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Arendt, Augustine, and Evil

The Boston Marathon bombing seems like increasingly “old-news,” although Jeff Munroe’s post last week, “I’m Not Done With Boston” generated some good discussion. It might be that now, when the frenzy and fury are behind us, that we start to see more thoughtful reflections, theological and otherwise.

Today, I’m posting part of a piece by Anthony Robinson.  It appeared originally in Crosscut, an online Seattle periodical. You can read it in full here. Tony is a minister in the United Church Christ who now serves as a consultant, speaker, and author. I became aware of him when he wrote occasionally in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and we’ve had him in Perspectives a few times.

Typically writing to a very secular audience, Tony always manages to be overtly theological and explicitly Christian, not to mention often compelling—for both Christians and others. That’s what I think Tony does here, pushing beyond the whodunit headlines to ask questions about society, ourselves, and the deeper state of things.Thanks to Tony for allowing me to share these excerpts.


The Boston bombing: The weakness of evil

After the death of suspect #1, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and the arrest of a seriously wounded suspect #2, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, my reaction was to recall the famous phrase that is the title of Hannah Arendt’s book on the 1968 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, The Banality of Evil.

Arendt argued that, in the end, evil is not grand, nor is it glamorous. It is not heroic in any sense. It is not even quite the sinister power we often imagine. Arendt’s impressions, after listening to days of Eichmann’s testimony, were of the banality of it all. Evil was not grand, but petty; not compelling, but trite; not energizing, but tired.

Looking at the pictures of these two sad-looking young men, one of whom may have caught the virus of extremism and terror on a recent extended trip in Russia, evil looked banal. It looked tired, trite, small and petty.

Augustine, a precursor to Arendt and arguably the greatest Christian thinker, wrestled with the topic of evil on a more sustained basis than any theologian before or since.  He did so in the context of a theological debate with the Manicheans, whose view of the world was a thoroughgoing dualism. The Manicheans insisted on a radical distinction between Light and Darkness, Good and Evil, Spirit and Matter. In a frequently overwhelming and perplexing world, dualism is a very powerful explanatory device. President George W. Bush used it after 9/11: ‘You are either for us or you are against us.’ Such dualism is quite compelling, but often wrong.

For those influenced by moral dualism, evil is something both grand and powerful. Its powers are prodigious — more than a match for good. And there is something deeply fascinating, even glamorous, about evil.

Augustine, like Arendt, did not perceive evil as being so compelling, nor did he think it wise to portray it that way. For him, it was an emptiness, a wasteland, a nothing. Not a positive or substantive thing in itself.

The consequences — the terrible damage of evil — are real and significant, but evil itself is a nullity, a banality, something that can only deplete and not create.

There are two reasons it is worthwhile to ponder Augustine and Arendt in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.

It seems that we — or, let’s say, popular culture — are verging toward a new Manichaeism, a new dualism, in which we imagine evil as a vast, sinister, creative and glamorous power. If so, we are in danger of inflating evil’s power, its reach and its disabling effects.

Looking at photos of the thousands of police and security forces deployed in Boston, the city and region in lockdown and the legions of officers in SWAT gear (all of which we’ve seen countless times in the movies), I couldn’t help but wonder if we were giving evil more than its due.

There is a kind of not-so-latent Manichaeism in our nearly apocalyptic newscasts and extreme weather alerts. Remember that, for the Manichaeans, the world is in the grip of a comprehensive and destructive power.

Augustine and Arendt do not deny or gainsay the reality of evil or its hideous consequences, but neither do they inflate it to monstrous proportion. Today we risk magnifying evil to such vast dimension that we deify it. Our allocations for defense and security are impressive, but disproportionate. Playing on our fears, the security state seems to encroach all around us.

Another feature of strict moral dualism is to imagine all evil as “out there,” in some other race, nation, religion, demonic force or enemy. Both Arendt and Augustine resist this. We too should resist the impulse to draw conclusions about Chechnyans or Muslims or immigrants from the acts of the Tsarnaev brothers.

There is a distinction to be made — and held — between good and evil, but no one in Augustine’s thinking is beyond temptation, beyond the capacity for evil. Assuming for the moment that the Tsarnaev brothers are found guilty of the marathon bombing, they are not so ‘other’ that we cannot see or imagine ourselves in them. One appears to be a young man lost between two worlds, while the other was drawn in by the influence of his troubled brother. They are not the evil masterminds of film and fantasy, but sad and pathetic.  

This is not to excuse what they have done, but to point out that their evil is not brave, so much as banal. It is not so foreign to us as to be beyond recognition.

Augustine believed that it was both false and misleading to portray life as irredeemable and in the grip of a comprehensive and destructive power. In the end, good is stronger than evil and life is redeemable. Believing this and acting on it is the meaning of faith.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Jeff Munroe says:

    I agree about the sensationalism of the whole thing – I narrated taking out the trash one night ala the TV talking heads reporting on the suspect lying in the boat and made my wife laugh. I meant no disrespect. Actually, I did mean to disrespect the media and, I suppose, the rest of us who consume it. This article also makes me think of Solzhenitsyn's comment about the line between good and evil running right through the middle of each of us. Finally, in my post from last week, I tried (unsuccessfully, I concluded) to encourage us not to dismiss the perpetrators of this act by putting a label on them. We've made peace with the Newtown and Aurora and Tucson shooters by labeling them as mentally ill. Now we make peace with the Boston brothers by labeling them as terrorists. That is much, much easier to do than contemplate what in our culture leads us to produce people capable of these actions.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for delivering this to us, Steve. I think of the that great stanza from that great hymn: "But those this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us . . . . One little word shall fell him."

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