Last week saw the cinematic release of a new biopic about the German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s reporting in the New Yorker on the 1961 trial of ex-Nazi Adolf Eichmann was controversial both for her sympathetic portrayal of Eichmann and critical account of the Jewish councils; Arendt’s reporting also introduced her now-famous concept of the “Banality of Evil.” Arendt proposed after observing Eichmann that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by extreme fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated in horrific brutality with the view that their actions were normal. Evil could become as everyday as reading the newspaper or eating toast; evil could be banal, average, prosaic, conditioned by habituation.
Despite Arendt’s perceptive thesis, we are perhaps still rather used to seeing evil acts as extreme, extraordinary, and unusual, the actions of radicalised individuals or groups rather than banal and pervasive. The press coverage of the Woolwich murder has certainly emphasised the extremism and difference of the two Islamist men to the majority of the English population. Today’s Gospel reading reminds us, however, of the banality of evil in an even more pervasive sense than Arendt imagines. Evil is not the preserve of a few radicalised individuals but subtly impacts every one of us. Today’s Gospel story of the raising of the widow’s son glosses just how quotidian and insidious the banality of evil actually is, so banal it may not seem obvious at first sight. Evil is death, it kills who we are; so it is that death is the great evil in the Gospel story, both in today’s narrative and as a whole. But there are two kinds of death in today’s Gospel, and it is the banality of these two kinds of death that I want to unpack.
On the one hand, there is the obvious (and banal) physical death of the son. While the mother and many others gather to process his body to his funeral, death remains a daily reality, as it is now. As sad as it is, the death of the son is actually unremarkable and I suspect most of us reading the story – or even seeing today a generic funeral procession – would not share the strong sense of compassion we hear that Jesus feels. We are hardened to death as a general phenomenon, as much as particular personal deaths move us. Jesus’ compassion shows us how banal the evil of death has become. His reversal of the son’s death reminds us that death itself represents the punishment of the Fall and the last enemy; as inevitable and everyday as it may seem, death is far from ordinary or natural. Death is non-being, emptiness, nothingess, the frustration of God’s love which would see all of creation flourish. Christ has compassion in this story, sheds tears at the grave of Lazarus, and sweats blood at Gethsamene because death is the empty negation of the divine goodness that God shares in creation. Christ wakes the crowd and us up out of the banality of death and shows it as an evil that God will not countenance. Neither should we.
But the banality of the evil of death is not limited to the revived son. Injustice flows out of the physical death like a thousand little deaths: the widowed mother has lost her place and financial support in a patriarchal culture, as well as her only son. She is vulnerable, isolated, excluded, and alone in a crowd, ritually disallowed by purity laws from even touching her dead child. The widowed mother reminds us of the injustices daily glossed over, invisible, hidden, and banal. It is to her that Jesus has compassion, to her that he says ‘do not weep’; it is for her that he cuts through purity laws and touches the bier; and it is to her that he returns her son. Jesus reverses the thousand little deaths she has endured; Jesus resurrects her too.
Today’s reading stands at the end of a run of four chapters in the Gospel of Luke which move from Jesus’ prophetic teaching, to his prophetic call to imitate him, and finally to a series of prophetic actions which reveal the character of God, of which today’s miracle is one. As the locus of imitation, Jesus offers an active resistance to evil, whether in the form of illness, death, or social and spiritual injustice. Faced with the banality of evil, Jesus embodies what we might call the banality of goodness: the call and actualisation of habituated right action which leads to life. The call to imitate God’s love found in Christ makes death ambivalent rather than banal: death becomes a sign not of defeat and emptiness but of transformation. Christ’s own death and resurrection show both God’s presence in the banality of evil and the fullness of life given in its place. We dies to our old selves – habituated to the banality of evil – through our baptism into Christ and are born to new life. As this new life in Christ unfolds and unfurls over time, it builds in intensity such that we become habituated into the banality of goodness, of right living and life-giving. We are rescued from death, both physical and the thousand little deaths of injustice; we are called to the ordinary, everyday, and automatic acts of love, compassion, and rescue which flow from our own rescue. Christ calls us to the banality of goodness found in imitation of him. Amen.