The Epiphany of Evil

Roger L. Simon recently had an epiphany. While reporting from the Durban II conference, he encountered the face of evil: President Ahmadinejad of Iran. He describes this encounter thus:

I heard screaming sirens followed by shrieking motor cycles when Ahmadinejad himself entered … and marched straight across the lobby in what seemed at the time like a goose step a few feet away from me, staring directly at me while waving and smiling in my direction.

I did not wave or smile back.

I couldn \'t. Indeed, I was frozen. I felt suddenly breathless and nauseated, as if I had been kicked brutally in the stomach. I was also dizzy. I wanted to throw up. But no one had touched me and I hadn \'t eaten anything for hours.

It was then, I think, that I found, or noticed, or understood, religion personally for a moment.

Here \'s what I mean.

For most of my life I had rationalized the existence of bad people – or, more specifically, placed them in therapeutic categories. They were aberrant personalities, psychologically disturbed. It wasn \'t that I thought better economic conditions or psychoanalysis or medication or whatever could fix everyone. I was long over that. Some people… serial killers, etc…. had to be locked away forever. They would never get better. But they were simply insane. That \'s what they were.

Still… I had seen whacked murderers like Charles Manson, late OJ Simpson, up close and this wasn \'t the same. This was more than the mental illness model. Far more. For one thing, I had never before had this intense physical sensation when confronted with another human being. Nor had I wanted to vomit. Not for Manson. Not for anyone. This was different.

It was almost unreal, like being in a movie, in a certain way. I know comparisons to Hitler are invidious, in fact usually absurd, but I was feeling the way I imagined I would have felt opposite Hitler.

I was in the presence of pure Evil.

In the seemingly seamless garment which is secular rationalism, there is no place for evil. Oh, to be sure, the word is flung about like sweat from a boxer’s well-placed uppercut — slathered and spit upon all who deviate from progressive secular orthodoxy. But true evil — that inexplicable behavior which chills the soul and touches that primal inner fear — finds no satisfactory solution in our modern world. The salve of psychology is oft applied — the perpetrators are invariably “loners”, “abused”, “neglected”, “rejected”, “oppressed”, or “victimized” — but the hatred which spawns such unspeakable actions cannot be so easily trivialized or dismissed. It rises up like a hideous ogre, demanding acknowledgment and rebuke — and yet we, in response, simply slap our banal therapeutic band-aids on while frantically averting our eyes to the never-ending distractions which numb the inner terror and allow us to move on, undisturbed, our materialistic narrative intact, unperturbed, and unchallenged.

But evil cannot be so easily confined to the therapist’s couch. Our shallow rationalism shoves evil into the overstuffed closet of the therapeutic, where irrationality, mental illness, and all forms of perplexing puzzles are placed, quickly bolting the door before it can escape. Yet evil is in its own way coldly rational, progressive, efficient: the years of planning behind a Columbine; the detailed protocols and meticulous records of Nazi medical experiments; the systematic efficiency of the Holocaust; the careful coordination of a Beslan. All these display, neither mental instability nor unhinged psychosis, but rather highly rational, intelligent, goal-directed purpose. If anything, evil is often more creative, more ingenious, more well-organized and executed than the pursuit of good. In the hard calculus of rational materialism, there is unspoken contempt for the foolishness of caring for the weak, protecting the vulnerable, elevating the dignity of the imperfect, nurturing the neglected.

When we envision evil, we evoke the ghastly: the school massacre, the genocide, the imprisonment and torture of political prisoners, the rape and abuse of children. But though we long to sequester our discomfort in the realm of the rare and horrible, evil will not be thus constrained. It is alive and well in the corporate boardroom, in the street gang, on the drug dealer’s corner, in the steamy affair which destroys a family. It reaches into every corner of our lives — though we struggle to deny and rationalize the monster as it draws nigh to our souls. Indeed, it dwells quite close to home, in the dark rooms of the mind, the dank cellars of the soul, in whispered desires and demons in the depths of the spirit. The newspaper headlines are but harbingers of the heart; what horrifies without dwells within, though hidden deep beneath denial and jaded self-justification. We are what we fear — and we tremble to acknowledge it.

Yet evil, for all its pervasiveness, does not stand alone as a distinct entity. Like one hand clapping, it is meaningless except in the context of a moral framework, a system of absolutes against which it is measured and found wanting. There can be no “evil” where there is no “good.” Yet our secular age ridicules such a position, rejecting the universal for the relative — we determine our own standards of good and evil, in harmony with our individual and cultural narrative, where the notion of truth is nothing more than an instrument of and a means to power. And thus we have no reference by which to comprehend and measure the phenomenon of evil. We know it when we see it — at least in its more egregious and hideous forms — yet have an inadequate and conflicted worldview with which to grasp it. Our evolutionary mindset should provide some cold comfort, as the prime directive of survival of the fittest predicts the destruction of the weak and the triumph of the strong — yet in our heart of hearts we know this to be foolish, and frightening, and fraught with incongruity — for we know we too are among the weak. The resulting cognitive dissonance leads to a pitiful and wholly inadequate response to the horrors which confront us almost daily. When a Columbine occurs, we immediately call in the counselors — when we should be crying out for the priests.

