Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hannah Arendt & the Temptation of Christ

Isaiah 5.18-21; Matthew 4.1-11
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt was the subject of a radio programme recently and her ideas sounded very relevant. She wanted to understand what had given rise to totalitarian states like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.
The Nazi Party in particular had come to power through democratic elections and during the 1930s the Nazis continued to hold  a series of plebiscites or referendums in which they asked people to endorse what they were doing. They took these very seriously and campaigned hard to win people’s support. In all of them they got more than 90% of the vote, and they only stopped holding them once they realised that popular support was ebbing away. No one was allowed to contest these elections and put an opposing point of view, but it’s striking nonetheless how many people gave their unthinking support. At the Nuremberg Trials, the most important surviving Nazi leader - Hermann Goering - based his defence on this mandate from the people. He said that he shouldn’t be held to account for doing things which were the democratic will of the German nation.
Having been a refugee from Nazi Germany, Hannah Arendt wanted to find out how the Nazis were able to achieve this level of political control. She believed that they had gradually taken over the discussion of ideas. Instead of allowing people to have open and free discussions, they closed down the debate by making some ideas unacceptable. It became unpatriotic, or treasonable even, to say things with which the majority of people disagreed, so there was no room any longer to challenge the direction of travel. And the same thing had happened in Communist Russia.
You might think that’s not a very original idea, but Arendt saw that what the Nazis and the Communists had also done was to close down the thought processes inside people’s heads. She said that in a healthy person there should be a constant debate going on. We think to ourselves, ‘Should I be doing this or that thing?’ - stealing a loaf of bread, for example - and then we have a debate with ourselves about the rights and wrongs of that idea. So we might think, ‘It’s always wrong to steal so I should never take a loaf of bread.’ But on the other hand we might also think, ‘If my children are starving and I can’t afford to buy them something to eat, maybe it’s all right to steal some bread for them.’
The Nazis and the Communists tried to stop people from having this debate. Arendt went to the trial of Adolf Eichman, who was responsible for organising the transport of Jewish people to the gas chambers. She observed that he never once asked himself whether this was right or wrong. In fact he patted himself on the back because he had tried to reduce the overcrowding on the trains.
Arendt said that there always needs to be a conversation going on, inside people’s heads and also between people, about what we’re doing. If somebody says, ‘Let’s give blue eyed children a free education and make brown eyed children pay,’ it needs to be possible for other people to challenge them and say, ‘That’s not fair,’ or, ‘There must be a better way of doing things.’ And even if the government organises a referendum and gets the majority of people to agree to preferential treatment for blue eyed children it still needs to be possible to dissent, to try to get the policy changed, and people still need to be able to ask themselves, ‘Is this really the right thing to do?’
Arendt’s ideas stray into the realm of religion at this point, because she says that a healthy country needs to allow  its leaders to make a promise - if they sincerely mean what they say at the time - but then break it if, when they’re challenged, other people show them that they’re making a mistake or a different course of action would be better. And Arendt says this means a healthy country has to be willing to forgive its leaders for being less than perfect.
We don’t live in that kind of country, do we? We still haven’t forgiven Tony Blair for invading Iraq, or Nick Clegg for his change of heart on student tuition fees, and we haven’t forgiven John Major just for being John Major. So when these characters from the past pop up to warn us about the danger of closing down discussion about what sort of Brexit we want, people dismiss them as discredited has-beens.
And we’re equally bad at forgiving one another, and even ourselves. We put a huge premium on success and punish people who try something new and then fail. Only those who never put a foot wrong go on receiving our support.
Paul points out that - contrary to modern expectations - failure to live up to our hopes and ideals, our promises and plans, is hard-wired into us. The first people, Adam and Eve, fell short of God’s way and ever since all human beings have been doomed to fall short. But then along came Jesus, someone who lived up to his promises, who obeyed God’s path for his life, and who - as a result - was able to break out of this cycle of failure and despair. God’s kindness shown to us in Jesus offers us the forgiveness we need to be able to start over and try again, not necessarily just once but as many times as it takes.
The temptation of Jesus can be seen as a conversation or discourse between two people - one on either side of the argument - Jesus and the Devil. It’s the sort of conversation which Hannah Arendt wanted to see taking place whenever people make important decisions. But it can also be seen as an internal conversation that Jesus is having with himself, where he’s being tempted, as we are. He’s having the sort of conversation with himself - trying out ideas, probing them, testing them  - which Arendt says all of us should have if we want to be sure we’re doing the right thing.
Should he give people free food, should he perform stunts to impress them, or should he conquer the world by force? Jesus thinks through all of these options only to reject them because they’re not God’s will. And that’s what we should do when we’re making decisions. We should debate them, first with ourselves and then with one another.
Arendt’s complaint about Adolf Eichmann was that he was thoughtless. He did terrible things without questioning. He didn’t ask where hatred of the Jewish race had come from, or whether sending Jewish people to their deaths was right. He just took the Nazis at their word and got on with the job. Arendt called this kind of behaviour ‘the banality of evil’, by which she meant that evil is sometimes done by unimaginative, uninspired, thoughtless people.
In a way, she thought it was better to be tempted and give in to temptation - like King Richard III who kills his nephews and seizes the crown of England because according to Shakespeare, he says, ‘I am determined to prove a villain... subtle, false and treacherous.’ Thinking about right and wrong, whatever the outcome, is better she thinks than doing wrong things thoughtlessly.
Best of all, of course, is to be like Jesus, tempted in all points as we are and yet without sin; to have that conversation with the Tempter and then renounce all his works. And if we fail, and make the wrong choices, to find forgiveness in Jesus and try again.

No comments: