A Reflection on Sin and Evil

by Melannie Svoboda SND on March 11, 2019

Lent is a good time to reflect on sin and evil. Some of what I write here is based on an article by Alice Camille one of my favorite writers. The article, entitled “Unoriginal Sin” appeared in the March 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Evil is rampant in our world. Because we are basically people of good will (or we think we are), we label evil as monstrous. The people who propagate atrocities of all kinds, we think of as monsters. In this group we would include people like Stalin, Hitler, serial killers, terrorists, sexual predators, and individuals who shoot people in our work places, churches, and even schools.

The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt used to think of evil in those terms too. She, who escaped from Germany just before Hitler’s “Final Solution” was put into place, had thought that Hitler and the Nazis were “fiends of the first order.” But after the war, she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the incarceration and destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. She learned that Eichmann was not a fiend or a monster, but a rather ordinary man, “a paper pusher” with ordinary ambitions.

What ambitions? Eichmann wanted to do well the task he was asked to do. He wanted to make a decent living, please his bosses, and further his career. (Sound familiar?) But here’s the terrifying part: Eichmann never considered the horrific consequences that his “good job” had on flesh and blood human beings. He never weighed the morality of his actions. He never wondered if it might be evil to imprison, starve, and exterminate millions of people simply because they belonged to a particular religious group. “Eichmann didn’t think at all,” says Camille. “He just followed orders and did his job.”

But massive evil demands massive complicity. Yes, fanatics such as Hitler conceived and promoted the horrors of the Holocaust. But Hitler’s “success” was due to millions of functionaries complicit with his crimes, functionaries who went to work day after day in offices, guard towers, and concentration camps. We also wonder: who were the individuals who designed the camps and crematoriums, the company that manufactured the poisonous gas, the railroad personnel who ran the trains? They all did their jobs well. But (if they were like Eichmann) they did their jobs without reflection. And there’s the crux: without reflection.

Says Camille: “Unreflective adherence to a group identity that requires us to jettison the workings of our conscience… is the very definition of sin.” Evil burrows into our hearts when we are “undisturbed by doubt,” when we dismiss new questions and new information, or when we presume that a particular terrible injustice is none of our business.

Jesus knew what it was like to be tempted by evil (Mt. 4:1-11). After fasting for 40 days in the desert, Jesus encountered the devil who offered him essentially three things: food, social power, and personal security. The devil never offers us something that looks evil. He never told Eichmann, “Murder 6 million Jews.” The devil’s message is “smoother and more familiar.” The devil tells us to “eat your supper, go to church, do your job, earn your promotion, and you will be fine, safe, and comfortable.”

We know how Jesus responded to the devil’s proposals. Jesus chose the bread from heaven over earthly bread; he chose yielding to divine authority over human authority; and he found his security only in God’s love and protection. In making these choices, Jesus chose “to dance with the Spirit of God rather than the spirit of self-Interest.” Camille concludes: “Dancing with the devil is more common than we think. Dancing with the Spirit requires deliberate, conscious, and ongoing determination.”

For reflection:

Is there anything in today’s blog that stands out for you? If so, what? Why?

Do you ever prefer to dance with the spirit of self-interest rather than the Spirit of God? 

Do you have a “blind allegiance” to any group you belong to—whether it is family, friends, religious congregation, church, political party, state, country? Or do you regularly reflect on the group and appraise the values the group is espousing?

Do you reflect on the consequences of your daily choices—the food you buy, the food you eat, the entertainment you choose, the people you associate with, the way you use your time—and the impact these choices have on such things as those who are marginalized, the environment, the common good, or the large social issues of our day?

Reflecting on sin and evil is not easy. But the fact that you have persevered to this final paragraph is a hopeful sign. It shows that you are open to reflection, to possibly new questions and information, and to personal appraisal and discernment. And that is good! Very good!

 This video is drone footage of Auschwitz today. There is background music, a few captions, but no narrative. I used this video on my blog several years ago. But it is so powerful, I’m using it again. As we “tour” Auschwitz, let us remember: 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz in the 4 1/2 years of its existence. And let us say, “Never again… Never again.” And pray for all who suffer the consequences of evil in our time.

