The Banality of Goodness

A few weeks ago I listened to the radio program God, Good and Evil for the program Encounter. (H/T to Ben Myers who is featured in the show.)

During the program philosopher Susan Neiman discusses Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil. As many know, the phrase "banality of evil" was Arendt's attempt to discern the origins of the Holocaust from the personality of Adolf Eichmann, insights Arendt's summarized in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

The argument that Arendt makes in that book is that evil isn't dark and deep but is, rather, thin and superficial. Evil is ordinary people thoughtlessly making a million small choices. No doubt this account cannot explain all that needs to be explained about evil, but it does explain much, even much about the Holocaust. The Holocaust couldn't have happened if the German populace hadn't over time gradually consented through seemingly insignificant daily choices. Laughing nervously, but without objection, to the anti-Semitic joke. Not shopping at the Jewish store. Accepting the promotion when the more qualified Jewish person was passed over. Casting a vote on election day. And so on.

In talking about this, how evil is produced by a million small choices, in the radioshow Neiman floats the idea that if evil is banal in just this way then might not goodness be banal as well? Running with her suggestion, I wonder if we might speak of the banality of goodness

A few weeks ago I wrote a post for the Tokens Show reflecting on the work of Jean Vanier. In that post I shared a quote from Vanier who suggests that we give up visions of heroism to embrace the insignificance of our actions, the recognition that we are not going to accomplish great things as Christians. 

Goodness is, perhaps, more banal than heroic. Goodness is achieved through a million small acts of kindness, goodness, and generosity. Goodness is achieved through a million small acts of subversion, resistance, and protest. Millions of small Yes's and millions of small No's.

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20 thoughts on “The Banality of Goodness ”

  1. Richard I really find this fascinating. Following your line of thought would it be it be right then to say we are as evil or as good as our choices and not because of an "old"(inherited through Adam) or "new" ( recieved by ascribing to a right set of beliefs) nature? I'm drawing on your Denial of Death series here, where If I remember correctly some interesting Eastern Orthodox ideas were put forward. I think it was suggested "original sin" and therefor some type of generational blot or stain upon all of us as a result, was not the cause of us regularly missing the mark; but rather it was the fear that arose from our realization that we are subject to death, that motivated our choices that hurt us and those around us. Richard do you think maybe the "new creation" is simply the awakening within ourselves that because of Jesus resurrection(and therefor victory over death) we now no longer need to fear death and are truly free to make the millions of little kingdom choices that in millions of little ways bring heaven to earth? Decisions that seem so virtually impossible to an "old creation" still bound by a fear of mortality.

  2. I think this is a particularly useful approach for the jacked-up political season we're now in. As narrative-chasers, it would be useful if we stopped trying to paint a potential president as a heroic savior and ourselves as salvific facilitators, and instead realize that it is OUR process - our tiny choices - that have made this country all the things that are wrong about it. To heal this requires not upheaval and political revolution, but the slow, patient work you describe.

  3. I know that you speak the truth in this (banality of goodness and evil).  Some days my convictions along these lines are very strong, and other days, not so much.  I think there is often a conflict of interest(s) in "choosing" -- what is good for one, will not be perceived as good for another.  For example, in the past I was "caught" between my conviction to care for my sick, vulnerable mother and my husband's objection to it.  That was a pretty awful spot to be in.  I'll bet you can imagine!  I tried to honor both persons whom I loved -- and also care for my small children throughout that time.  It was a tense time, though, and often I felt that no one was really happy; in spite of the many good, small, ordinary "yes" actions, the tension created other situations in which I had to say "NO."  Anyway, that 7-year period is over now.  I chose according to my heart, did the best I could (banal "goodness"), and have no regrets.  However, I find myself in a similar relational dynamic with other family members now and going forward.  The anguishing part is seeing their need and being very limited in how much I can do to meet any given need.  On their part, I think my life looks golden.  One of the children told my son that our home is a mansion.  So not, from a relatively middle-class perspective.  But hearing that innocent remark broke my heart in a few more pieces.  All that to say, when it is your own family who suffers, the weight of responsibility and guilt over not being "good" enough for them is a terrible thing.

