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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Sunday, August 18, 2002
    The banality of evil
     
    This afternoon I watched a recording of the entire morning service from St Andrew's Soham, struck again by how crucial the local church can be at times of crisis, feeling deeply for the people there. It's not long since we in Liverpool faced the horrors Soham folk are now experiencing. James Bulger was taken from the shopping precinct where I and my colleagues bought our butties each day; he and his abductors walked past our office windows on that fateful journey while we were going about our routine tasks heedless of the drama unfolding outside. Imagine how we felt when we realised that.

    Soham's clergy rightly focussed on the pastoral today - praying for the people in the darkness surrounding them, reminding them of all the love and prayerful support that people the world over were extending to them, encouraging them to support each other and look in hope to God.

    But I couldn't help picking up on the vicar's repeated expression of disbelief that something so awful could happen "in a place like this". Sadly, it can, and does, happen in any place. The vicar read: 'It is what comes out of the heart that defiles a person', and that caused me to remember the phrase coined by Hannah Arendt, when reporting on the trial of war criminal Otto Adolf Eichmann, 'the banality of evil'. When she first set eyes on him she was struck by his ordinariness - he's "not even sinister," she said. "The deeds were monstrous, but the doer ... was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous."

    It can happen in an ordinary place like Soham because people with evil intentions are unexceptional. I know that, because what comes out of my heart is often quite disturbing. It's only our being entangled with God's grace that teaches us restraint. The light that shines through this darkness, though, is that a community may respond to awful events by welling up with goodness, and it seems the people of Soham have done this today, in their solidarity and their prayerfulness.