 

I invite your comments below. Thank you.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Therese March 11, 2019 at 4:41 am

Unable to sleep, I found my way here at 4:30 a.m. Thank you for this sobering but much needed reflection and indeed, a powerful film. You have given me much to think about this week.

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John E Hopkins March 11, 2019 at 6:11 am

It starts with an idea,
an idea that leads to a cause
that leads to an effect
that leads to a reasonable
solution to this effect…
and so we go our merry way
and build structures, monuments
with perfect geometric precision,
rectangle after rectangle after rectangle,
structures we can be proud of
because “aren’t they so precise!
And aren’t the uniforms worn by the workers
so sharp and tailored!
And maybe we can work there, too!
Maybe we can take orders, too!”
Meanwhile, amid all this perfection
and perfect reason
we do not hear the howling lamentations
of the “other,” of the outcast,
of the not so straight.
We despise the ugly manger,
run from the leper, the lame;
we loathe the dust of dirty feet,
and crucify the stranger.

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Melannie Svoboda SND March 11, 2019 at 8:52 am

John, I was really touched by your poem. Phrases like these moved me: “geometric precision”… “sharp and tailored uniforms”… how we run from “the ugly manger”… and “crucify the stranger.” When the Allied forces began moving in, the Nazis frantically tried to tear down some of these camps to hide their atrocities… So deep down they must have realized the horror of what they were doing… Thank you, John, for your “beautiful” poem on such a terrible topic… Melannie

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John E Hopkins March 11, 2019 at 11:10 am

Thank you, Melannie. As I told Tom, it was the powerful video you provided that served as the catalyst for the poem. You make every Monday morning a time for spiritual enrichment.

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Terr March 12, 2019 at 8:44 am

Wow. Lovely and terrifying, the truth of sequence. Thank you!

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Ed Johnson March 11, 2019 at 6:19 am

A difficult, but appropriate topic, for the Lenten season. Evil, I think, may somehow be easier to contemplate when it is “out there”…..The Holocaust, Rwanda, The Killing Fields of Cambodia, Human Trafficking……More difficult may be confronting evil within ourselves. Evil need not be on a grand scale, such as above. Evil is very insidious, very tempting, very seductive, very personal. To one of your questions: Yes, I must confess to dancing with the devil rather than the spirit of God when I ignore my devotions to God, or my duties to others in favor of other pleasures (tv, entertainment, laziness, etc.) Fending off of evil desires requires constant self-discipline. Thus, we have the means through prayer, reflection, action, to combat The Devil and his evil temptations. I/we have that choice. Thank you, Sister. Sobering thoughts, and images, for Lent.
Ed J.

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Melannie Svoboda SND March 11, 2019 at 8:55 am

Ed, Thank you for bringing this reflection back to the “personal side” of evil. It’s easy to excuse our own smaller “dances with the devil” when we place them against the immensity of the Holocaust. Thank you for reminding us of the need for vigilance as we make our personal choices on a daily basis. Melannie

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Jean March 11, 2019 at 7:31 am

Good Morning Sister Melannie,
What an excellent reminder for our Lenten experience.
Thank you.

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Kathleen Magiera March 11, 2019 at 7:55 am

Wow! That is powerful Sr. Melanie.

I just listen to a Richard Rohr podcast about sin in the collective. It echoes your post today. Then the above response on crucifying the stranger hit home.

Lent is a good time to reflect on our collective sin as part of our personal sin. I hope to dance with the Spirit more.

Kathleen

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Mary M Nausadis March 11, 2019 at 8:09 am

There is one thing that I am grateful for and that is that the government in Germany did not try to eradicate the horrors of those 4 1/2 years by building over that whole area and turn it into something prosperous.

Yes, there is so much evil in the world and it is so easy to name it that when we look out there. Within myself, I’ve never called it evil……it just doesn’t seem to fit into that category, does it? Or does it? Whatever we name it, I go back to Matthew 25 and reflect on what side I stand on……whatever I do or don’t do for the least of them, I do/don’t do for Jesus/Christ.

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Melannie Svoboda SND March 11, 2019 at 8:59 am

Mary, As I mentioned above, the Nazis did try to destroy the evidence of the Holocaust. But the concentration camps were too huge and too many for them to eradicate them… I agree with you that it’s easy to name evil that’s “out there.” But a reflection on Matthew 25 brings us closer to home… Thank you for responding! Melannie

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Roseann March 11, 2019 at 8:29 am

This is a difficult yet wonderful reflection to use as an examination of conscience and ultimately to make a good and holy confession during this Lenten season. Thank you, Sr. Melannie

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Susan March 11, 2019 at 9:06 am

Is it blind allegiance that has caused the evil in our own church through the sexual abuse scandal?
Have we reflected enough on what has happened to prevent such evil from ever taking place again in our Church. Are there enough safe guards and measures in place? “Let us say never .. never again.”

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Melannie Svoboda SND March 11, 2019 at 9:14 am

Thank you, Susan, for raising a question that must be asked. Yes, blind allegiance even to the Church can result in grave evil as we shockingly realize today. Yes… never again… never… Melannie

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Kate March 11, 2019 at 9:06 am

The film was a sobering reminder of the evil that is possible among human beings. Thank you, Melanie, for reminding us of the dark spaces in all of our hearts.

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Patricia Tanski March 11, 2019 at 9:29 am

Why are we still putting people in cages.

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Thomas DeFreitas March 11, 2019 at 10:12 am

Sr Melannie, a sobering post. John Hopkins, superlative reflection.

Blind allegiances. I could a tale unfold.

Today I think I’ll just reflect, and listen to everyone else’s voice.

Thank you all for your thoughts and insights.

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John E Hopkins March 11, 2019 at 11:07 am

Thank you, Tom. It was the video Melannie provided that served as the creative spark for the poem. God bless, my fellow Bay Stater!

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Evelyn B. Allen March 11, 2019 at 12:38 pm

In the footage of people being led from the trains to the concentration camps, the soldiers separated the families – women and children from the men. Isn’t this government doing the same – separating children from their families, incarcerating them into camps. This government also acknowledges that it does not know where thousands of children are or how to find them. The theologian and pastor, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Rev. Bonhoeffer died in 1945 in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp. He did not hesitate to speak. Where are our voices today?

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Mary Fran March 11, 2019 at 2:05 pm

Melannie,
Thank for this deep and challenging message and the call to reflection.
Love John’s poem and how you parsed it.
Mary Fran

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Marty March 11, 2019 at 2:05 pm

In movie First Knight king Arthur tells Lancelot A person who fears nothing loves nothing. A truth that fuels addictive behavior. When I forget that God first loved me unvonditionaly and lose sight of snakey tricks of the devil who tries to convince that God does not love asI am then I stop fearing becauses I believe there is nothing to lose, blinded by the allure of the three temptations that Jesus the Christ was not. So I begin each day surrendering to my Higher Power, then each night in gratitude for His love in recovery and sobriety. A wonderful reminder. Thanks. Read the book “StripePajamas”( it might be titled The Boy in Stripe Pajamas.

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Rodolfo C Salinas March 11, 2019 at 10:36 pm

Sister Melanie:
I need a few days to process your article and the comments which
followed. The video clip of Auschwitz and the music accompanying
music is something I need to go over again. How could the church
have been so silent while all this was going on? There is a book out there
entitled MUSSOLINI AND THE POPE. The church did collude with
Mussolini and Hitler in what happened to the Jews. And then in our
time the sexual abuse scandals! As Peter said to Jesus,”To whom canwe
go Lord, you alone have the words of eternal life. Those words will carry
us forward. Amen. Thank you Sister Melanie for all that you do. RC

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Terri March 12, 2019 at 8:38 am

Thank you; a new angle from which to appreciate the blessing of my current work. The video was powerful and haunting, one I will share. Perhaps with my reps in DC with a prayer for discernment before blaming and building walls. When the video you shared ended, there was another video called “Happy Nazis” – around the discovery of an Auschwitz photo album showing happy officers and staff – “normal looking” people. When am I complicit by my silence when a thoughtful statement or question, just one, might ripple the pond in a more loving and inclusive direction?

