The Nature Of Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thirty years ago when I was in seminary my Philosophy Of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin told our class that until we had death with the realities of evil, death, and suffering we had not yet done Christian theology. He was right, but I have not learned that by wrestling with theology per say, but rather human experience as recorded by history, especially my studies of the Holocaust, and American Slavery, as well as what the and as observed in my life as a trauma and surgery department chaplain in a number of large and medium sized hospitals, including Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

Since that time I have witnessed hundreds of violent deaths. Most in the United States but some in Iraq. I have seen cruelty, committed by human beings that only can be described as evil. I have also spoken directly with men who killed in cold blood, including an assassination type hit on a man and his son who owed him fifty dollars. That man was a Navy Hospital Corpsmen with a wife and a child, his victims a couple of locals. When I looked in his eyes there was no feeling, it didn’t matter what he had did, he was a classic sociopath. He had no empathy for the men he killed or the devastation he left in the lives of his wife and child. The state he committed the murder in does have the death penalty, but he received two back to back life sentences. The Navy discharged him and that cut off my attempts to communicate with him.

But the question always comes back to the nature of evil itself, and the willing ignorance of many people of it. Having come face to face with this man and others like him, I have to agree with the comments of Captain and psychologist Gustave Gilbert about the Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg:

“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

I have to admit that the amount of ignorance in the defense of evil that I see daily is simply mind blowing. It makes me shake my head. But then I cannot be surprised anymore. About two years ago I saw a poll in which nine percent of Americans said that holding White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi views and ideology was okay. 

Now nine percent doesn’t sound like a big number or anything to worry about until you extrapolate that percentage into the numbers of people who hold that view. Based on the population of the United States that nine percent equals about thirty million individuals. Now I’m sure that many of these patriotic Americans are not card carrying Klansmen or Nazis, but the fact that they would turn a blind eye to the evil of both in the name of some incomprehensible moral equivalence as did President Trump after Charlottesville is quite disturbing. Perhaps it is his example that enables them to be so open about their acceptance of evil. 

A while back on my Facebook page a friend of a friend commented on an article which discussed new research that indicates that the Nazis in their occupation of the Ukraine killed perhaps a half million more Jews than previously believed. That woman made the comment that there were others, and yes that is true. Had the Nazis won the war tens of millions more of the Jews as well as the Slavs who they referred to as Untermenschen or subhumans would have been killed, either directly or through a policy of intentional starvation. But make no bones about it, from the months that Hitler spent in Landsberg prison for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 writing Mein Kampf until the end of the war as the Red Army closed in on his bunker in Berlin, the Jews above all were the object of his personal hatred. 

Close to six million Jews and millions of others were killed by the Nazis. Millions of Africans were enslaved in the United States and even after emancipation were by law treated as less than full citizens. Under Jim Crow they were discriminated against at every level of government including states that were neither a part of the Confederacy or not even States when the Civil War was fought, they were impressed as forced labor under the Black Codes and thousands were murdered, often in public by people who brought their children to watch Black men die. 

But these people were not just numbers. It’s all to easy to blur them into a mass of dehumanized humanity by talking about the millions, when every single one was a human being, yes, I believe created in the image of God. We have to see their faces and we have to recognize their essential humanity as men and women, children, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives, whose lives were in the case of the Jews obliterated as if they never existed, and others like African slaves who were simply property.

I explained that in quite a few fewer words and told her that she shouldn’t challenge me on the subject, which of course she did. So I went into more detail and shot her argument down in flames, to the cheers of other commentators on the post. When you have spent much of your academic life studying a subject it really gets old hearing people make excuse for evil by trying to minimize that evil, especially against the targeted people. 

It’s like Confederate apologists saying that the institution of slavery which enslaved millions of Africans was actually worse for White people. Yes it is true that many poor whites benefited little from slavery, but they were not bought and sold as chattel, sold away from their wives and children, whipped, and marched across country in chains to new owners, or yes even killed simply because they were not considered human beings but property. 

Sadly, as Dr. Timothy Snyder wrote “The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.” 

