An Excess of Evil: The Way Beyond Obscene Law and Religion

Huck Finn knows for sure his soul is damned to hell should he choose to help the runaway slave Jim. He pens a letter to Miss Watson (Jim’s “rightful owner”), explaining where Jim is and figures in this way to save his soul. Then he begins to have second thoughts about the two of them “a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing” and he weakens in what he knows is his Christian duty. As he examines the letter he knows he must choose forever between two things: heaven and hell. He pauses for a minute, then declares “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” and tears the letter to pieces. Helping Jim means a betrayal of the society of Hannibal, a betrayal of the law, and ultimately a scorning of his religious duty.

Adolph Eichmann, in defending his organization of deportation of Jews to the death camps, explained he was simply obeying orders and following the law. He appeals to the Kantian categorical imperative (“Act only on the maxim that you would will it become universal law”). He argued, that no one could argue that law breaking or disobeying orders should become universal. Therefore, he was compelled to do his duty so as to uphold universal morality. Huck is the creation of a quite imaginative intellect which recognized that rules, religion, and convention do not necessarily prescribe what is good. Huck defies the universal convention in order to do what he feels to be the right thing while Eichmann obeys that convention.

The evil of Eichmann is captured in Hannah Arendt’s depiction of a man who lacked imagination or simply the capacity to think. His thought and his life were completely shaped by the norms and standards of his society so that in becoming a colorless bureaucrat he became radically evil. Arendt established links between a debased Kantianism and the co-operation of many of the German people with the implementing of the final solution. The liquidation of the Jews was viewed as “rational,” given that the objective was to secure a German power untainted by socialism and the influence of international commerce. As John Milbank points out, Nazi concepts of universal power and legality were compatible with, and even derived from, the Kantian categorical imperative. The Nazi affirmation of a Kantian notion of free will, and law derived from free will as their good, explains precisely how evil can become good. The presumption of a free will genuinely willing the good and codified into law is a relinquishing of the powers of discrimination.

In the oldest story of the Bible, Job is something of the Huck character writ large in that he would defy every known religious understanding to claim that justice is not immanent or contained within the world (or within the understanding of his friends). His friends, and they are in the beginning good friends in their willingness to sit alongside Job in his suffering, are Eichmann-like in their insistence that justice works within the norms and standards – the law – of the world. The friends of Job argue for an immanent justice (5:16; 11:12; 8:20; 5:2; 18:7; 5:12-14; 12:17) that eternalizes the world as it is. Theirs is the Kantian categorical imperative which would identify their understanding and will with the rational norms of the law.

For the friends of Job, for Eichmann, and for all that would provide a perfectly good reason for the existence of evil (a theodicy) there is no need for appeal to transcendent categories or to the possibility of a different sort of world. The present horizon of the world and the ability to enclose this world within human thought is not only adequate but existentially satisfying. Angst, uneasiness, sorrow, and evil itself, can be sealed off. The price: Job’s claim of innocence is blasphemy, Jim was born to be a slave, and doing one’s duty in regard to the Jews is necessary and even “satisfying.” Job’s friends do not need to identify with Job as he is clearly a blasphemer and they are satisfied in their own sense of righteousness. Huck, in his moment of weakness in which he decides to turn Jim in, has the momentary comfort of knowing his soul will go to heaven. Eichmann claimed that he would “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

Living within the domain of the law is intellectually satisfying as the worst evil can be accounted for and it is existentially satisfying as it separates one out, as a law-keeper or even law-enforcer, from those who experience evil. The pure pleasure on the face of the one terminating our employment, the camp guard delighting in his work of torture and death, the eager willingness to inflict “due punishment,” points to the “satisfaction” of serving the (underside of the) law. The mafia don is not burdened with the murders he is “forced to carry out” nor are politicos usually conscience stricken with the killing of innocents – legal murder or “righteous slaughter” is the ultimate exercise of power. Lonnie Athens has coined the phrase, describing the explanation of those imprisoned for murder. He reports that the killers describe the feeling that killing was a necessity and that they were simply obeying the dictates of righteousness. Lamech, in Genesis, describes himself as the embodiment of the law and presumes to enact the vengeance of God promised to Cain. Lamech puts on display the notion of a law immediately enacted within himself, a “righteous slaughter,” which is the presumption of the murderous generation of Noah. Righteous slaughter describes the deep satisfaction of those who have inured themselves to killing, those who have learned to enjoy their work (as soldiers, politicos, or enforcers of righteousness), those who have completely identified with the purposes of the state, the purposes of the mob, or who presume to embody the avenging power of the law. The problem, as Paul explains, is not with the law but with our orientation to the law.

