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The critical and commercial success of the film Oppenheimer, the creator of the atomic bomb is worth a Lenten reflection. The movie reveals though hardly deals with the human fascination with evil and our inability to control ourselves. Self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit according to St Paul: not just concerning our intake of sugar or use of the internet but the correct use of our liberty as children of God.
Einstein’s equation explained the energy released but not how to build a bomb that would convert certain atoms into other types of atoms thus producing the heat and pressure that killed more than 100,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film deals with the supposed ‘moral dilemma’ about using the bomb. If it would shorten the war and ‘save lives’ could it be justified? This was the argument they followed. ‘Woe to them that call evil good’, Isaiah said. A deeper reason challenges this yielding to the fascination with evil that is an ice-cold feature of the human being. Einstein’s simple response reveals it: Mankind invented the atomic bomb but no mouse would ever construct a mousetrap.
The film needed to keep its protagonist somewhat sympathetic and lightly shows Oppenheimer’s guilt that he had started a chain reaction, an arms race. As indeed happened. Because humans are competitive and imitate each other, this game has come to be a darkening cloud of fear and hatred over humanity since the first bombs were dropped.
Evil is justified by being presented as a ‘necessary evil’ that can be called ‘good’.
It is the kind of mind game we play in our heads every day. The code name for the first successful nuclear test in Los Alamos was ‘Trinity’. Bernard McGinn, who is leading a series on Christian Mysticism in the WCCM Online programme at present, studied and wrote about the figure of the Antichrist and our related fascination with evil throughout history.
Today we do not locate evil in a mythical devil figure but in the unconscious darkness that can overtake human intelligence in science, psychology or biology and genetics. However we may deceive ourselves because we cannot control ourselves, evil will destroy. Look at the still devastated cities of Syria or the ‘collective punishment’, as the UN Secretary-General calls it, of the Palestinian people in Gaza.
The fascination with evil makes it hard for people to control the power they have especially if it is the power over life and death. There is no conversation with it because it destroys even the gift of communication. It creates a negative silence, a shutdown. Only an absolute radical alternative can be asserted. However powerless it may seem and doomed to failure this assertion survives the self-destruction built into every new wave of evil. It is the universal witness of spiritual wisdom in all traditions on which our future depends. Let’s end with one supreme expression of it:
With gentleness overcome anger – with generosity overcome meanness – with truth overcome deceit – Beware of the anger of the mind – master your thoughts – Let them serve truth – the wise have mastered body, word and mind – the wise harm no one.
The Dhammapada
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2024
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