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Melannie Svoboda SND March 12, 2019 at 2:42 pm

Terri, You mentioned the video and the photo album of “Happy Nazis.” I posted a couple of those pictures on my blog when I wrote about this topic before. In the search on the right side of my blog, just type in “Remembering the Nazi Concentration Camps” and this post will come up. Or google “Happy Nazis” on youtube and the short video will appear. Thanks for writing. Melannie

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Nancy March 12, 2019 at 10:54 am

This makes me think of my father-in-law and the day he said to me that he is tired of listening to the fight for either pro-life or pro-choice…..he said it doesn’t effect me so I don’t care. He has no idea what he says or what it means to say this.

I find it all very sad.

I’m thankful God is in control of the world and not my father-in-law!

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Sherri March 12, 2019 at 1:53 pm

I have heard abortion referenced as the Holocaust of our day. Similar to what Sr. Melannie references in her post about Adolf Eichmann, many of the workers in abortion clinics see themselves as just “doing their jobs”.

“He wanted to make a decent living, please his bosses, and further his career. (Sound familiar?) But here’s the terrifying part: Eichmann never considered the horrific consequences that his “good job” had on flesh and blood human beings. He never weighed the morality of his actions.”
Believing that most people are inherently good, I find it difficult to assume that they reflect on the horrific consequences that their jobs have on human beings.

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Jean Canatsey March 12, 2019 at 11:12 am

What a powerful reflection and video! We look at the Concentration Camps of WWII and say “Never again” and yet we look the other way when we sentence people to death and confine them to the inhumane conditions of Death Row for decades and then randomly draw names for execution. Do most of us ever reflect on this or think about the fact that the death certificates (at least in Florida) certify that the cause of death is “murder” and are signed by the people of the state? Unfortunately, things haven’t changed all that much. We just close our eyes and blindly follow our government. John Hopkins poem rings so true!

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Tom March 12, 2019 at 9:55 pm

Melannie, thanks for this very challenging reflection.

I am especially haunted by the fact that the horrors of the Holocaust took place during the first years of my life, but this leads me to the awareness that so many other atrocities have continued around the world throughout my life, to the present time. While sensing an inability to do anything significant to alleviate these evils, I do feel challenged to avoid getting caught up in my own little world of desires and complaints as an escape from a compassionate awareness of what my brothers and sisters endure on a daily basis.

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Melannie Svoboda SND March 13, 2019 at 9:26 am

Tom, Yes, we can get caught up in our own little world… How vital is that “compassionate awareness” that Jesus calls us to… We must remember that thousands protested Hitler. In fact an estimated 3,000 clergy were executed by the Nazis–over 1,800 were Polish priests…Hitler wanted to eradicate all Christian churches. Thanks for responding, Tom! Melannie

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Karen F Walder March 13, 2019 at 8:12 am

Very powerful and thought provoking blog and commentary. I agree how easy it is to condemn evil embodied in the person of a Hitler or mass shooter, but confronting our own lack of reflection and the “turning of a blind eye” is truly horrible! The church’s sexual abuse scandal needs to be confronted by each and every Catholic. We must demand “never again”.

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Rose March 14, 2019 at 1:41 pm

When I read the phrase “blind allegiance,” I am reminded of another phrase: “loyal opposition.” Can’t remember the source. God gave us humans the gift of intellect, the ability to think critically about reality, our world, etc. I do believe we are meant to use it. May God have mercy on us for not using it, for not speaking out or acting against injustice and evil. We are called to speak/act on behalf of those who are voiceless/powerless. As so many commenters have pointed out, we need to examine our own personal as well as collective sin. Lent is a good time to do just that!

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Catherine McPhillips March 15, 2019 at 6:48 am

Dear Sister Melannie,
Thank you once again for producing a very reflective article to ponder this week. This article strikes at the heart of my agony because I use to be very active in the Catholic Church: Eucharistic Minister, Lector, Catholic School teacher, and involved in Hospital Ministry but now I don’t attend Church at all because I feel as if I do I am being complacent and not standing in solidarity with my abused brothers and sisters at the hands of the clergy. I was hoping that Pope Francis and the Bishops were finally going to acknowledge the atrocities that were committed and give the abused victims some solace by becoming transparent and initiating concrete steps to make sure the abused won’t be ignored again in the future but to no avail.

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