    After my mother died, I continued visiting a local nursing home because I felt that I had seen a deep need, and had learned how to be a sacramental presence in that particular place.  The dynamic is very different for me there.  In many ways, it is so much easier not to be related to the people I love there.  Once in a while, I witness a tension between visiting family members and my friends who live in the nursing home.  I am able to speak a blessing into that, from my own experience, and hope that it serves to build up and make peace between them.  As much as I can understand the Buddhist concept of loving without neurotic attachment, I think I have experienced that most with my nursing home friends.  It is tricky, though, when it's your own family.

    Also -- and I am sorry that this is getting long -- I am entangled in American "empire" enough to affect my yes's and no's.  Mortgage...hello!  College education for two kids...hello!  I *hate* that this is true, that I need to worry about the future, or risk being a burden to my children and someone else.  I love the Jesuits and those such as Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier who have abandoned the pursuit and accumulation of material wealth, and even spouse or children.  Much simpler process of yes/no discernment.  As far as politics, it has been true for me that seeing the suffering (and the complexity of the "stories" of those affected) makes it impossible to cheer for free market capitalism as inherently good or government uninvolved in the care of the most vulnerable is the ideal.  False!  ~Peace~

  4. Exactly! Although it's useful to remember that our tiny choices multiplied by millions also have made many things right.

  5. I think that's right. Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day, used to say that our goal is to create a world where it is easier to be good. I think heaven will be a place where it is easier to be good. And insofar as that is true, it sets out a political agenda for this world in making "the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven."

  6. I go back and forth on this idea. I recognize the problem of a heroic view of good - it becomes an impediment to goodness because it is intimidating. It seems like heroes are few and far between. Furthermore, there is a fairly vicious cycle we get into when we fail to live up to our heroic ideals, berating ourselves and thus making it even less likely we'll achieve heroism by virtue of our self-abuse. In this sense a more modest view of what it means to do good is an aid. It potentially liberates us to actually act, even if in small ways initially.

    The problem I have is that as effective as we are at beating ourselves up, we might be even better at building up false self-esteem. How many people live lives that are massively wasteful and self-centered, but pride themselves on being good people because they give 1-3% of their income to charity? How many German Christians considered themselves good people and would have pointed to countless small (banal?) acts of goodness as proof, while overlooking the 50 billion ton gorilla of anti-semitism in their life?

    Someone has to step up and be the Dorothy Day, the Martin Luther King Jr., the Mother Teresa, etc... It's true that everyone's life closely examined will be a mix of good and bad, but didn't Jesus say we would do even greater things than him? Isn't healing the sick, raising the dead, releasing the captives, finding the lost, comforting the lonely, and so on... our job? Isn't being a Christian (a little Christ) a kind of call to the heroism of the cross?

    Here's my fear - by accepting the banality of my goodness am I making excuses for my failure to live heroically?

  7. Part of what I'm sensitive to here is that I'm a preacher. Every Sunday almost I remind myself and my congregation that Jesus asked us to love our enemies, to follow him, to pick up our cross etc... and every Sunday people walk out telling me and themselves that they're "doing their best". Some enemies are just so unlovable, and God forgives us anyway, drone warfare not withstanding. "I brought in my cereal box tops to benefit education. I'm a good disciple." Meanwhile a billion people go without clean water. Isn't it kind of obscene?

  8. That's a really important point to bring up.

    I think the issue goes to what we mean by a small act of goodness and/or resistance. Because if all this is doing is simply providing us with a rationalization to be the same person we are today than we were yesterday then it's all pretty much bullshit.

    I'm thinking here of Saint Therese's Little Way (something that Day worked hard at). For example, how many of us will, today, seek out and invite to lunch that annoying co-worker? How many of us will try to insert a conciliatory word in a toxic political conversation? How many of us will pray for our enemies today? Let alone spending some time during the week visiting, say, the sick or prisoner. None of these are particularly big or heroic gestures. But they do demand courage and kenosis. And there is a sort of heroism involved.