Theodicies and law-keeping point to a deep psychological tendency to find refuge in law, morality, and religion as the means of justifying the most radical evil. The lawless men who killed Christ were precisely those who were the law keepers and enforcers of the law. As the psychoanalyst, Scott Peck, points out in his dealings with what he considered to be those among his patients who had given themselves completely over to evil – they tend to be the most religious and those who have achieved leadership in religious institutions. It was, after all, the religious and political leaders who presumed to murder Jesus. Likewise, Paul describes himself as simultaneously faultless with regard to the law, a leader among the Pharisees, zealous for the law, and the chief of sinners. History is, as Hegel informs us, a “slaughter-bench” in which the divine purposes are fully worked out. “Yes, there is what might be called evil, but it is just enough for its perpetrators, its power brokers, to contain it within a law in which it is the means of bringing about a greater good.”

For Job, Huck (or Samuel Clemens), and the survivors of the holocaust, there is an excess of evil in the world. This excess of evil indicates that the world does not carry within itself its own legitimacy. The friends of Job want to account for everything according to the working of the righteous requirements of the law. What they cannot forgive, in Philip Nemo’s description, is Job’s illness, which projects the image of their own imminent demise into plain view. The law separates them from those so afflicted – those sinners – who clearly had it coming. Their world is a system or economy in which they stand within the protection of the law. For Job, as for all who have experienced evil or who have sympathized with those who do, this law is in tatters. There is the realization of an excess of evil which can in no way be accounted for by some explanation, theory, or law.

If the Word of God is to be heard or the presence of God is to be understood it will be a word heard and a presence felt in this clearing that opens up within the being of the soul in its encounter with evil. Those who mourn, those who weep, those burdened by fear and anxiety, are put in pursuit of a truth built upon the presumption that “normal life” and the order of the world is made possible by the error of obliviousness to evil. With Job, who hoped for happiness the reality of sorrow overcomes (30:26). Though we may look for the light darkness prevails. The numb disconnectedness that ensues in mourning, in the wake of tragedy, or subsequent to the betrayal of those we counted as friends, is an unendurable truth.

To fail to weep or to feel the sorrow of those that weep is to be the cause of weeping. To fail to recognize the darkness is to be at its source. The encounter with evil forever separates the perpetrators of the lie and laws of normalcy from their victims. Those who would sustain the laws of normalcy take it as obvious that one man must die, that sacrifices are necessarily made, that some must be trodden on, that evil must be done that good will abound. Those sacrificed to sustain the lie are cast out of the city and their voice is annihilated, yet it is only beyond the pale that perspective is gained and their blood is heard to cry out.

Job records the earliest messianic prophecy as an extrapolation of one who stands in the clearing opened up by the encounter with evil: “This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on god. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27). God is not found in the outworking of evil but is the go’el or advocate for those who lament due to evil. He is the one before whom tears are marked out as a plea (16:19-21).

To know good and evil – to be able to sort them out and balance the books – is to miss knowing God. It is precisely in being confronted with an evil beyond explanation or justification that the logic of the city, the culture, the frame of reference of this world is shattered. The encounter with evil should turn us from the comfort of the city and the gods and christs worshipped there to the one who was crucified outside of the city. The goodness of God is not to be found in a justification of evil but in the realization that evil is an insistence beyond reason, theory, and law. The clearing opened in our encounter with an excess of evil is the only way to the cross.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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