Our materialism and technology, and the secular relativism they have spawned, have given rise to the delusion that we may control the metaphysical just as we control the physical, through science and technology. Hence we each determine our own morality, deciding for ourselves what is right and wrong — a calculus which always favors ourselves over others. Yet in a reality based on transcendent absolutes, the consequences of their violation — evil — are just as inviolable as the laws of physics. We hope to bend the metaphysical to our wants and desires — and the results are entirely predictable. When evil results, we resort to the only tools in our arsenal: education, knowledge, psychology, sociology. Their inevitable failure at resolving the catastrophe only deepens the dilemma. Our cultural witch doctors dance and cant, shaking their shaman wands in fevered frenzy, hoping to drive off the demons with the magical sayings and sacred books of science and sociology. Yet the evil persists, empowered and enlarged by our enfeebled response.

C.S. Lewis, writing in The Abolition of Man, finds in our materialistic scientific mindset much of the magic of old:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…

Evil is indeed real, and growing, and we are poorly equipped to grasp or grapple with it. It is a greedy demon whose goal is destruction and whose power is immense. We would be wise to seek the proper antidote lest its poison destroy us all. Our rare glimpses into the heart of darkness, as Roger L. Simon experienced, are a wake-up call we ignore at our peril.

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28 thoughts on “The Epiphany of Evil

  1. To imagine that the “tools in our arsenal: education, knowledge, psychology, sociology…” are sufficient to understand, confront and roll back evil is the height of arrogance for, as you imply, all are human-centric impulses towards self-sufficiency (which, by definition, is atheistic). Such instincts fail to take into account the only “proper antidote”… calling on and acknowledging the divinity of the One who conquered sin and death and evil by his death on a cross.

  2. Hi Dr,

    I must admit that evil has a way of exposing the existence of God even more than good. I believe that you have expressed in the past your experience with “wine, woman and song” which eventually ended in finding God. Not an experience to be forgotten, I imagine.

    Not having such an experience, I had to find it through a book. M. Scott Peck was someone I respected a great deal. His books (“People of the Lie”, “Road Less Traveled”, “World Waiting to be Born”) were an inspiration to me in many ways.

    But near the end of his life he published “Glimpses of the Devil”, where he recounts his experience as an exorcist. He published the book 2 decades after the events took place, near the end of his life. Its as if he knew he would be dismissed if he wrote it, so had to wait until the end.

    Still, given his past accomplishments, I couldn’t help but see the events as real, and his experiences as genuine – if somewhat misinformed. Its as if he wrote the book 20 years before publication, with his state of mind at the time, but never changed it later as his knowledge grew. Very honest of him, in a way.


  3. Here are a couple of links I put up a couple of years ago describing the Basiji army and Ahmadinezhad’s use of that embodiment of evil.

    Matthias Küntzel on Iran and Germany (2005)

    Children as cannon fodder, or “Who are the basiji?” (2006)

    A couple of the links have gone inactive but most are still active, including one from Roger Simon.

    It should be noted that the Basiji predated the election of Ahmadinezhad (2005), having been organized during the time of Kohmeini. (1979)

    “In the past,” wrote the semi-official Iranian daily Ettela’at, “we had child-volunteers: 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds. They went into the mine fields. Their eyes saw nothing. Their ears heard nothing. And then, a few moments later, one saw clouds of dust. When the dust had settled again, there was nothing more to be seen of them. Somewhere, widely scattered in the landscape, there lay scraps of burnt flesh and pieces of bone.” Such scenes could henceforth be avoided, Ettela’at assured its readers. “Before entering the mine fields, the children [now] wrap themselves in blankets and they roll on the ground, so that their body parts stay together after the explosion of the mines and one can carry them to the graves.”

    The children who thus rolled to their deaths formed part of the mass “Basij” movement that was called into being by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. The Basij Mostazafan – the “mobilization of the oppressed” – consisted of short-term volunteer militias. Most of the Basij members were not yet 18. They went enthusiastically and by the thousands to their own destruction. “The young men cleared the mines with their own bodies,” a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War has recalled, “It was sometimes like a race. Even without the commander’s orders, everyone wanted to be first.”
    [More at the LINK]

    Your post is powerful. I don’t think most people have any notion how widespread and deeply embedded true evil exists in the world.

    It helps to imagine that it is confined to a few evil leaders and a small clusters followers, but history indicates that evil has pandemic qualities worse than any disease that can infect whole populations in the human family.

