For years I’ve tried to remain neutral on the question of what constitutes evil. It’s the sort of thing you can get yourself in a lot of trouble with on the one hand, since the people in the world that I consider to be the most evil actually have their friends and defenders. And beyond that, there are too many religious fundamentalists out there getting extensive mileage out of labeling those who don’t share their opinions as being of the devil. So why should I add to the collection of those labeling others as evil? Isn’t there enough of that going around without my contribution?
But looking at the various treatment of the subject by both hypocrites and sincere, well-intentioned individuals –– both religious and non-religious –– I’ve reached the conclusion that the issue is too important to too many people for me to keep evading it. Do I really believe in evil as such? Is there a power in the supernatural world opposed to all that I hold to be virtuous and dear? Or using non-religious language, is there some collection of tendencies, active among human beings, that I have a moral obligation to stand up against? Does this work in such a way that anyone who fails to oppose these tendencies and forces is thus de facto a bad person?
You might be seeing why I’d wish to evade such questions.
From a religious perspective, on the one hand the early Hebrew prophets had nothing to say about a devil. No where in the sayings of Abraham or the writings of Moses or David is there any reference to a personalized force of evil. Their spiritual enemies were the various gods of nations they were at war with, their own unbridled passions and their lack of direct obedience to God’s instructions. That was enough to explain all of the evil that needed explaining back then. So in principle one doesn’t need to believe in a devil in order to base one’s life on faithfulness to the One True God.
Yet on the other hand, for the later Jewish prophets, who had the issue of explaining the actions of brutal and powerful conquering empires to deal with, the devil started to become a pretty important figure. It is thus no surprise that fighting against the power of the devil is a huge issue in the teachings of Jesus and in the narratives of his life. Thus one really cannot claim to be a Christian without acknowledging and accepting the idea of a power of evil out there which needs to be fought against. From there the cultural history involved becomes very much a secondary issue.
But this leaves us with a few very thorny theological problems: Where did this power of evil arise from to begin with? To what extent is it part of the universal human condition? How did it get that way? What can ultimately be done about it?
Those are the questions that American evangelicals in particular love to take a swing at every now and again, but in doing so they are more often than not forgetting one profoundly significant aspect of the problem of evil: throughout the Bible it is associated with major colonial powers. The devil, or the anti-Christ, is always related to some empire which is preventing God’s people from having things the way they would have hoped and expected. In the Hebrew Scriptures it was the Babylonians and Persians. In New Testament times it was the Romans. The question for all of Jesus’ followers was, since the devil was working for the Romans, when was God going to give the Jews (and believers in Jesus’ kingdom) power from on high to kick some Roman butt? That actually never happened.
Eventually Rome started to fall of its own weight, and when it did a political genius named Constantine decided to use Christianity as a means of propping the empire back up for another century or so. The evil empire thus became an official ally of Christianity! This gave rise to a whole new set of problems regarding the essence of evil which the newly politically empowered church largely swept under the carpet: How do we reconcile the idea of the empire being evil with us being the empire? How do we determine what the new focus of the devil’s power on earth might be so that we can join together in fighting against it? How do we go about separating ourselves from “the evil of the world” when we’re in fact more in control of the world than anyone else?
To say that the answers to these questions offered by church leaders over the past 1700 years or so have been variable is a pretty serious understatement. Suffice to say, there is no pat answer to the question of the nature of evil in Christian doctrine that would save us the trouble of thinking about the subject. Far from being troubled by this, I actually consider it to be a good thing.
This brings us to the point where Christianity essentially believes that all of us have evil within us that we have to deal with somehow. And more than in any other world religion, the focus of Christianity is on receiving God’s mercy to deal with that. From there it’s a matter of being God’s special servants, and “doing our job” in a spirit of being incredibly grateful for having been “hired” while we were still hopelessly under-qualified for the position. Our main task in this job is to prevent evil from keeping others separated from God and keeping us separated from each other. Far easier said than done.
But setting aside the challenges inherent in those details for the moment, let me ask, does anyone have a better suggestion as to what the basic point of ethics should be? With all due respect for atheists and non-religious thinkers in general, their proposals for what our ultimate goals in life and purposes for our existence should be –– reasons why anyone else should really give a flying rat’s ass –– have historically been even more vague and variable than the Christian and theistic ones. Could it be to do whatever we feel like, as long as we pay a little attention to where our actions might be leading us along the way? Is it to make as many people as happy as possible? Is it to terminate unspeakable suffering? Is it to learn to be logical as an end unto itself? Is it to “keep evolving,” in some abstract sense of the term or another? All of these suggestions are rather problematic in their own rights.
