I was in a McDonalds a couple of years ago in London, getting a quick cup of coffee in between parish visits, so I was wearing my cassock. Recognising me as a priest, an employee of Middle Eastern provenance started chatting to me. I started to feel uncomfortable when his line of questioning rapidly turned to ‘the Jews,’ and what I thought of them. When I refused to be baited, his conversation turned into a public diatribe. Other McDonalds staff started listening in, and seemed to be going along with what he was saying: which basically amounted to ‘fear of the Jews.’ Fear of the Jews running the media; fear of the Jews running the economy, the banks; fear of the Jews in secret societies manipulating the political order. An ancient fear, stoked for centuries by Christians, but clearly not limited to Christians. A fear shared by much of the Islamic world, and nowadays, even by the secular Left, as we saw in the run-up to last year’s General Election.
I wrote on Foundation Day about how aiming at small goods – little acts of kindness – can build up towards the absolute Good. But it is equally true that small evils can lead to absolute evil, if such a thing exists: and if absolute evil does exist, then the Holocaust is without doubt the closest humanity has ever come to it.
And just as there is a danger of giving up on doing minor good things because the greater Good seems so impossible to achieve, there is a parallel danger of thinking that little evils will never lead to greater evil. Or worse, the belief that greater evils belong to someone else: that we, in the same situation as the people of Nazi Germany, would have acted differently, that we could never have done what “they” did to the Jews.
We live in an age where ‘sin’ and ‘temptation’ are used as advertising devices or the names for nightclubs and chocolates. We take pleasure, even pride, in doing something ‘a little bit naughty.’ The little voice in our heads says, just one more drink, just one more internet video, just one more social media response, and then I’ll stop. It’s OK. Can’t do any harm. Until the one drink becomes five, and a car gets wrapped round a lamppost or a wife beaten. Until three hours later, we’re still hooked to the internet, and our boyfriend or a parent finds out what we’ve been looking it, or the Police take an interest. Until the social media response becomes a blazing argument, a bullying session, an addiction that feeds our depression and drives us to hurt ourselves.
Just one drink. Just one click. Just one joke about someone’s race, or sexuality, or religion. Just “banter.” Just one snide comment about the Jews.
I believe that there was a darker force behind Hitler’s war on the Jews. Their eradication was, for him, an obsession, an addiction, which made him make irrational decisions that cost him politically and militarily. It was a deliberate assault on God’s chosen people and all that they stood for: the eternal, faithful, enduring Law of a loving creator. Hitler failed. The Jews now have an independent state in Israel, and the Judeo-Christian basis of western civilisation has not yet been completely eradicated. But it was ordinary people who helped Hitler get as far as he did. Ordinary people who let small evils pass, until they were powerless to resist the monstrous addiction of a much greater evil. Ordinary people just like you and me.