Confronting the Banality of Racism: Hannah Arendt Revisited

by The Rev’d Craig Lemming

“Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.”
― Hannah Arendt, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’

The film Hannah Arendt was released just before I took a class on Rudolf Bultmann at seminary and discovered the work of Bultmann’s Marburg colleagues Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. Arendt completely captured my imagination. This riveting final speech in the film, delivered flawlessly by Barbara Sukowa, illuminates Arendt’s thesis on the Banality of Evil[1] and makes her complex research and controversial argument accessible and compelling:

As so many of us are realizing how very normal racism and racist policies truly are, the following words from Hannah Arendt have been haunting me again lately:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal… this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied… that this new type of criminal… commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel he is doing wrong.”

I am inspired by the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual work St. John’s Thursday Book Group is investing in confronting what I am coming to understand as the Banality of Racism. We completed our study of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and embark upon Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism this week. We gather on Zoom every first and third Thursday from 10:00-11:30 a.m. and if you would like to join us please email me at craig.lemming@stjohnsstpaul.org. Our guiding ethic for Book Group conversations is that while all ideas must never be safe and always open to critique, all people expressing those ideas must feel safe and the dignity of their personhood must always be honored.

Confronting racism is work we are all called to do as living members of the Body of Christ who are agents of God’s reconciling love in a broken world. Whether it’s joining our Book Group or taking more concrete antiracist action in your life by signing up for My Work To Do, I hope, trust, and pray that we will continue working courageously together to confront the Banality of Evil and the Banality of Racism in this critical political and existential moment in American history.

Faithfully,
Craig+


[1] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report On the Banality of Evil (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2006).

[2] Arendt, 276.

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