So perhaps the question of the ultimate good is too abstract and difficult for us to reach any functional agreement on. Perhaps agreeing to fight some sort of evil together is the best we can do in terms of a basis for human cooperation. Rather than looking for something we all can agree on as a positive motivation for shared action, perhaps we need to find things that we can all agree together to hate and to fight against.
But there’s a long and problematic history of such motivations. Just within the scope of church history we have the examples of Diocletian gathering the Romans together to fight against the scourge of Christianity; then Christians taking charge and having a very troublesome time in the Dark Ages when they couldn’t find enough evils to fight against besides each other; then the popes began calling together all western European Christians to fight against the evil Muslims –– freely killing off any Jews, Orthodox and non-believers who happened to get in their way –– which in turn brought the Muslims together to fight against these evil Christian invaders; then you had the grand Catholic versus Protestant wars throughout Europe and their colonies, with plenty of anathemas going back and forth; then there was a phase of white colonists rising up against the evil empires which sent them out to begin with, seeking to be free from the evils of the economic oppression they felt they were under; then the darker skinned residents of European colonies abroad started fighting together against the evil burdens white men were placing on them; then came Marxist revolutionaries, attempting to unify peasants and factory workers against the evils of global capitalism; then there were the Nazis rising up against what they saw as the twin evils of Communism and the Jewish conspiracy to oppress the “master race”; then came the Cold War, with a drawn out stalemate between NATO and Soviet blocs, each thoroughly indoctrinating their children as to how evil the other side was; until now we’re once again we seem to be in a state where people can’t decide which evil is most important to join together in fighting against, and where uneducated Americans in particular seem to be randomly attacking whatever evils they can find.
Odds are that somewhere within that last run-on sentence each reader here came to some point where they said to themselves, “yes but that really was evil!” That would essentially demonstrate my point: for all their problems, hatreds and indignations over perceived evils get people involved and get stuff done. This is a dynamic we really can’t ignore. We have to find ways to use it to get stuff that really needs doing done. Towards that end we have to form some sort of clear picture of evil to motivate people with.
For President Obama the first great evil that he has worked to unite people in opposition to was the completely dysfunctional state of the US healthcare system. The second great evil that he has tried to rally people in opposition to is the lack of concern that many Americans feel for those who are suffering and abused, often at the hands of rich Americans, both at home and abroad. Those are tough evils to convince Americans to fighting against though, especially since it isn’t entirely clear how those evils are different from those being rallied to fight against them. American Republicans, on the other hand, are trying to rally people together to fight against the concept of taxation in general as inherently evil; and against the idea of evil, dark-skinned, non-English-speaking foreigners (like the late Barack Obama Senior) coming into our country, using our public services, stealing our women and giving us little in return. Those are far less coherent concepts, but far easier to sell to the ignorant as objects of hatred to fight against.
Can I do better than that in terms of presenting a clear picture of what evil is worth opposing these days? I frankly doubt it, but do I feel that I at least have a moral obligation to present a coherent picture of what I see as evil and what I am willing to stand up and fight against. I believe that if more people would take the trouble to do this for themselves, politicians and hate-mongers would have less to work with when they come to manipulate us. Here then are the great evils I wish to fight against:
Envy – Too many people get hung up on competition with others to the point where they would rather destroy everything the other has than accept the roll of being the one with fewer toys. This sort of destructive competitive impulse has been the cause of ridiculous amounts of needless violence, pointless consumerism (and the environmental destruction it causes) and useless personal anxiety. If people could get beyond this impulse the world would be an infinitely safer and more pleasant place for all of us. And all it would really require is for them to grow up a bit.
Bigotry – The ignorant assumption that “our group” is naturally better than “their group” might be useful for inspiring some sad souls whose self-image is in the crapper otherwise, but that doesn’t by any means excuse it. This might be harder to outgrow than envy, but it can be seriously improved on with education. When people actually come to understand something about where the “others” are coming from in terms of their own situations and motivations, they actually tend to discover that they aren’t nearly as strange, disgusting or inferior as they had previously assumed, or been conditioned to believe.
Bullying – In this form of evil –– yet another sort of defensive maneuver used in personal competition –– juvenile-minded individuals start looking for someone they can prove that they are stronger and “cooler” than, and they then proceed to find ways of torturing that vulnerable individual in order to beef up their own status. As a teacher I’ve told students that I consider bullies to be a life form somewhere between earthworms and cockroaches on an evolutionary scale, but that wasn’t a very philosophical way of putting it. The main point is that bullying causes all sorts of deep personal damage to both the bullied and the bullies that in turn lead to lifetime patterns of destructive and anti-social behavior in both. Teach kids not to bully each other –– teach adults not to continue bullying each other –– and a great number of the stupid and immoral things that businessmen and politicians do beat up on others could be eliminated within a generation.
