The shadow of totalitarianism hangs over our country today. But how should Christians respond? In a way that is hopefully predictable. We should respond with the gospel. We should take our resolute stand upon it.
Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher. She was the author of several books and was professor at New School for Social Research and was a visiting Fellow of the committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. I have been reading her 1951 book titled, The Origins of Totalitarianism. It should be required reading for citizens of the United States. The lessons are as profound as they are simple. For instance, Arendt points up two illusions that plague democratically ruled countries. First, she contends that people believe that those actively involved in the government are in sympathy with that form of government. And second, the masses of people who are not involved are neutral and don’t really matter. These are two lessons we would have done well to learn long ago.
Now, among the many things I have learned while reading Arendt, I want to share one from which I think the church can benefit. It is the lesson on individualism. Had you asked me how totalitarianism succeeds before I read Arendt, I might have said that totalitarian governments flourish because of their use of propaganda. I was wrong. According to Arendt, totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals. Earlier she wrote, “social atomization and extreme individualization preceded the mass movements.” And “The truth is that the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society…”
Let’s think about this for a minute. What does Arendt mean by “masses”? The term applies, says Arendt, when we deal with people “who either because of their sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions.” These people, writes Arendt, exist in every country and are characterized by their political indifference and their scarcity at the polls. Though these people are in a “group” loosely defined by their indifference they are by description self-centered. They would never lay down their life for this group. They would not suffer for this group. They are self-interested. It is not hard to see these as the lost sheep of which Jesus often spoke (Matthew 18:10-14).