So there are about 30 million Americans who believe that holding Nazi and White Supremacist beliefs is okay. A few years ago I would believed that the number was lower, but after seven months of living in Trump’s America I believe that it might be even higher than the poll indicated. I only say this based on the postings I see on various social media platforms, news comment pages, the proliferation of websites that cater to these beliefs, and the lack of real condemnation of such individuals by the majority of the GOP Senate and House majorities, and the outright defense of them by other GOP representatives at the Federal and State level. These people have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust, nor American slavery. 

Again I don’t believe that the majority of these people are real card carrying Nazis or Klansmen. Most would probably be considered great citizens: they work, they raise families, they go to church, and many would claim that they have “a Black or Jewish friend” so obviously they cannot be racists. But that being said they turn a blind eye to the evil of race hatred and White supremacy, and sometimes join in on social media meme wars where they mock the victims. But no matter what, not condemning the purveyors of White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi ideology, or by using the arguments of moral equivalence to minimize those crimes against humanity makes these people as complicit in the past, present, and future crimes of Naziism as if they were. 

They may be ordinary people, as seemingly normal as anyone else, but as Hannah Arendt noted about Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis who advanced the destruction of the Jews was that they were so normal. She wrote: 

“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.” 

That my friends is as true as the day she wrote it after Eichmann’s trial, as it is today, and why we must constantly educate people in every forum possible that it is all too easy to become either a perpetrator or evil or a bystander. As Snyder wrote: “It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander. It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. …Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.” 

Since they were human beings the Nazis were not unique to history. In every era of history human beings have committed atrocities, many in the name of some kind of ethnic, religious, or nationalist ideology of supremacy that held other people to be less than human. That may sound harsh, but it is all too true based on history.

Yehuda Bauer wrote: “The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.” 

In the movie Judgment at Nuremberg the judge played by Spencer Tracy noted something important about the defendants in the trial. His words need to be heard today as well:

Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.

It is high time that we learn that again and that we make up our minds to oppose the ideologies that made the Holocaust and Slavery possible. As Hannah Arendt observed: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

But then there are those who have no problem with it, sociopaths who have an extreme absence of empathy.

So until tomorrow, 


Padre Steve+


Filed under crime, ER's and Trauma, ethics, faith, History, holocaust, Military, ministry, nazi germany, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

7 responses to “The Nature Of Evil

  1. The nature of evil has many nuances
    Yes, it is total lack of emphathy is the one of a sociopath.
    However the ones who’s emphathy has nuances are much harder to notice.
    Because of that the devastating character is not regognized as dangerous for society.

    I admire and regognize your stand in this. I agree and you often give me foof for thought.

    As you know Dutch society has also it’s hate mongering petsons/groups. The targeted groups, persons, religion may have changed but it’s the same.

    It was/is “never again” but it happens again.

    It’s history repeating itself.
    That’s why regognizing for what it is and take a stand is so important.

    For some time I want to ask you something.
    You place photo’s of the actual murdering of people, targets of ‘Die Endlösung’.

    First of all you I’m convinced of your good intentions

    But what is the reason:
    As a warning, but why groups, naked, fearful peoples, knowing their death is imminent.
    They also are individuals, with families, children.
    Brought back to numbers in a statistic, without any dignity left.
    To make your visual point, why placing in every post several pictures like these.

    Why this remark, I was a few years ag on a forum, international but with a big percentage Americans.
    Some of them placed photos, like you do.
    As I asked them why, explaining the individuality of these persons and the dehumanizing by placing them just shut people.

    Some of them said as a warning and they couldn’t understand why I was against the warning in those pictures.

    I answered that I most certainly not against warning people.

    However, in the proper places, in the proper historical context, with all due respect for the victims, dehumanized on those photos, in their most personal moments, being murdered, no dignity even after death. Becoming a statistic.

    You are right in every of those many persons murdered, every individual counts.

    I placed this comment with all due respect to you and your mission.
    I can emphatize, while not suffering of PTSS ( I have OCD for more than 50 years) with suffering mentally.