Scape-goating – Rather than following the ritual given in the Jewish scriptures that this practice takes its name from, these days we have extensive numbers of evil people who look for vulnerable individuals to take the blame for all of their problems and the results of their bad decisions. The classic example that everyone seems aware of is what Hitler did with the Jews: claiming that all of the Germans’ problems were then Jews’ fault, thus they deserved to die. Usually, however, this evil practice is far more individualized and subtly personally vindictive. It can be a teacher, a classmate, a co-worker, a boss, a spouse, a neighbor… that the escapist accuses of having caused all of the problems in their life, or that of their child. And far too often these accusers manage to convince themselves that the charges they press are perfectly valid. Not only can this do the same sorts of damage on both sides as bullying, but it also prevents people from ever facing up to their personal responsibility for the state of their own lives. Fix that, and a whole range of other problems automatically get dealt with in the same stroke.
Sexual abuse – This is one of the more traditionally recognized forms of evil, where some aggressor (male or female) chooses some involuntary participant (male or female) to satisfy his or her sexual desires. Even if this is not a physically torturous experience, which it most frequently is, the emotional damage this causes to the victim in terms of a loss of self-confidence and a personal sense of value are immeasurable. The way in which this can prevent the victim from experiencing sex as a form of deep personal bonding thereafter is a tragedy of the highest level. The way in which victims of such abuse proceed to self-medicate and take out their sense of bitterness and resentment on others can lead to social dysfunctions of epic proportion. What counts as criminally prosecutable rape is not the issue here. The question is, are both parties in the sex act doing it as partners, in every sense of the word? If not, regardless of the legalities involved, there’s something evil going on. Another thing that can turn sexuality into a form of abuse is when it is based on some form of deception, such as adulterous cheating. I believe that complete physical intimacy should always have, at the bare minimum, a fully voluntary and mutually respectful quality to it. Ideally it should also have a dimension of emotional and/or spiritual connection to it. Lacking the latter can make it cheap; lacking the former can make it out and out evil.
Dehumanization – Perhaps in the broader sense of the word, dehumanization is the common thread in all of the evils mentioned above, but in the deepest sense of the word this is the essence of what combatants are trained to do to each other: don’t think of the enemy as a fellow human being; think of him as a target to take out as part of the game, or an animal to be hunted down, or a strategic objective to be accomplished. Give them slang names that keep you from thinking of them as real people. That makes it a lot easier, if necessary, to torture, rape, kill and mutilate these individuals in order to gain an advantage in battle. While I’m not a strict pacifist, I can’t believe that any objective which requires that form of psychological conditioning in order to be achieved can be used as a justification for such means. Whenever we have to stop thinking of other people as inherently valuable human beings in order to do what we intend to do, we have stepped over the line into complete evil, regardless of how we try to justify it.
So what do all of these things have in common? Besides a laundry list of sins that I particularly hate, is there some basic quality to all of these things that makes them really evil? And to what extent are all of these tendencies inborn rather than the result of corruptions we are educated into? My answers –– and you are free to disagree with me without my consequently considering you to be evil –– are that in our postmodern world these are the things which most deserve to be hated, because they lead to the greatest damage to and destruction of the human spirit. They isolate people from God (or a sense of spirituality, if you prefer) and from each other, and they prevent people from truly loving themselves in a healthy way. These things potentially happen for all sorts of reasons, but more than anything else because of a tendency for cut-throat competition to become the meaning of life for some people. If “winning” is ultimately more important to you than any other form of human satisfaction, that makes you a potentially very evil person.
Redemption, in turn, comes back to a matter of setting aside our pursuit of personal victory, and putting a shared sense of thriving, connection and appreciation for the gift of life at the top of our personal priorities. In this regard the essence of the Christian message is that if we live by our own competitive instincts, we automatically lose where it really counts; but by throwing ourselves on the pure mercy of God we can still “win,” as long as we are willing to set aside our competitive nastiness in the process.
Can atheists and those of other religious persuasions find their own ways of living beyond their competitive instincts? In individual cases I have little doubt. In fact I have greater doubts as to whether my fellow Christians can ever consistently live up to ideals expressed in this message of redemption. What I won’t do is lay out the alternative narratives by which the others can find their paths to personal redemption, but in order not to be a bigot or a bully about it I need to acknowledge that I don’t have any exclusive right to represent God, and it is completely possible and plausible that they can find such a path without my help.
Meanwhile, in terms of my own “spiritual warfare,” on my honor I pledge to fight against all six of the evils listed above, with whatever strength and by whatever means God grants me. How many others are there here who will pledge to join me in this sacred quest?