This was written over the course of September and into early October. Even the most fundamental points of the piece felt like they were being outstripped by each day’s news. There is no way to know what things will look like when this is published. I offer this only as a time capsule of how things felt in September of 2020.
There is perhaps no more obnoxious place on the internet right now than the “Settle for Biden” Instagram page. Boasting 154k (NB: now 261k) followers, this “grassroots” campaign page posts unenthusiastic pro-Biden memes that waffle between consultant cringe (“Just tested positive for wanting to remove Trump from office.”) and dropping the reluctant bit to breathlessly celebrate Biden (“Joe Biden will restore the United States’ place in the world.”). Their message is that “mediocrity is better than malevolence,” that “Joe Biden isn’t perfect, but he actually has regard for human life.”
With nearly (NB: now over) 200,000 dead from the coronavirus pandemic, the west coast burned to cinders, and the racism at the United States’ heart and origin plunging into new depths of nihilism and authoritarianism, it is obvious that Donald Trump must go. In terms of the ballot box, this means that Joe Biden must be elected president. But Joe Biden is not flawed and he is not mediocre. He is an alleged rapist, the architect of the transition from the Jim Crow laws so beloved by his segregationist friends to our nightmare of mass incarceration, and was an enthusiastic booster for the Iraq War that has killed or displaced millions. Kamala Harris must be elected Vice President. But Kamala Harris is not flawed and she is not mediocre. As California’s Attorney General, she brought the full weight of the carceral state down upon parents whose children missed school, fought to keep trans women locked up in men’s prisons, and had lawyers from her department defend California’s unconscionable use of the incarcerated as slave labor to fight forest fires (an abhorrent policy that melded with COVID-19 to give us September’s apocalyptic hellscape across the west coast).
The “Settle for Biden” page is interesting because it performs the slippage so common among Biden’s halfhearted supporters: it understands that to choose Biden is to choose the lesser of two evils, yet insists that reluctantly choosing a necessary evil is a positive moral act: “We don’t like all of Joe Biden’s policies but we recognize that he is running on the most progressive platform in American history and that not supporting him would literally endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans.” The begrudging acceptance of the need to get rid of Trump slips effortlessly into the self-congratulation of being part of the most progressive political movement in American history. (A frankly baffling claim, since Biden himself proudly acknowledges his entire primary candidacy was waged against the left wing of the Democratic party.)
The nervousness around being too harsh on Biden is understandable. A second Trump victory would be catastrophic, and strong criticisms of Biden risk dampening turnout. But on the eve of the election, I find myself unbearably wearied at the seeming need to frame elevating a warmonger, white supremacist, and alleged rapist to the most powerful position on the planet as a moral good.
There’s a line in Thucydides that was a favorite of Simone Weil’s, spoken by the Athenian army when the inhabitants of Melos begged them not to destroy their village: “The strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” From the senate floor to a locked room with a staffer, Joe Biden has exercised exactly as much power as he has been able to. And from the blasted cities of Iraq to Angola prison to that locked room, those weaker than him have had no choice but to suffer what Joe Biden has wanted them to suffer. To give such a man more power is an evil, regardless of if there’s another choice that would be a “greater evil.”
Theologically speaking, a “lesser evil” calculus doesn’t make much sense. To do evil is to do evil, sin is sin, and one cannot justify sin but only beg forgiveness.
That’s why, on the eve of this election, I find myself rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. Bonhoeffer wrote this critique of Christian ethics from 1940-43, while he was plotting the “lesser evil” par excellence: assassinate Adolph Hitler. What’s so compelling about the Ethics is Bonhoeffer’s insistence that this most justifiable of all sins cannot be justified. It can only be lamented.
Weirdly enough for a book titled Ethics, Bonhoeffer opens with a broadside against Christian ethics and against the notion of ethical principles. Ethics, he says, is “largely dominated by the abstract notion of an isolated individual who, wielding an absolute criterion of what is good in and of itself, chooses continually and exclusively between this clearly recognized good and an evil recognized with equal clarity.” This clearly recognized good can take many forms: for “reasonable people” it’s compromise, for “fanatics” it’s the purity of their own will, for “people of conscience” it’s the inner feeling of having made the right choice, for those who follow the “safe way of duty” it’s trusting authority figures to make the right call.
All of these good people see the world as an ethical problem that can be solved by sticking to the right principles. But Bonhoeffer sees himself as living in a world where “evil appears in the form of light,” where the most monstrous projects clothe themselves in the purest principles. In his world, Nazism presented itself as “affirmation of life,” as “selfless sacrifice.” Those who lived by sure principles like “protect life” or “put others before yourself” were taken in almost without knowing it.
The evils we face are obviously different, but they too appear in the form of light. Neoliberal austerity and the infinite expansion of the war machine present themselves as “harm reduction” and “bipartisanship.” Bonhoeffer warns that such chimeric evil constricts our political imagination, leading us to “[shy] away from a clear No” in favor of puttering around within evil’s ever-shrinking circle of “permitted boundaries.” A recent Medium piece by Barack Obama illustrates this perfectly. Obama condemns this summer’s clear No to anti-Black violence as itself “violence” and “opportunism” and insists that change “only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.” Voting is framed as the only acceptable action – and since it’s all we can do, we must marshal all our principles to be sure we’ve made the right choice.
What Bonhoeffer can help us see is that if we move from principles – like, say, “never resort to violence” or “always vote for whichever candidate will do less harm” – we can easily get sucked into a spiral of evil. Yesterday’s greater evil becomes today’s lesser evil. Witness Colin Powell, once a disgraced war criminal who famously spewed lies to the UN to justify George W. Bush’s divinely-ordained slaughter in Iraq, speaking at the DNC to endorse Joe Biden. The lesser evil isn’t the good in tragic garb – it’s a ravenous monster lurking behind each day’s greater evil, waiting to devour it when the sun goes down. Which Trump administration official will be its next meal? Who will be celebrated in twelve years as a bulwark against the new greater evil?
Bonhoeffer was of course not advising a quietist withdrawal from politics – such would be the way of the fanatic. Nor was he preaching a cultured pessimism, an ironic detachment from actions that one must regrettably make. Such would be the way of the person of conscience.
Instead, he insisted on what he called “responsible action”: “Whereas all action based on ideology is already justified by its own principle, responsible action renounces any knowledge about its ultimate justification. The deed… is completely surrendered to God the moment it is carried out… Those who act on the basis of ideology consider themselves justified by their idea. Those who act responsibly place their action into the hands of God and live by God’s grace and judgment” (268-9).
Responsible action takes place after intense ethical deliberation, yet this deliberation ends not in the comfort that the right choice has been made but in lamenting the evil we could not but do. We act while “completely shrouded in the twilight that the historical situation casts upon good and evil” (284). This is not a choice between good and evil, but between evil and evil. And it’s not a choice between degrees of evil such that we can comfort ourselves with the distance between the evil we chose and the evil we didn’t. In acting, we choose evil. To act responsibly is to bear the guilt of this choice.
Bonhoeffer was a good Lutheran, and he understood acting responsibly as being Christlike. But the Ethics works with an unfamiliar Christology. To be Christlike, for Bonhoeffer, is not to ‘save’ or ‘redeem’ anyone. What matters about Jesus is that he was made a curse (Gal. 3:13), that he bore our sins in his body (1 Pt. 2:24). Thus to be like Christ is simply to be guilty. To act responsibly is to take on guilt and beg for forgiveness.
In the assassination plot, Bonhoeffer would bear the guilt of murder for the sake of those for whom he committed it. But importantly, it’s only the bearing of the guilt that can be said to be Christlike. It’s not that the act is Christlike because it would “save” Hitler’s victims (he knew that the Nazis’ crimes didn’t begin and end with Hitler), nor would it “redeem” Germany or the church (he was convinced that their complicity with fascism had utterly and forever discredited both Germany and Christianity).
Bonhoeffer saw clearly that this world is too riven by sin and evil for us to act without soaking ourselves in blood. And he was rightly disgusted by those who would hold up their bloody hands and protest their righteousness by saying they are stained with the right blood, or were bloodied in the right way. There is no righteousness in this world. There is no justice. There are only those who justify their sin and those who lament it.
The appeal to a grisly yet divine act carried out under the demands of an exceptional situation might sound too Schmittian for comfort, but there’s a crucial difference between Bonhoeffer’s Christological responsibility and political theology. The theological analogue for Bonhoeffer’s action outside the norm isn’t the miracle, but sin. This action doesn’t compel those who witness it to Schmitt’s worshipful awe, but to grief and lamentation. It doesn’t found law, but sinks down in guilt at law’s violation. “The law is being broken, violated… the commandment is broken out of dire necessity.”
The commandment that Bonhoeffer would break was “thou shalt not kill.” On Tuesday, the commandment that we perhaps must break is to feed the hungry, heal the sick, welcome the stranger, free the prisoner – to love “the least of these” as if they were God incarnate. Responsible action on Tuesday may perhaps mean turning our backs on those murdered or displaced by war, on those rationing medicine to pay off their medical debt, on those locked in cages under racist laws, on Tara Reade and the other women Joe Biden has harassed and violated. Responsible action may perhaps mean facing this man who has taken everything away from so many people and giving him in his final years the power and prestige that he has spent his entire life grasping at.
This all may be necessary to avoid the worst. But Bonhoeffer reminds us that such an action, no matter how necessary it may be, cannot be justified. We cannot ease ourselves to sleep with comforting thoughts that we will have refused the greater evil, that we will have “reduced harm” or pushed forward “the most progressive platform in American history.” Because we will have chosen evil. We will have rewarded harm. We will have failed to meet the demands of the moment. We will be guilty.
Events outpace our ability to write about them. While I was writing this, Donald Trump was asked in a press conference whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power. He answered, “We’re going to have to see what happens… We want to get rid of the ballots. And we’ll have a very peaceful – there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”
If it’s petulant and insulting to preach voting for Biden as a great moral good, perhaps it’s no less naive to lament voting for Biden as a moral evil. Does a vote carry any moral weight at all when the leader promises to get rid of ballots to ensure the continuation of his power? Perhaps our lament is best directed elsewhere. At everything.