    While I never experienced war myself, I live in a country being occupied during WWII, where everywhere I look I see remnents of that war.
    My parents, mother was 17, father was 15, as the war started.
    In a border region, with Germany in the east and Belgium in the west, it was the center of all sorts of suffering.

    It left scars mentally.
    My father was forced ‘Arbeitseinzatz’ at 31th December 1944, with more than 3000 other men and boys of my hometown to walk into Germany.

    I’m sorry I have to stop at this point because it gets to emotional for me.
    Strange as older as I get, the deeper their suffering hits me.

    And in theirs, yours, and any other suffering of injustice an hypocrisy.

    • maryplumbago

      I understand your point about the naked and vulnerable pictures.
      But I do believe we, who are horrified by man’s capacity for evil and what we are seeing rise again today around the world today, justifies this, not unlike the various Holocaust museums and memorials around the world. The shock of pictures and letters and other sources of the atrocities, is the hope it will shake the evil out of people or at least remove the apathy and make them aware of such evil. It may work to a point, but I’m not so sure anymore.

      The very people who need the shock are not the ones who have any interest or humanity or empathy to these people throughout history.

      Native Americans are another people that come to mind. Human evil knows no bounds, it seems.

      My fear is that it is falling on deaf ears and that history will most certainly repeat. The times are tragically right for this currently. I am fearful and I’m glad I’m old and have no children or grandchildren to worry about. But many others do and I fear for them.

  2. Steven

    So I’m the outlier here. What follows is very strong, so if you wish, you may just read the summary: I do NOT understand your concern. In fact, I consider that it is your stand which would wrap hypocrisy in the robe of humanity.

    You can leave it at that, if you like. For everyone else…

    I know this “concern”, all too well. We were forbidden to see pictures of Black Africans being treated as impediments to White Wealth, because the women were not dressed as Western Christianity felt they should be—they mostly nude, this being sub-Saharan Africa and they being traditional African tribes in 1900.

    I see it as pseudo-Christian moralising; the same old, tired, Abrahamic misogyny—deriving as it does from the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religious tenants of the 1st Century CE—dressed up in fresh clothes, but smelling just as bad.

    Your argument does not hold together, at all. It is the very fact of the degradation of these human beings, and the knowledge that one is seeing a frozen moment before these exact people, stripped naked, vulnerable—trying to maintain some sort of dignity despite the terror they show, comforting a child despite the futility of the circumstance—are exterminated.

    You are correct, I do not know their names. But to say that they have bee stripped of their humanity is to confuse your discomfort with their nakedness with the nature of humanity. I see my friend of 40 years, my daughters, my wife. I see one of my soldiers, and other soldiers I have known.

    I KNOW these women. I could call them by the name I know, and they would answer. This photograph, and others like it, do not stir my libido—they catch my Heart; they do not appeal to what is base in me, but what is the very best in me.

    These women ARE being dehumanised—by the Nazis and their collaborators—Dutch, French, Belgian, Hungarian, Italian, Egyptian, Eastern or Southern or Western or Northern European; Swiss Bankers and American Industrialists and British Statesmen—but not by those who can hardly bear to see these photographs.

    If bearing witness were easy, it wouldn’t be necessary.

    • padresteve

      Steven, I don’t think it is simply moralizing in a pseudo-Christian sense. I have looked into the eyes of men who killed people with no remorse, the same kind of people who killed not just women, but men, and children during the Holocaust and other genocides. The Holocaust was unique in one way, but as Yehuda Bauer so succinctly stated, can happen again, if not the Germans and the Jews others. The argument holds and you are missing the point, Humanity is the one constant in history, and when you see the same language, the same comparisons calling certain groups “parasites, or vermin” the stage is being set. As Joseph Conrad noted in “Heart Of Darkness” “the mind of man is capable of anything–because everything is in it, all the past as well as the future.”

      I always look forward to your comments, but today I think that your criticisms are far off base. You may not yet see the danger, but it is all too real. Read my article from last night to see where I am going with this.



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