The Banality of Evil
Recently, a quotation has continued to find me through multiple avenues, and every time I read it, it stuns me. The quote is from Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew who survived the Holocaust and became one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century. In this quotation, she is describing Adolf Eichmann, a leading Nazi official who helped orchestrate the Holocaust and who was prosecuted for his War Crimes.
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. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.
What disturbed Arendt the most about Eichmann was how “normal” he was. Perhaps he was the sort of person who would hold the door open for you as you entered a business or smile and wave if he passed you in the street. Perhaps his manners were commendable and his spirit amiable. But he, and so many of his compatriots, had made monstrous evil so “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” It was evil disguised as good, which is the most insidious type. It’s not the sort of evil that approaches us with forked tail and tongue, but the sort of evil that comes to us disguised as light and goodness. What makes this kind of evil so dangerous is precisely the banality of it. No one can even see it as evil because it looks like common sense. It looks like moral assumption rather than moral conviction. It looks like what everyone else is doing and has always done.
For most of my life, I simply assumed the reality and necessity of the death penalty. I thought that some crimes were so grotesquely vile that the death of the perpetrator was the only solution. But I was wrong, and for the last few years, I have been vocally opposed to the death penalty for convictional and practical reasons. And the more I’ve studied the evidence, the more convicted I’ve become over this practice that remains so “normal” in many places.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” In this teaching, Jesus quotes from Ex.21.24, Leviticus 24.20, and Deuteronomy 19.21. When studied in their contexts, this phrase- an eye for an eye– did NOT mean that if you take my eye I get to take yours in return. This phrase meant that if I take your eye, you can take no more than my eye. You can’t take my head if I take your eye! The goal of these commands was to limit punishment in order to avoid cycles of violence; not to encourage a response that would sanction the cycle of violence. Jesus picks up on this intent in the Sermon on the Mount, in which he teaches his disciples to break cycles of violence by practicing a creative “third way” response that is neither fight nor flight.
Because Jesus teaches that justice must be redemptive and corrective and not merely punitive, I cannot support the death penalty and say that I’m following him. Full Stop. And the crucifixion of Jesus serves as exhibit A.
If that wasn’t enough, however, there are more practical and pragmatic reasons to end the death penalty.
– The death penalty is racially biased. Since Arkansas has begun keeping statistics, 134 of the 195 persons who have been executed have been black males. Furthermore, nearly all of those on death row have been people too poor to provide for their own defense and were appointed lawyers by the court. The death penalty is biased against people of color and the poor. If we’re going to be people who long for a justice system that is anti-racist and anti-classist, how can we support policies and practices that are anything but? Simply put, we can’t.
– The death penalty is NOT fiscally conservative. Studies show that the death penalty can be up to 6 times more expensive than life without parole.
– The death penalty is NOT a deterrent to crime. The homicide rate in non-death penalty states is 48-100% lower than in states that practice the death penalty.
– The death penalty is not failsafe. Since 1973, over 1400 executions have occurred in the US. During that same time, some 160 people on death row were exonerated. That means over 1 in 10 people on death row were innocent!!! I wouldn’t take those odds on a knee replacement, much less the death penalty.
– This is not how we address other criminal actions. We don’t burn down the houses of arsonists. We don’t steal from robbers. We don’t rape rapists because they raped someone else. So why do we kill someone who killed someone to show everyone that killing is wrong? Is this not a spiral of deathliness, precisely the sort we are called as Christians to break?
On April 20th, 2017, Ledell Lee was killed by lethal injection administered by the State of Arkansas. It was the week after Easter and less than one week after Good Friday, when Christians remember how Jesus died at the hands of the Roman state, though he was innocent. Lee’s execution took place amidst a flurry of executions because the lethal drug used in these cases was about to expire. His was the first execution in Arkansas in over a decade.
However, according to a report released on April 30, 2021, new DNA evidence reveals the genetic material and fingerprints of an unknown male found on the murder weapon and clothes of the victim. This evidence was not available at the trial. It is possible that the State of Arkansas put an innocent man to death the week of Easter, 2017.
One of the great problems with the death penalty is that it grants ultimate authority to humans who have fallible judgment. New evidence cannot lead to an alternative ruling that liberates the wrongly accused because the state has already deemed that person beyond redemption. The death penalty maximizes the hubris of human power while minimizing the propensity for human mistakes. If there was no other reason to end the death penalty, this should be enough.
To be sure, there is too much violence in our culture. There is too much gun violence and domestic violence. There is too much violence against women and children. There is too much violence towards police…and from police. We are over our heads in violence as a culture, primarily because we keep believing the myth that violence is the answer to our problems rather than the problem. What problems in our culture have we not employed violence to solve? And where has it worked? And how can we proclaim non-violence as a virtue in our communities while allowing the state to put people to death? It simply doesn’t compute.
A good first step towards creating a more peaceful and life-flourishing society would be to proclaim- in our laws, our practices, our rulings, and our deeds- that we will no longer act violently towards our citizens. Period. We will renounce the death penalty because vengeance and justice are not the same thing. We will renounce the death penalty because creating a new wound doesn’t help heal the first one. We will renounce the death penalty because surely the first step towards being “pro-life” in any serious way is to not willingly and with the utmost intention put someone to death. We will renounce the death penalty because we refuse to become the very thing we’re condemning.
And as Christians, we will renounce the electric chair, firing squad (hello South Carolina), and lethal injections because we pronounce the cross. Taking up our crosses and following Jesus leads in one direction while the death penalty leads in another. Until then, I fear the death penalty will be “terribly and terrifyingly normal” and all of us, even the good, polite, and mannerable folks, will be complicit.
 Amos Elon, introduction to Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt (Penguin Books: 1963, 2006), xiii.
 Matthew 5.38-39
 I commend the profound work of Glen Stassen or Walter Wink on the “Third Way” teaching of Jesus. In this view, Jesus teaches his disciples to avoid the passivity of doing nothing in the face of violence that perpetuates the violence (“flight” is not an option) or violently joining the cycle of violence in the name of ending it (“fight” is not an option either). This is what Jesus meant by “turn the left cheek.” Don’t permit a backhand slap, but don’t slap them back either. The goal is a creative, active, non-violent response to violence born of proactive love rather than reactive reflex.