The Islamic State and the Banality of Evil

On the Streets of Auschwitz. Photo by Mark Spencer. Used with permission.

Lately, I have found myself lacking motivation to do my daily activities. It all seems somewhat pointless when I compare my life of relative ease to the lives of the Christians who are dying for their faith in Iraq and in other countries at the hands of Islamic extremists. I go about caring for my children and the house, and wondering why I am here, safe, with all my needs met while others are hungry, thirsty, fleeing for their lives, and dying at the hands of merciless persecutors. Then part of me rejoices for them, because they, as martyrs for their faith, have earned a Heavenly reward that I daily lose sight of.

They have what so many saints have aspired to: martyrdom. More often than not, I quake at the thought of it. I quake because when I used to desire martyrdom, I was a child with no one dependent on me, and now I have a full life before me with so many dependent on me. And I look at my life of attachment to creatures, and realize how far I have to go in the spiritual life. It especially hit home one afternoon when I came across a photograph of a mother and her children in a refugee camp outside of Iraq. They had escaped from those who wanted to harm them, but they had suffered so much already. But they are freer than I am, because they have left everything behind for the sake of Jesus.

Christians in Iraq are fleeing their homes and dying because of their faith, and their children are being beheaded, while people in American are planning “sex sleepovers” for their teenagers and, even worse, killing their own unborn children. The great evils in the past century–the Holocaust, the atomic bombs in Japan, genocide in Sudan, Rwanda, and Bosnia, and so on–have taught us to be numb to smaller evils. The slaughter of human beings continues. Abortion has become an accepted choice in many circles, and yet we are shocked at the slaughter of children by the Islamic extremists.

We should be shocked by the slaughter of these children. We should be shocked by the slaughter of any child, of any person. We should be shocked when we hear of parents promoting fornication between their teenagers. It is hard to recognize the gravity of every evil, of every sin, when the extreme evils of our time have made us numb to smaller evils.

We live in a society which accepts sexual immorality as perfectly normal, which accepts the murder of unwanted unborn children, which is not leaving legal room for well formed consciences, which glorifies vanity, which glorifies materialism, and so on. We cannot get away from it. Smaller evils slip in our thoughts as okay, and soon our actions and our hearts are immune to recognizing evil things as evil.

When we let evil become normal, then we are all susceptible to what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” She wrote about the banality of evil after she witnessed the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. She saw that he was not a particularly villainous individual, but simply an average man doing his job. He happened to be employed by the Nazis, who gave him orders to send innocent people to be slaughtered. Evil had become so everyday for him that he did not think to question them. And that is the risk we take now. We must be aware of the tendency of evil to slip into the acceptance of society, and to become just another part of the everyday, boring existence of mankind.

The more society is accepting of evil, the more Christians must be on guard against it. St. Catherine of Sienna pursued the worst of sinners in prayer and in person to bring them back to God, begging them to repent, but one sinner she could not stand to be around was the mistress of a priest. This sinner had become so complacent in her sin that she thought she could approach and speak casually to a saintly bride of Christ. Sigrid Unset, in her biography Catherine of Siena, described the encounter in this way:

Catherine had the gift (which some other saints have had) of recognizing a soul which was living in mortal sin through the physical sensation of a smell of decay. Once a distinguished lady came to visit her; she seemed full of respect and godliness, but Catherine would not look at her and turned her face away each time the lady came near. Raimondo [her spiritual director] reprimanded her for being so impolite, but Catherine said to him : ‘If you had smelled the stink of her sins you would have done the same.’ A little later Raimondo learned that this ‘lady’ was a whore and living in concubinage with a priest.

I wonder now, in my life of ease, what my soul would smell like to St. Catherine of Sienna or another saint who can recognize sin. Have I become complacent in my sins? I realize that my tendency to want to give up on my duties in response to hearing of the martyrs of Iraq is disordered. I should take their beautiful witness into my heart, and pray that I can live a life of heroic virtue amidst the banality of evil.

Originally at Truth and Charity.