The Problem of Evil

Today, just a few days before Wednesday’s holocaust remembrance day, we think of the victims of that horrible episode in human history.

How do we speak of the unspeakable? In numbers?

6 million Jews murdered

3 million soviet prisoners of war murdered

1 million Romani murdered

A quarter million disabled people murdered

10,000 homosexuals murdered

The figures are mind numbing.

In Germany, Austria, Poland, and the Baltic countries, 90% of all Jews were killed. Slaughtered. Eradicated. Exterminated. Perhaps it is not the sheer scale of the slaughter that stuns us, but rather the systematization of murder and cruelty. The Nazi machine was efficient, it was meticulous. It made murder into an industrial process.

New methods for mass murder were developed. Vast infrastructures for killing were created. Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” Mass murder under the Nazis became just another everyday job. Kill a few thousand Jews in the afternoon and have dinner with the wife and children in the evening. 

At Auschwitz alone, one million people were systematically dehumanized, and either worked and starved to death or – as for 90% of new arrivals – immediately stripped of anything of value - including the gold in their teeth and the hair on their heads - and sent to die in the gas chambers.

How do we speak of the unspeakable? Let us enter into a time of silence in remembrance for those who suffered and died.

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Beside the vast loss of human life in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany, some say that God also died.

If there is a God that acts in history, then where was that God as the Nazis treated human beings like vermin to be exterminated? Where was that God when Nazi doctors performed inhuman experiments on children?

As the Greek philosopher Epicurus put it: “Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?”

What kind of faith could survive the horrors of the holocaust?

At the end of the 19th century, liberal faith was in full bloom. The world, it seemed at that time of intellectual and scientific progress, was moving into a time when humankind had learned to master the cold cruelty of nature. Medicine was curing one disease after another. Science was providing new ways to feed and clothe and house people to a standard higher than they could have imagined just a short time before.

The God that had been so worried about sinfulness and that was so keen to send us all to hell was now looking to many thinkers like a
loving deity. The new theology saw human beings as essentially good. Any wrongs were due to the impact of the environment around us and - with just a bit of work – we and our societies would be perfected.

The First World War deflated that optimism. The Second World War and the holocaust forced many to consider whether any faith at all is possible.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.”

You have heard these words before. You are more amazed when you remember that a young Jewish girl - Anne Frank - wrote them whilst
hidden in an Amsterdam attic from the occupying army and its local collaborators who sought to find and murder her for being a Jew. She did not escape. She and her sister were captured and died in the Bergen Belsen death camp. 


“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

This was the essence of the new liberal faith – a sense of profound hopefulness in human capabilities and the human spirit. Knowing that we
are good, we can see our increasing power turned toward the creation of a heaven on earth. The new faith recognised that humans do evil
things from time to time, but surely evil things are only done by those few who are so damaged by life that they are forced into a dark path.

Nazi Germany forces us to rethink. Here was a country, ultimately fighting a war of national survival on two fronts. It was desperate for victory, and still it diverted enormous resources to the industrialized process of murder – of genocide.

We want to think that there were only a few monsters and that every other German was unaware. Or perhaps that normal people were too
terrified by the Nazi machine to ask questions. The facts do not allow us to turn to such comforting explanations. Truly, a vast number of
people were willing to turn against entire ethnic groups. A vast number of people were willing to see their neighbours stripped of their rights,
stripped of their possessions, stripped of their dignity, and shipped off for eradication.

The holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, and the Cambodian Killing Fields, and Darfur, and the Rwandan Genocide tell us that regular
human beings do have an enormous capacity for heartless cruelty. We cannot pretend otherwise. Human beings have the potential to commit
terrible evil.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart” says Ann Frank as she waits for death to break down the door and drag her to the ovens.

Karen Armstrong writes of the battle within each of us between our reptilian brain and our higher functions. The reptilian brain is a more ancient
part of ourselves that reacts instinctively – fight or flight, reproduction, kill or be killed. In her work on compassion, Armstrong – the author of 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life – urges us to recognise the automatic, primitive, nature within each of us. That nature lives side by side with the part of our brain that leads us toward love, peace, and compassion.

What about faith. God is dead, they said, looking at the worst that humankind can do. The faith that must surely be extinguished is the
kind that says we will be saved from evil by a supernatural power. The faith that must have vanished is the kind that says that human beings
are essentially good and incapable of deliberate evil.

The true faith is not a faith that calls us to believe in goodness. It is a faith that calls us to act for goodness. The commonality between all of the horrors that one human group has perpetrated on another is the creation of the “other.” To begin to be cruel – to be inhuman – we must begin to understand others as less than human. We must see them not as kin but as vermin.

Faith is not the belief that everything will necessarily turn out OK. Faith is the knowledge that it may not – the awareness that horrible things may happen – and the commitment to work to build a promised land nonetheless.

A story is told about a group of young friends making their way across the Irish countryside. At times, they would come to an orchard wall that
seemed too high, and too foreboding to try, and too difficult to permit their journey to continue. So they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall - and then they had no choice but to follow them.

Faith is throwing your hat over the wall. It is throwing your hat over the wall of hatred, the wall of mistrust, and the wall of suspicion. Faith is that bold commitment of making it to the other side when you are full of doubt.

Faithful people do not know that everything will be OK. They are people who know that they have to create the world as they wish it to be.

My faith is not in believing that everyone is essentially good, but that every person has the potential to be good. My commitment is to act with
love and compassion – the ways that will help goodness to emerge.

My faith is in believing that we are interconnected and interdependent. My commitment is to making visible our often-hidden oneness. Faith is not the belief that things are as they should be, but the commitment – despite everything – to making it so.

A faith of action must not be weakened by the horrors of this world, but strengthened. This is our way – to bring justice and love more and more into our world and into every heart.

Only then, in the words of the prophet Amos, will “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”