Deliver Us From Evil
January 27th was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. For the first time, the White House released a statement to the press which mentioned neither anti-Semitism nor Jews. Why would the US Government issue a statement on such a day that fails to mention the victims of one of the most grotesque human evils in recent history? Thankfully, Reince Priebus, President Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff, answered the question for us: “If we could wipe it off of the history books, we would. But we can’t.”1
Otto Adolf Eichmann was one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, personally orchestrating mass deportation to concentration camps. In 1962, Eichmann was captured and tried in Israel for his crimes. His trial was widely publicized and fostered quite a reaction, not in the least because he was responsible for engineering the murder of countless human beings. Philosopher Hannah Arendt personally observed the trial and published her insights in The New Yorker.2
Arendt was struck by Eichmann’s personality. His demeanor was not amenable to our common stereotypes of Nazis. He did not seem to harbor hidden malice for Jews. He did not betray a sly grin when his war crimes were brought up. He did not stand up and launch into a crazed speech about how he would do it all over again because of his fervent support for Hitler’s anti-Semitic message.
In fact, he acted like a normal person: a man who had successfully climbed the ranks of the Nazi regime, not dissimilar to how many climb the corporate ladder, and merely followed orders and accomplished the tasks given to him. Eichmann seemed to take no pleasure in the deaths that he caused. When Arendt observed Eichmann, she saw an ordinary person, and that’s what truly terrified her:
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied — as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels — that this new type of criminal… commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.”3
According to Arendt, Eichmann was wrong, not because of some unbridled hatred, but because he failed to think about his actions. He did not utilize his imagination in order to picture that these were actual people whom he was deporting to hellish death camps. During his imprisonment he claimed, “I was never an anti-Semite… My sensitive nature revolted at the sight of corpses and blood… I personally had nothing to do with this. My job was to observe and report on it.”4
Eichmann did not reflect. He did not properly exercise judgement. He was not malevolent, he was just complicit. And his complicity, expressed in duty, made him one of the most infamous war criminals of the 20th century.
In the week since taking office, Trump’s presidency has already been characterized by a blatant disregard for the truth and by xenophobic sympathies. Trump and his administration have shown little regard for the truth, as their theory of truth is characterized by Kellyanne Conway’s infamous term, “alternative facts.”5 One of the alternative facts that Trump continues to pedal is the myth of voter fraud.6 He insists that 3-5 million undocumented citizens voted in the election.7 Past investigations into voter fraud have shown that such fraud is negligible, if it exists at all.8 There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s claim is true.9 However, Elliot Lusztig has noted the insight of Hannah Arendt regarding false statements made by authoritarian figures. Lusztig explains,
“Hannah Arendt, in her book The Origin of Totalitarianism, provides a helpful guide for interpreting the language of fascists. She noted how decent liberals of 1930s Germany would ‘fact check’ the Nazis’ bizarre claims about Jews like they were meant to be factual. What they failed to understand, Arendt suggests, is that the Nazi Jew hating was not a statement of fact but a declaration of intent. So when someone would blame the Jews for Germany’s defeat in WW1, naive people would counter by saying there’s no evidence of that. What the Nazis were doing was not describing what was true, but what would have to be true to justify what they planned to do next. Did 3 million ‘illegals’ cast votes in this election? Clearly not. But fact checking is just a way of playing along with their game. What Trump is saying is not that 3m illegals voted. What he’s saying is: ‘I’m going to steal the voting rights of millions of Americans.'”10
Arendt’s insight demonstrates the problematic nature of Trump’s lies and rhetoric. It’s not so much that his claims are clearly false, it’s the intent behind them. Trump is targeting “illegals” in an attempt to dehumanize them (something already evident by the use of the term “illegal” to brand a group of people). Take, for example, Trump’s assertions that undocumented immigrants pose a serious threat to the safety of US citizens.11 Trump doesn’t care that an American has a 1 in 10.9 billion chance of being murdered in an attack caused by an “illegal,” or that immigrants commit fewer crimes per person than native-born Americans.12 What matters is that Trump has planted a seed, the fruit of which can easily be seen in the fear and distrust which lead to Shoah.
