Befriending Hitler… Befriending Sociopathic Institutions (Like the Church)


In the previous two posts { [ 1 ] [ 2 ] } I’ve been wondering whether a certain symmetry of relationship is needed if empathy is going to flow between two people. The springboard for this was Zizek critiquing the adage ‘an enemy is a friend whose story I have not yet heard’ by applying it to Hitler. Surely, he argues, even after hearing Hitler’s story we could not be friends?

My argument has been that this is precisely true – not that the adage is wrong, but because Hitler was a sociopath who, because of his inability to empathise with the other, could not know true friendship, where one’s life is reachable by an-other. I then extended this to argue that situations where there are major power imbalances also prevent true friendship too, and wondered what this meant theologically: is it even possible to call God friend, especially with ‘His’ sociopathic tendencies we see in the Old Testament.

I think it’s worth extending these thoughts in one final direction, prompted by Clare’s comment in the last post about corporations. I’ve not seen ‘The Corporation’ but I recognise the description of organisations that display sociopathic characteristics: no empathy, no ability to change, no sense of responsibility to their environment. Indeed, it seems that the church is one of the worst examples of such a sociopathic organisation. It’s ideals are sky high, yet scandal upon scandal emerges about sexual abuse, poor treatment of women and minorities, and a pathological inability to respond to local situations or be ‘reachable.’

I think this touches on a previous series of posts I did on self-organizing leadership, in which I used some work done by Douglas Griffin about our views of corp-orations and organ-izations. These words are just metaphors for embodiment – and they leave it too easy for us to ignore the fact that we are meant to just see them ‘as if’ they were bodies – not to actually think that they are:

“This designation of a ‘body’ to a group of people is purely hypothetical, ‘as if’. Forgetting this ‘as if’ and attributing direct agency to these groups has become a habit of thought leading us to think and talk about groups as objects, as things…”

He goes on:

“we locate ethical responsibility in both the ’system’, simply taking it for granted that a ’system’ can be ethically responsible, and in a few individuals. In doing this we adopt a particular view of leadership in which it is individual leaders who are blamed and punished when things go wrong, or praised when they go right. The rest of us are allocated to passive roles as victims of the system and of manipulative leaders, and our salvation lies in the actions of heroic leaders. In thinking in this way, we are obscuring how we are all together involved…”

I think this should help us to get round some of the problems of corporations like the church being perceived as sociopathic. This only happens when those involved in them become passive, and allow relationships to get asymmetrical. This then prevents empathy flows, and thus the ability of the body to respond appropriately.

In other words, if we are to befriend our enemies, if we are stop them becoming sociopathic, then we need to adjust the power relationships, if that is possible. For some, like Hitler, they well remain unreachable. For others, like the Israeli soldier, the institution they are involved in (the Israeli state) may be so powerful that symmetry may be impossible. For yet others, like the church, we may need to do some rethinking of our view of the corporation, and those who lead it, in order for symmetry to be achieved. In particular, it will only be if the church takes the same attitude as that of Christ, as Paul puts it in the beginning of Philippians, and discard power that any empathy flow will be possible.

And it’s to that church-stripped-of-divine-power that I’m hoping to look at next, in some thoughts on Zizek’s ‘Marxianity’


4 responses to “Befriending Hitler… Befriending Sociopathic Institutions (Like the Church)”

  1. Though I am very allergic to much of Marxian outworkings in real countries, I find your analysis excellent. Thank you.

  2. Acetate Monkey

    Your post and Clare’s thoughts reminded me of Zimbardo’s TED lecture on evil and individuals doing ‘evil’ acts

    There he looks beyond individuals (the bad apples) and beyond the situation (the bad barrel) to the system (the bad barrel makers) and then goes on to look at how to prevent people being ‘evil’. He concludes that it comes back to individuals choosing to act as ‘heroes’ and be counter-institutional.

    Thanks for these thoughts. I’m really enjoying reading these discussions.

  3. “He concludes that it comes back to individuals choosing to act as ‘heroes’ and be counter-institutional”. – I like it.

    Hopefully this won’t sound tacky, but I’ve always really warmed to that slogan – ‘If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem’. (Apologies; I can’t remember who to attribute it to). It kind of ‘keeps you on your toes’.

    You gotta see ‘The Corporation’, Kester!

  4. “especially with ‘His’ sociopathic tendencies we see in the Old Testament.”

    I have two issues with this statement. First, there is an implication (real or imagined) that the God of the OT is different than the God of the NT. I am not denying that God can change, I think we see evidence of God changing throughout the OT. Rather I am pushing back against the historical dichotomy between the God of the OT and NT which I do not see as helpful in this situation.

    Second, I think sending your only son to die has to count as at least leaning towards “sociopathic tendencies”. Furthermore not much is made of the fact that God impregnates a teenage girl out of wedlock. I think raping teenagers counts as “sociopathic”. Obviously I am taking a somewhat extreme view of God’s actions here and I am not well read enough to know of anyone who has explored this path further or perhaps stated the case more eloquently.