  4. Great job, Dr. Bob. I think we ignore such powerful non-rational warnings from our bodies at our peril. I pay attention when I start feeling queasy or shaky near someone when I’m healthy. Not all of us encounter the “Great Evils” of our age, but we all come across people who similarly affect us. The difficulty is that we have largely disarmed ourselves by the desire not to be judgmental or profile or be shallow and act on appearances.

    There was a good book (will go look for the link) on psychopaths who killed, some mass murderers, and how some people who met them were chilled and alarmed and skedaddled and were not harmed. But others were conned then killed.

    I wonder if some of us are more attuned or if it is something we all have, but have socialized out of us?

    It is curious that dogs can usually tell about a person. Although perhaps not (Hitler was loved by his dog ,supposedly ) But the other day, I was walking my young mutt on the beach and she started with a low throaty growl then vicious barks and teeth bared at a nice old man walking towards us. As he passed, I realized that he was NOT a nice old man. Muttering obscenities, frothing , filthy, drunk and leering at each woman he passed, and 6 foot 4 so would have been very dangerous had one been alone in a dark alley. I was glad my dog’s instincts were better than mine.

    As for the big picture, I have given up on my liberal friends’ ability to understand the danger of evil. One of them (who should know better since her cousin was murdered on 9/11, burning in the towers,) argued that we should forgive the vile mastermind in the trial, and told me quite seriously that she thought it was unnecessary to have fought Hitler with military force, that peaceful methods would have worked better and involved less loss of life. Gaaaah.

  5. The last comment brings up an important point.
    Retriever, commenting on the musings of a friend, says that this person believes that “we should forgive” evil.

    I have often heard the same sentiments about the 9/11 attacks, as well as about greater and lesser wrongs. Nothing makes me turn away in disgust more than when I, a Jew, am told that “you people should forgive the Nazis–after all it was a long time ago” (or similar statements).

    As a Jew, I understand forgiveness in this way. When I wrong someone, it is my job to turn myself around, to repent. I must understand the wrong I did, how it affected the other person and myself, make it right to extent possible, and vow not to do it again. Then, and only then, may I approach the person I wronged and beg forgiveness. And I may not approach the Eternal until I have asked forgiveness and received it, unless I have done all of these things, and been rejected three times. Because, as a Jew, I understand that for sins against the Eternal, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against others, one must make it right with them first.

    I understand forgiveness to follow from repentence, and I see repentence as more than momentary shame or regret; it involves a repairing the breech and striving not to do the same bad thing again.

    And neither is the wronged person obligated to forgive; it is an act of gracious acknowledgment of the will to evil that exists in all of us, due to our free will. Forgiveness is a response to repentence and to the human condition. It requires the presense of genuine goodness.

    So how can I, who was never wronged, grant forgiveness to those who deliberately, cold-bloodedly, murdered others, and who, for the most part, never repented? They are, from my theologicial standpoint, in a world of eternal hurt–they killed their victims, and thus cannot beg their forgiveness. This is what makes murder such an aweful sin.

    I must say that I do not understand the move to premature forgiveness that is so prominent in much of Christian reasoning. It seems to excuse evil, rather than acknowledge it, and demand accounting and repentence. It would be interesting to hear your take on this.

  6. Elisheva, you might like this, from Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship”:

    “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship..”

    Also, Assistant Village Idiot posted a couple of great Elie Wiesel quotes this week and some comment on when violence is the appropriate response to evil, and how some of the religious responded to the Nazis. You have to scroll down as the posts aren’t on separate pages.

    I agree with what you wrote, wholeheartedly. I worked at one point with abused kids who were sometimes wracked by guilt that they could not be “good” Christians and forgive their abusers. I used to just tell them: let God take care of forgiving or fricasseeing them, your job is to recover and get on with your life, and to the extent that saying you are done with it kicks that person out of your head, do it, but don’t berate yourself for still being angry, upset, and scared. And, frankly, I hate the guy for hurting you.”

    Forgiveness can be healing when it releases the hold a victimizer had on a person, but enforced forgiveness or premature forgiveness is just another torment for some.

    Interestingly, many of the same people who wax lyrical about being forgiving of terrorists, also make excuses for and emote sympathetically about the child molesting choir director my kids sang with for eight years. It doesn’t matter that they were safe from his perverse behavior. Other kids were not (he brought child prostitutes to the church buildings to have sex with them). My position was “Lock him up until he has been on DepoProvera or had an operation so that he never bothers another kid again, then a few more years for punishment and to meditate on his sins. Forgive him after he has made some kind of restitution to the people he harmed, and shown genuine repentance.”

  7. Good comments, these last two. I especially like Forgiveness can be healing when it releases the hold a victimizer had on a person, but enforced forgiveness or premature forgiveness is just another torment for some.