  9. In answer to your question, "Isn't it kind of obscene?"  Yes, I think so.  Thanks for speaking to this.  I don't feel as "crazy" for having these same thoughts.

  10. True. And I don't want to say that big, heroic gestures aren't demanded and that they have no place. But even the big heroic gestures, if its going to make any lasting difference, is going to have to be sustained by small actions done by millions of people. 

  11. More, most activism is "little" as well. A few people gather at a place to protest and cry out. Will that make a difference? Doesn't really matter. It's a drop in the bucket and we should add every drop we can, even if the act is small, insignificant and unheroic.

  12. On bullshit rationalizations -- I don't disagree.  Where I think the issue of practicing our faith and personal transformation gets more complicated is in sorting out what of ourselves (past) needs to go/die, and what is good and true and beautiful.  I read something not long ago about "positive disintegration" -- the theory that tension and anxiety are necessary for growth...but potentially very problematic for certain individuals.  I wonder about this in the context of "slavery to the fear of death" and our understanding of "following" Christ's example (which is not our natural inclination).

    As far as praying for "enemies" -- this, too, can be a shallow exercise unless we are willing to remain close enough to our enemies to understand and feel compassion for them.  How else to pray specifically and with conviction?  Understanding that blessing my "enemy" will be mutually beneficial.  Courage, yes.  It will be painful to witness, and recognize my own smallness and need for the same "grace."

  13. Not too many months ago, I finished NT Wright's book on virtue & character - After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.  This post reminds me of his position on character formation.

  14. Is not our falsehood on these matters confronted by Jesus when he says, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light"?  Are we not free to do both big and small, grandiose and insignificant?  To live without enemies?  If we apprehend (or I should say, apprehended by) Jesus Christ, then we discover we were wrong about who we thought we were yesterday.

    The witness of Vanier's life puts the "hero" lie to rest.  He always says that L'Arche was never a grand vision, but rather a continual series of choices made over several years in light of the good news.  It's in this "non-greatness" that the testimony to Jesus Christ has been magnified.

  15. Amen to all of your points - both that even big heroism is sustained by millions of little actions and that in an individual life that looks heroic from the outside, from the inside it is composed of millions of little actions. Agreed.

    Perhaps I would say that at the micro-level, from day to day it is appropriate for me to look at things from the perspective of the banal. Just do what is in front of you to do. Do it with compassion. That is enough.

    However, I would think anyone who didn't step back from time to time and examine their life from a more holistic angle is in danger of missing the forest for the trees. How do you see your implication in capital E, evil, unless you not only look at the things you have done, but also the many things left undone? Unless I compare myself against someone living a good life, how can I see whether my small kindnesses are cumulatively building a legacy of mercy or whether they are just quieting my conscience and offsetting my greater complacency?

  16. That's a great point. It's actually the same point Arendt leveled at Eichmann, that he didn't step back and take in the big picture. Another thought. My focus on the Little Way isn't trying to get us to settle for less. It's actually an attempt to get us to do more. I think one of the reasons we don't do more by way of moral action in the world is that we think the little things--from everyday acts of kindness to conserving water when you are brushing your teeth--don't make a difference. But fidelity to the little things can be a route toward holiness, macro-level social transformation, and even to a revolutionary lifestyle change. St. Francis started small, just cleaning up an old church building... 

  17. Spot on. One of the hardest things for me to accept was that good and evil are in fact banal. I'm not a big hero, and I'm not going to defeat the cackling overlord on mount doom.

  18. Following on this, I think it's worth thinking about the banality of the church's faithfulness in witness. Though Hauerwas often gets pegged as imagining an ideal church, whenever he gives concrete examples, they sound like the most boring, everyday cases you could imagine. The church being faithful to the gospel seems to be something like navigating the everyday in truthfulness, peaceableness, and openness to others. (And then, when the heroic situations come along, once or twice a lifetime, the training of the everyday produces fruit in accordance with righteousness.)

  19. That's really insightful. Because you're right, when you ask for examples you get things like Eucharist, prayer and worship. Banal things the church does as examples of faithful witness.

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