannot be the only explanation for the barbarity of the Holocaust. There were Germans who were not ideological at all, yet still maimed, tortured and killed (just like the mid-American, public school educated preteens referenced above). These Germans did not care about the ethnicity of their victims. Perhaps they did just kill out of peer pressure or as deference to what they saw as their highest authority (which raises another theological problem).
Or perhaps there was something more innate in them, something a bit more central to them in virtue of their just being human that is the source of maiming, torture and abject cruelty? If there is something beneath the social and psychological features, this would explain why we see the same tendencies in 12-year old Indiana girls, as well as the Wisconsin woman who recently beheaded and dismembered her boyfriend, as their German and Russian counterparts. Is there a property, a capacity, common to all human creatures that not only can be activated under extreme circumstance (like an Eastern front during WWII), but also that just desires to express itself even when circumstance are “normal” (like in Logansport, Indiana).
One of the noticeable features in the numerous testimonies of the reserve police officers that Browning reviewed for his book, was their inability to speak of the atrocities they witnessed or committed in moral terms. In several of the testimonies men designated to kill Jewish prisoners spoke of not having “the nerves” to do so. Or, if they did shoot a Jew, and then felt bad about it later, they spoke not of moral guilt, but of “weak nerves.”
Instead of speaking about their actions in terms of guilt and shame or good and evil, they only spoke of them in physical, almost medical, terms. After a day of killing, these “weaker” Germans felt sick or nauseas. They had a Nervenzusammenbruck, or what we would call a “nervous breakdown.” This is a very typical German phrase, still frequently used today as a replacement for more traditional terms like Schuld or Sünde, terms too freighted with theological meaning for most postmodern Westerners.
But this reduction of evil down to medical malfunctions is rife in our own society. When children torture other children we can expect some psychological or neuro-scientific explanation, instead of a moral and metaphysical one. The loss of our theological categories has made our language simply inadequate to describe what we actually witness.
And so we are at a loss to come to grips with things like the intentional mutilation of little bodies in our suburban homes. For clearly the fact that human beings do such things cannot be explained in mere medical terms. Nor does our legal usage of guilt and innocence seem to capture the depth of what we see. There is a quality to the phenomena that our contemporary language fails to articulate. And, in failing to articulate it, we fail to recognize some crucial aspect of reality.
A Return To Sin
In his very readable, and eminently shocking, book on sin, theologian Cornelius Plantings gives us a better way of talking about “agential” evil:
Sin outstrips other human troubles by perverting special human excellences. When people devise and defend high-minded political fraud, when a musician feels a spasm of happy satisfaction over the sour review of a colleague’s recital, when a drug dealer wants and plans the hooking of a fresh customer, when a teenager reviles his confused grandmother, when we put other people on a tight moral budget while making plenty of allowances for ourselves–when we human beings do these things, we exhibit a corruption of thought, emotion, intention, speech, and disposition. By such abuse of our highest powers, we who are fearfully and wonderfully made, we creatures of special dignity and responsibility, evoke not only grief and consternation but also blame.
Plantinga, Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be, 3
There is no medical language that can describe the reality of human evil commensurate to its actual nature and our experience of it. The reason for this is because human beings themselves are far more than what either our biology or our socially constructed identities say we are. We are metaphysical creatures, creatures that have a special dignity and unique power. We are not only our bodies nor only our social relationships.
As such, our capacities, our “special human excellences” have a profound grandeur to them that often surprises us. However, because we are metaphysical beings, the corruption of those special excellencies takes on a quality that, when seen in living color, is an absolute nightmare to behold. To describe that nightmare, and to know what to do about it, we need terms that can grasp this profundity.
We need to return to theological categories in order to talk about human evil. We must, in a very real sense, have a “return to sin,” as a moral category that is. In addition we must resuscitate theological language itself. Nervous breakdowns, chemical imbalances and cognitive disorders are insufficient for coming to grips with the phenomena of evil. Finally, we must do this so as to recognize, and recognize quickly, that, in the end, we all come Putin enabled.
Image: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons