Have you ever had a conversation where you knew you were missing something? It could be a point of reference that everyone else knew, leaving you two steps behind. I’ve had many discussions I wished I’d been more prepared for. Often they became part of my life training where thanks to a name dropped here or there, I could go back and catch up. Otherwise, it’s like speaking a common language, but the meaning behind words and thoughts are worlds apart.
I’ve noticed this trend on some of my social media feeds: friends expressing sincere concern in a way they both feel is loving and biblical but communicate the opposite.
There’re many reasons for this. Sometimes it’s awkwardness, sometimes a lack of listening; sometimes, it’s a missing reference. It’s that last possibility that I’d like to address. I want to share some of those essential names. Though most are non-Christians, they’ve shaped our world, and their work has become a reference point.
In Christian ministry, we can learn from them, even if our worldview contradicts theirs. At the very least, knowing them can help us understand others. Paul did this by quoting a pagan while sharing the gospel in Athens. He didn’t adhere to everything the poet said but used truth in Acts 17.
With this in mind, I’d like to talk about Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a Jewish thinker from Germany. Her works on philosophy and political theory are still incredibly influential today. She’s often quoted by thinkers and writers worldwide as her thoughts on the political realm, violence, power, totalitarianism, thought, pleasure, and the human condition remain at the forefront of current conversations. In the Christian world, one can find her quotes from podcasts like “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” hosted by Mike Cosper to more academic works like The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman.
Her ideas have become such a part of our way of thinking that it’s possible today to adhere to them without knowing her name. She’s one of the rare thinkers influencing both the political right and the left while providing sharp questions that make both sides uncomfortable.
Although summarising her entire work would be difficult, I’d like to concentrate on only three books, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, and Eichmann in Jerusalem, to show what we can glean from them.
The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
This book gives me chills. It was like reading a non-fiction horror story. Arendt traces the lines of the rise of Totalitarian regimes beginning with antisemitism and racism; then, she moves to Hitler’s Nazi party and Stalin’s Soviet Union. She describes the strategies that became normalized through their application, which means people came to accept what these men were doing as expected.
She observes how the masses supported Hitler and Stalin, bringing them into power and applauding their initial policies. These masses, she explains, are isolated, independent thinkers disenchanted with the status quo of the political system, with a taste for the unveiling of secret intentions (complot theories) and the demasking of the elite’s hypocrisy. Sound familiar? Ultimately, she says they had less interest in science and reason than in happiness and pleasure …
What this book gives us today is a system of looking into power, politics, and society that transcends the traditional divide between conservatism and liberalism. She asks what is good and evil. These concepts are helpful to Christian workers today because the world has already been working with them and judging itself (and us) by them.
Honestly, differentiating between good and evil above politics has been the Christian perspective since the beginning.The Bible also warns us against following the crowd and tells us to speak the truth in love, not to show partiality,and to pray for those in power. Moreover, the Bible gives us a blueprint of how to live as individuals and the necessity to live harmoniously in a community.
The Human Condition (1958)
This chef-d’oeuvre was taken from a series of lectures at The University of Chicago and later developed at Princeton University. It’s a whirlwind, but stick with it: it’s a true treasure! The Human Condition traces humanity’s philosophical and political development from Antiquity to the mid-twentieth Century. Although there’d be too much to underline in this article, she does discuss the loss of faith and slip into a relativism that brings the West back to the Greek philosophers.
Though she doesn’t use these words, she describes a post-Christian era. She speaks about doubt and the esprit critique,which lead humanity to the point of finding meaning in themselves, their fulfillment, and their hedonistic pleasure.
In her final exhortation, she laments the difficulty of modernity to adequately process under pressure, “No other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think.” This is where Christian leaders can gain from this book. We’ve been called to think about our lives in many Bible passages, especially in those calling God’s people to return to Him.
Another reference point for all those in ministry is understanding what she describes concerning humanity’s center of truth. She illustrates how Western society is no longer centered on a physical earth-bound reality but on a point somewhere in the heart of our desire. This brings us biblically back to the Book of Judges, where everyone does what’s right in their own eyes. We need to recognize that this worldview (contrary to our view) is not seen as a state of abandoning God, but as the world sees it, no longer needing Him and thus the best way to live. This is our chance to show His reality in our lives and have a patient conversation with them.
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)
This book is easier to read in some ways, but only if you have all the cultural references. It falls somewhere between journalism and philosophy. The story is that she went to Jerusalem for The New Yorker to cover the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi bureaucrat responsible for the deaths of many in the Holocaust. She chronicled and analyzed the trial from a different perspective than expected and received harsh criticism for her work. Arendt questions if Israel had the right to kidnap Eichmann in a foreign country and bring him to trial and if Jewish leaders had collaborated with the Nazis during the War.
But what she is most remembered for today is the idea of the banality of evil. She describes how unimpressive Eichmann was: middle-aged, balding, a dedicated worker who always followed the rules and took pride in being a good employee. In his own eyes, he wasn’t antisemitic; he did nothing more than obey his hierarchy. Ultimately, he committed horrendous crimes against humanity while sitting at a desk, following orders without thinking about the human cost. It was banality because it was so shockingly normal and yet tremendously evil.
Christian leaders should know this book because sometimes they work in abusive conditions, either in their day job or even in some ministry situations. Eichmann in Jerusalem provokes us to think about the price of silence, not in a spirit of constant denunciation but in a sober way. It would call us to seek help or advice and to consider the consequences. The Bible tells us not to accept everything we hear but also that facts are to be established through the word of two or three witnesses. This requires Christian leaders to be prayerfully aware and to keep hold of our consciousness.
Embracing Disagreement and Divine Dialogue
Hannah Arendt was a genuinely great writer of our time. We may not agree with everything she wrote, but some of her closest friends didn’t either. In that way, she’s an excellent example of debating, reasoning, and disagreeing while remaining friends.
This reminds me of how God calls His people into dialogue to win them back. Isaiah 1:18 says, ”Come now, and let us reason together,” says the LORD. The Lord invites those who disagree with Him to talk. But if we come to Him, He can show us where we are lacking and how much we need Him. Then we can know the promise: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2nd ed. (Meridian Books, 1951), 305-342.
 1Kings 3:9, John 7:24, Romans 12:2
 Exodus 23:2
 Ephesians 4:15
 James 2:1-13
 1 Timothy 2:1-2
 1 Corinthians 12-14, Philippians 2:1-11
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), Kindle 324.
 2 Chronicles 7:14, Haggai 1:7, Zechariah 1:3, Matthew 4:17
 Matthew 5:14-16
 This book can be consulted in its original format from The New Yorker’s website or the Internet Archive,
 Proverbs 31:9, 1 Peter 3:15-16
 Proverbs 3:5-6, Ephesians 5:6-10, 1 John 4:1
 Matthew 18:16