Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Thoughts for Lent by Hannah Arendt

The March 15 issue of The New York Review of Books features an essay about the noted German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt (who escaped Hitler by fleeing to Paris and then New York). The author, Jeremy Waldron, writes this:

Arendt lived through very dark times, some of the darkest ever seen in Europe, and in the period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, she immersed herself in an attempt to understand the murderous horror that had revealed itself. The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem were the great and controversial products of that attempt at understanding. For her, the years of total war and the murder of millions of Jews told us not just what Nazis were capable of but what human beings were capable of. It was not enough, she wrote, to say "God be thanked, I am not like that" in the face of what we had learned of the potentialities in the German national character. "Rather, in fear and trembling," she said, "have [we] finally realized of what man is capable."


Isn't this an almost perfect commentary on the parable of the Pharisee and the publican? The Pharisee says "God be thanked, I am not like that." The publican beats his breast in fear and trembling.

Maybe we concentrate too much on individual sins in Lent and not enough on communal Sin. (Although it could be said that there is precious little emphasis on Sin of any kind in the mainline churches these days.) Maybe we should be encouraged to think more about "what man [sic] is capable of." Like torturing people in the name of the almighty State.