The other day, we watched the movie Nuremberg
, about the war crimes trials in Nuremberg, Germany, following World War II. This movie came out in 2000, and is quite well done. I don’t think it is intended to be a “remake” of Judgment at Nuremberg
, the classic starring Spencer Tracy, but the history is the same, of course, and so the story is similar.
Watching a movie about Nazi atrocities inevitably brings up the subject of evil. What is it? What is its source? It occurs to me that these might be suitable questions for TZF’s Open Forum.
Right off in a discussion of this kind, we need to remind ourselves that although Hitler and Nazi Germany are often “the usual suspects”, the first culprits that spring to mind in a consideration of evil, there have been plenty of other candidates (persons and events) throughout history -- Stalin, the Inquisition, Cambodia’s killing fields, the Crusades, US treatment of Native Americans and Native Hawaiians, slavery in the US, to name just a few, not to mention the damage inflicted upon the animal kingdom and the planet itself. Let’s face it, we are a species with an uneven record.
Anyway, in the movie, one of the characters, a US Army psychologist on the prosecution team, raises the question of evil, and, after interviewing former Nazi officials on trial, concludes that “evil is the absence of empathy”. What the defendants have in common, he says, is “a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man”.
That’s an interesting definition, because it seems to suggest that evil is a human characteristic, not “satanic” (by which I mean, un-Godly). As I guess I have made clear enough here, I don’t see how, if God is infinite, there can be anything that is literally un-Godly (beyond God); this definition meets that standard. Certainly, however it is defined, evil has to be at the far extreme of negative behavior. That is, it’s not just “bad” conduct, it’s bad conduct off the chart.
A question often asked about evil is, how can a loving God permit evil (however defined) to exist. Victor Frankl
, the eminent psychologist and founder of logotheraphy
, writes that in one of the concentration camps in which he was imprisoned, a group of inmates convened a court in one of the huts, and there brought God before the bar as a defendant. As I recall the story, the trial went on for some days. Of course, the “jurors” had to meet secretly, at night I think he said, when they were not being otherwise mistreated and abused, not to mention murdered. Some members of the group served as prosecutors, arguing the case against God for allowing the whole range of Nazi atrocities; others acted as His defense team. In the end, God was found guilty. One can hardly blame them. But then, a few days later, the group met again, and – here, I regret that I do not precisely remember this part of the story, but as I recall it, they met again to say, in effect, that, after all, the issue before the “court” was beyond their ability to resolve.
Frankl’s writing brings to mind a passage in Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the Old Testament. Isaiah believed that God controls history completely. It is God, Isaiah insists, not we, who decides everything that occurs. Thus, according to Isaiah, one of the most memorable events in early Jewish history, an event which I suppose Jews might describe as about as “evil” as Hitler’s holocaust, the Assyrian invasion of Israel in 722 BCE, which resulted in the complete dispersal, dissolution, and disappearance of ten of the twelve tribes, was God’s doing. Assyria, Isaiah says, was “the rod of (God’s) anger”. Or, in the words of a classic study
of Jewish scripture, “Though the Assyrians did not know it, their march (on Israel) was not a result of free choice”.
There’s lots more that should properly be brought into this discussion, including the Hindu concept of karma, the Buddha’s teaching about suffering as an integral aspect of life, the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic concept of Satan, and so on. But if there is an interest here in this subject, then this is a start.
For myself, I confess that I have no definitive answer on the subject of evil. My own sense is that, like everything else in life (Life), the nature of evil is a product of who and what we think we are. As long as we identify ourselves as the body we seem to be inhabiting, it is probably more or less inevitable that we are going to perceive the source of all our discomforts as outside ourselves, just as we do the source of our blessings. That is, in a dual universe, there are bound to be dual forces: good and evil, God and Satan. So, in my view, it may not be so much a question of whether or not Satan exists, as it is that in a dual universe, Satan probably must exist. Were it otherwise, whom would we mean when we protest, "The Devil made me do it".
One final note: In the movie Nuremberg, one of the characters claims that Hitler was a vegetarian, and that his reason was that he could not abide cruelty to animals! If true, what an image: A man who ordered the brutal murder of ten million or more people (not to mention the war itself), but couldn’t abide killing a chicken for dinner.