Is There a Price for Doing Evil?

Noh mask ShishiguchiNoh mask Shishiguchi 

A psychologist, a religious studies professor, a novelist, an English professor, and two educators are in a room talking about the nature of evil. And the religious studies professor says . . .

Actually, this is not a joke but the composition of a dinner party we hosted three nights ago. One of the topics we grappled with is whether those who commit atrocities pay a price for doing so. I came to the conclusion that it is a question that novelists and poets are sometimes better at answering than academics.

To set up the conversation, we were discussing a book that Katharina Van Kallenbach, a member of the St. Mary’s Religious Studies Department, is writing on Nazis who embraced Christianity after their defeat. For almost ten years Katharina has been combing through archives looking at Nazi conversion accounts, written either by former Nazis or by the prison chaplains who counseled them.

I can’t do justice to all of Katharina’s findings but here are some of them. While there were leftist churches in Germany that resisted the Holocaust and protected Jews, most churches colluded with the authorities. Nevertheless, they came out of the war with their reputations fairly intact. A number of former Nazis embraced the notion of God’s forgiveness washing away their sins. They were less willing to acknowledge the suffering of those who suffered at their hands.

So was Christianity, we wondered, just a way of cleansing away one’s guilt without facing up to the consequences of one’s actions? This led us to our discussion of the price paid by evildoers.


We noted that they certainly do not suffer as much as their victims. For instance, they may well sleep better than Holocaust survivors, who are often visited by terrible nightmares. They are less likely to commit suicide. From the outside it often looks as though many went on to live conventional happy lives.

Indeed, as Rachel pointed out, suffering is what lets the victims know that they need to fight to change their conditions.  There is no compensation for allowing oneself to be abused by injustice.

From there our conversation expanded to anyone who has been involved in evil acts, including political leaders who countenance assassinations (as Henry Kissinger did in Chile) or encourage torture (as Vice-President Dick Cheney did after 9-11). Are they paying a price?

Rachel Kranz, my novelist friend, quoted a Bertolt Brecht poem that gets at one consequence:

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,
The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer.
Sympathetically I observe
The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating
What a strain it is to be evil.

In that vision, there is a psychological cost. But it is a price that a poet may see better than a psychologist or sociologist. Katharina objected that she couldn’t find any way to measure the strain, if strain there is.

Rachel, it so happens, has just finished a novel looking at the price that the United States paid, and continues to pay, for slavery. Her major character is a psychic who realizes that the money he has inherited is making him sick, and he sets out to track down its source. The novel goes back in history and we see slavery at work in the antebellum south. One of Rachel’s key concepts is that, when one turns human lives into abstractions, one loses something precious. One moves in a world of things rather than people and one becomes paranoid and lonely. She shows that this was true of slave owners and it accounts for some of our fundamental unhappiness today.

Rachel says that our country is still shaped by the abstractions that grew out of slavery, and if we want to free ourselves from its legacy, we must face up to the ways in which we continue to benefit from it. Then we must work actively to rectify social injustice. As an example of people taking action, I see that the NAACP just condemned racism within the Tea Party movement and that the Tea Party has just expelled a particularly noxious element.

Katharina’s solution is similar to Rachel’s. She says that the evasions of the Nazis seem to present their descendants with an intolerable choice—either to close their eyes to what their parents and grandparents did or to break with them. But she advocates a third way: to seek out the victims and descendents of victims and to start a dialogue. This is the most powerful way to move forward. It is what she herself has been doing, at one point journeying with the descendants of survivors to a camp in the Ukraine where an uncle of hers was a commandant.

When one interacts with the world in this way, life becomes richer and people appear more resonant. The price people pay for doing evil–and for closing their eyes to evil–is that they lose out on the capacity to experience this richness. They live hollow lives and do not know real joy. That is a kind of punishment.

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  • Rachel Kranz

    Robin, it was wonderful reading this account of that conversation, and I’m tempted to say a great deal more in response. THANK YOU for memorializing that interchange in this post!

    Let me briefly just make two corrections of fact:

    First, my novel explicitly talks about the way slavery was at work not just in the antebellum south but also in the north, where it was central to the prosperity of the industrial, shipping, and financial sectors. For too long, the North has gotten off the hook with regard to slavery, but New York and Massachusetts were every bit as economically dependent on slavery as South Carolina and Georgia. That’s part of the reason that the consequences of that system resonate throughout America as a whole today, rather than simply plaguing a single region. Indeed, the South also paid a huge price for slavery, in a form of economic underdevelopment that continues to affect many parts of it today.

    Second, Kissinger and Cheney did not just encourage or countenance evil acts. In their orchestration of a brutal U.S. foreign policy, they actively promoted them, in my opinion. Kissinger bears a huge part of the responsibility for the conduct of the Vietnam War and the invasion of Cambodia, as does Cheney for the U.S. conduct in Afghanistan and Iraq. I will withhold judgment on whether the men themselves are evil–that’s a matter for theologians–but as a U.S. citizen, I believe their acts were evil on a huge, widespread scale. Take a look at their photographs–and perhaps also at Erroll Morriss’s brilliant portrait of Vietnam War architect Robert MacNama, “The Fog of War”–and ask yourself whether those men felt the strain of being evil. Though, as Katharina wisely pointed out, the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Aghanis, Iraqis, and perhaps also the U.S. soldiers and their families involved in those actions may have felt the strain somewhat more.

  • Robin Bates

    When I wrote the post I felt I had done full justice to neither our discussion of Kissinger/Cheney nor your book, Rachel, so I’m very glad you elaborated. Incidentally, I think that Beowulf has some powerful images of humans who become dragons, which I think has occurred with both these men. In his last battle, Beowulf (as I read him) is battle against his dragon tendencies and, in the end, wins out over them. I think dragonhood is a threat which we all face although those in positions of great power are particularly susceptible. (See King Lear.)

  • Susan

    This post has been on my mind since I read it. It feels like there’s so much to respond to, I haven’t known where to start. But I’ll throw in a few thoughts.
    First, my working definition of “evil” is anything that is opposed to life. The “Good” therefore, wouuld be anything that promotes life. By life, I am working with the definition of “Quality Life for Everyone” (informed by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig).
    Given that brief summary, people have to be affected by the doing of evil (all of us, whether mass murderers or people who yell at the guy who cut us off on the throughway) since evil is antithetical to the health of our souls. Rachel’s novel tracing the longterm psychic effects of evil that is not dealt with sounds like a good exploration of this.
    Regarding Christianity – I believe that receiving forgiveness does not mean ignoring the consequences of one’s actions. Forgiveness comes from the one who’s been victimized. It is the responsibility of the one who’s harmed another to seek reconciliation and restoration, if at all possible. Hence the injunction from Jesus that as you head to the “altar” to reconcile if someone has something against you. (Matt 5:23) “Cheap grace” is no grace at all.
    Katharina’s book sounds like it sheds light on this aspect of a erroneous understanding of forgiveness and grace. And also a very courageous personal journey.
    Thanks for bringing both of those books to light! and sharing the conversation.

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