Further, Trump has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants.13 This tactic has a striking similarity to Hitler’s “The Criminal Jew,” where Nazi Germany publicly disseminated records of crimes allegedly committed by Jews in order to manipulate the public into associating Jews with criminality.14 It’s an effective means of scapegoating. Such an approach is consistently used by authoritarians: it’s a process of dehumanization through demonization. And we cannot let such xenophobia continue to gain ground in our country.
The same has happened for refugees. The Trump administration has painted refugees as threats to America, despite the fact that an American has a 1 in 3.64 billion chance of being killed in a terror attack caused by a refugee.15 Our vetting process is thorough and effective, but refugees are currently the subject of unfair and untrue characterizations by Trump and his administration.16 The identification of “enemies” as a means of unification is a cornerstone of fascism, and Trump’s scapegoating of immigrants and refugees closely parallels a fascist strategy.17
Trump’s latest ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries has caused a lot of stir, not in the least because it has been deemed unethical and unconstitutional, and has been opposed by many government officials.181920 However, it is also deeply concerning that we even need to raise the question of whether Trump’s financial ties had anything to do with the specifics of the order.21 If “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10), then we should be vigilant to identify the ways in which Trump’s transparent love of money can generate evil.
Trump fired the Attorney General for opposing his executive order, and the White House press secretary has made it clear that Trump is willing to terminate government officials who express dissent over the details of his plans.22 As countless scholars have testified, Trump has the disposition of an authoritarian.2223
These are only a few examples of the unsettling aspects of Trump’s presidency. The fact that Steve Bannon, a man with close ties to America’s neo-Nazi movement, is Trump’s Chief Strategist and will have an influential role in the National Security Council is foreboding.24 Trump’s approval of the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline perpetuates the exploitive and coercive relationship that the US has had with Native Americans since its colonization of this land.25 As Trump continues, it will be difficult to keep a handle on everything, and we need to be able to speak about the ramifications of his decisions in order to navigate through the disarray. Effective communication requires patience and empathy.
But one important principle is that we, as Christians, cannot be is silent. We cannot stand by while Trump demonizes vulnerable and marginalized people by means of baseless propaganda and xenophobic rhetoric. As Fr. James Martin, SJ notes, we must call Trump’s tactics out for what they are: evil. Evil thrives on silence, so we must fill the dark void with our voices.26
To participate in evil, we need not intentionally do harm to others, we need only refuse to care for their well-being. To be complicit in evil, we do not have to hate refugees, we need only to not be concerned with their welfare. To be complicit, need only let fear, lies and self-serving bombast restrain us from standing with “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). We need only respond to the pain of oppression with self-justification and a paternalistic insistence on a whitewashed sense of “unity.” In order to be evil, we merely need to cry “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Ezekiel 13:10). May this time not be characterized by the church’s silence, but by our loud and resounding call for justice, no matter what the cost.
Deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom.
(3) Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report On The Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 1963), Epilogue.
(10) https://twitter.com/ezlusztig/status/803288929357041664?lang=en. Edited for grammatical and stylistic consistency.
Link to original photo of the featured image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/inthe-arena/14281918126/in/photolist-nL3yFG-prLPkA-9492zq-8Mvfif-4K2zgd-eXyRdQ-dWgRhr-6Jab4j-o6Vbab-QhoRDi-cEZzeq-64XQEo-dV17w1-bC237J-9WT3go-om27TM-q5MANQ-6Vhxmn-fBDrS-4JwmMk-aiT1aS-q1mpsk-okZg4f-51Yajv-9J9TeY-6Wrb3B-okPAtu-9q1Did-bE5jpX-8vuZRu-ovHYGb-pG15to-4L5VeS-5UZGzv-okPUsW-pkNVgV-9Vknoo-BFSbzx-6C3jaV-owoBEX-4KUAsy-G6ftMM-78iYwr-7Hkg99-HN2YYq-aCALEE-562JbB-9i3FNN-HFPDb3-6LydpK