That’s what people do-and that should truly frighten us

I require every new FBI special agent and intelligence analyst to go to the Holocaust Museum. Naturally, I want them to learn about abuse of authority on a breathtaking scale. But I want them to confront something more painful and more dangerous: I want them to see humanity and what we are capable of.

I want them to see that, although this slaughter was led by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by, and followed by, people who loved their families, took soup to a sick neighbor, went to church and gave to charity. Good people helped murder millions. And that’s the most frightening lesson of all — that our very humanity made us capable of, even susceptible to, surrendering our individual moral authority to the group, where it can be hijacked by evil.

In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland*, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.

Former FBI Director James Comey speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2015 National Tribute Dinner, April 23, 2015

Watch the video of the speech here

*The Truth about Poland and the Holocaust

the Beauty of Evil

Simone Weil said, “Nothing is so beautiful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy as the good; no desert is so dreary, monotonous, and boring as evil. But with fantasy it's the other way around. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive, and full of charm.”

The media strikingly bear out Simone Weil’s contention. In their offerings it’s almost invariably Eros rather than Agape that provides all the excitement. Success and celebrity rather than a broken and contrite heart that are made to seem desirable.

Good and evil, after all, constitute the essential theme of our mortal existence. In this sense, they may be compared to the positive and negative points which generates an electric current; transpose the points, and the current fails, the lights go out, darkness falls and all is confusion.

So it is with us. The transposition of good and evil in the world of fantasy created by the media leaves us with no sense of any moral order in the universe, and without this, no order whatsoever, social, political, economic or any other, is ultimately attainable.

Malcolm Muggeridge

(in a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in 1978)

The Line

It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

"bless you, prison"

It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: ‘Bless you, prison!’ I…have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: ‘Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Choosing Prison

Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice of life. The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions, the more our heart hardens; the more often we make the right decision, the more our heart softens – or better perhaps, comes alive.

Each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative, until eventually it becomes more difficult for me to choose the undesirable rather than the desirable action. On the other hand, each act of surrender and cowardice weakens me, opens the path for more acts of surrender, and eventually freedom is lost.

Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man

reasonable evil

A couple of old-time Baptist deacons approached me after they saw an Easter drama I had written about Judas Iscariot. I expected a complaint because the focus was what might have caused the disciple to turn against Jesus.

One of them said, "What Judas did really made sense. It was the reasonable thing to do."

The bad guy didn’t wear a black hat or yell at old ladies or steal treats from little children. It’s possible Judas did what to him seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. Perhaps he thought giving Jesus a little shove would force the reluctant king to take his rightful place. It could have seemed like the right thing to do - but the move was completely wrong.

Evil doesn’t always show up in outrageous clothing. Direct temptation is not nearly as difficult to handle as evil that approaches as reasonable and thoughtful.

Stephen Goforth

you can't opt out of life

Imagine that three people see a twenty-dollar bill on the front seat of an unlocked car. Each person walks past and leave the cash there. Why? The first person wanted to take the money but passed up the opportunity for fear of punishment if caught in the act. The second rejected the temptation out of a conviction that God makes certain rules that people are to follow, and one of those rules is that we shouldn’t take things that don’t belong to us. The third refrained from taking the money because of empathy—awareness of how frustrated and angry she herself would be if some of her money were stolen.

The action is the same for each individual—no one took the money. But people do things for reasons and the reasons behind the same action in the case above vary significantly. The bumper-sticker-sized version of the first person’s ethics is “Whatever you do, don’t get caught,” while that of the second person is “Thou shall not steal.” The final persona builds her morality around “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These different reasons grow out of differences in theories about what constitutes right behavior.

Though none of the three people may have been immediately conscious of these theories at work, the theories were there, and they guided each person’s behavior.

Also consider the motives or the reasons behind the action.

Why they did what they did—the theoretical basis of their actions—is significant.

The reality is we must make decisions about the ethical issues confronting us, and we must have a theoretical foundations on which to build and evaluate these decisions.

In other words, the issue is not whether we have a theory, but whether we are conscious of the theory we do have and believe it is the best available guide for our life. We do not choose to be ethicists; we cannot opt out of that. The real question is whether we are going to be good ethicists.

Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics

the brave doctor

Shortly after Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia, a doctor in William E. Wallner's parish was sent to a Nazi concentration camp. The doctor, a Jewish convert to Christianity, encouraged his fellow prisoners "to die bravely, with faith in their hearts." As a result, he became a target of Gestapo officers.

Although struck with an iron rod until one of his arms had to be amputated, the doctor would not be quieted. Finally, as DeMille's autobiography recounts, "one Gestapo officer beat the doctor's head against a stone wall until blood was streaming down his face." Holding a mirror before the doctor, the Gestapo officer sneered: "Take a look at yourself. Now you look like your Jewish Christ."

Lifting his remaining hand up, the doctor exclaimed, "Lord, never in my life have I received such honor—to resemble You." Those would be his last words on Earth.

Distraught by the doctor's proclamation, the Gestapo officer sought out Wallner that night. "Could Pastor Wallner help him, free him from the terrible burden of his guilt?"

After praying with him, Wallner advised, "Perhaps God let you kill that good man to bring you to the foot of the Cross, where you can help others." The Gestapo officer returned to the concentration camp. And through the aid of Wallner and the Czech underground, he worked to free many Jews over the years that followed.

John Murray writing in the Wall Street Journal

When Things Go Wrong

People need to recognize that life can be unfair, that accidents will happen. None of this is to say that people have to acquiesce to the threats of life, to lie down and not attempt to change anything. There is nothing wrong with positive thinking and the hope that today will go well or that people might repent and treat others better. But (you) should not be shocked and angered when something does go wrong… cultivate the attitude that life is something to work at and that problems are normal. Learning to laugh at normal failures and irritations has been shown to be effective in defusing anger.

Mark Cosgrove, Counseling for Anger

How to tell good people from bad people

Behavior can be good or bad. But people themselves aren't good or bad-they have the capacity for doing either. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

Evil is not a thing you can point at and say, “There it goes!” or “Here it is!” Evil is a privation. A negation. Not something in itself. It's like rot to a tree. Without the tree, the rot wouldn't exist. Without a context of good, evil doesn't exist. So if you want to declare something evil, then you must also come to terms with what is good.

Stephen Goforth