    I was once one of two victims of an armed robbery during which four armed perpetrators held my chef and me at gunpoint as I opened a safe. Fortunately neither of us was shot, but when you have a pistol at your temple being held by a jumpy criminal your mind works very fast. Oddly enough, one of the questions I decided during those few moments was whether or not I could forgive those four armed men, especially the punk making threatening remarks like “Hurry up or I’m gonna shoot the fat guy…”

    My conclusion was that as a Christian I could forgive him, and the others, but I felt no responsibility to protect him from the consequences of any civil, criminal or legal penalties that might come his way as the result of his behavior. In fact, he didn’t even need to repent or to know of my forgiveness. Had he killed me on the spot I could have gone to my reward knowing I had passed the “forgiveness” test.

    Afterward I had to cleanse myself of the regret I felt that they got away and there was no one there to kill their sorry butts, but that is part of the aftermath, I suppose. It made it easier, when I later became eligible, to take an early retirement from food management for another line of work.

  8. Re. Elisheva’s questions, among others…

    True forgiveness, as I understand it (and I don’t claim to be very good at doing it under my own power!) precedes repentance on the part of the perpetrator, much less any outwardly visible, credible evidence of such repentance (e.g., see Pauls’ admonition in Romans 5:8: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”).

    It’s the very definition of divine grace. I don’t claim it’s easy (or easy to understand) but that’s the way God does it and so it’s what we are called to do also.

    Unfortunately, as several commenters have pointed out, that core idea has been widely perverted to imply that, in the act of forgiveness (e.g., praying for our enemies) we are somehow giving up any claim to eternal, fixed standards for good and evil… for right and wrong… that forgiveness is tantamount to forgetting and that all natural consequences or claims to justice (e.g., jail) are erased once someone is forgiven. Not so!

    One of the biggest mysteries/paradoxes of the gospel is that those standards don’t ever change… there will be ultimate justice and yet… forgiveness of unforgiveable people (giving them a chance to voluntarily grab onto God’s infinite grace as offered in Christ) is inherent in God’s character.

    Forgiveness of another is at least as much about God wanting us to be released from our own persistent hurt at seeing another person commit evil as it is about changing that person (which may never happen, whether we forgive them or not).

  9. Interesting responses.

    According to Retriever (and Bonhoffer), in Christianity, forgiveness requires repentance, but according to Art, it precedes it. Perhaps according to this theology there is a difference between Divine and human forgiveness. Looks like there are different doctrines at work here? Or does normative Christianity have the same doctrines across denominations, but interpretations differ?

    Judaism is very clear. G-d is both just and merciful, but a person must repent prior to asking the very human wronged person for forgiveness. Perhaps this is because it is necessary to repent in order to be able to sincerely ask forgiveness?

    In any case, I don’t waste a lot of time trying to forgive Hitler and his willing executioners. If they were not dead (for the most part), I would demand justice for the murder of my people. There are material consequences to evil actions in the world.

    And Retriever, I agree with you wholeheartedly. A life well-lived is the best revenge. I phrase it this way: We are still here.

  10. Elisheva, there is less conflict here than meets the eye. I would not set myself up against Bonhoffer, much less the One True God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! :)

    The distinction between divine and human forgiveness is important in resolving this. Naturally we are unable to rise all the way to His inscrutable and often gut-wrenchingly difficult standard. That does not mean we aren’t called to try.

    Since, in comparison to Him, we’re terrible judges of others’ hearts (i.e., motivations, hidden wounds, mitigating circumstances, etc.), we will often get it wrong — in both directions. Thus, in knowing in advance that we’re going to err in our efforts at forgiveness, we’re called to err on the ‘stupid’/naive side rather than the assumptive side (i.e., failing to forgive those who are fully righteous and have earned our forgiveness).

    All of this rests on three assumptions: 1) that God can fix any wrong, in the end, 2) that God is omnipotent (outside time; seeing hearts, controlling evil, etc.) and that, 3) God is infinitely good and loving and has our best long-term interests in hand far better than we do, even when just the opposite seems to be true.

    Tossing this up against the Hitler example is always incredibly difficult (sorta like trying the triple-black-diamond ski run with terrain ‘features’ at night in a snowstorm; few can do it… or understand WHY they’re doing it!) :)

    I highly recommend a ‘classic’ book by the late Corrie Ten Boom called “The Hiding Place” through which God spoke to me powerfully and with shocking directness (long story).

    She was a Christian, living in Nazi-occupied Holland (as did my in-laws). Her family hid Jews in their home until they were caught. They read Hebrew scriptures and worshiped together. She spent time suffering in the camps, witnessing to all of those horrors and losing every one of her relatives there. Her radical message: total forgiveness. If you ever get a chance to hear one of her lectures on tape, I guarantee you will be riveted.

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