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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

28 thoughts on “The Epiphany of Evil

  1. We Americans love to speak of matters “Judeo-Christian” as though core values of both traditions were somehow identical. Different models of the same make, as it were. But one of the historic differences has been their two different responses to evil. The historic Jewish response if to relieve, overcome, eliminate or destroy evil or, failing that, to distance one’s self from evil as far as possible. At bottom, the Christian response to evil (ideally) is to confront and overcome it by love or, failing that, face it in faith, with no resistance, even to death. The early church had many martyrs. Only after Constantine militarized the church did Christians replace Paul’s symbolic armor of faith with literal armor. Until then the example of Jesus Himself was the only role model.

    Forgiveness puzzled into the two approaches with Christians seeking forgiveness, not only from God, but among themselves. (“…as we forgive those who trespass against us.”) Jews, on the other hand, leave judgment and forgiveness up to Jehovah. Men are charged to do justice, love Mercy, and walk humbly with God but the forgiveness of evil is a Divine responsibility, beyond man’s authority.

    Part of the challenge to peace in the Levant is that none of the players has a tradition of reconciliation. Christianity would be the likely interlocutor, but the centuries seem to have dulled the effectiveness of unconditional love. Even most of our missionaries expected a quid pro quo in return for being received into the faith. We now regard anyone seriously looking for reconciliation as a hopeless idealist, out of touch with a reality defined more by evil than good.

    I agree with Elishiva that the best revenge (the dark side of forgiveness, you know) is a life well-lived. No better amelioration of evil than that.

  2. Rare glimpses? While this is a wonderful post, I have to say, Bob, you seem to treat evil as a projection. While that’s a first step in an ephiphany of realizing evil for the first time, as Roger has, after a lifetime of relative morality, it is only a first step. Hopefully many are to follow, such as being to take on the projections and see the evil in our own hearts. Christians call is the work of repentance.

    And in case you only implied it, evil cuts through every human heart—that means you and me and everyone. To wit:

    “If only there were evil people out there insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them form the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing them cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy his own heart?”

    —Alexander Solzhenitzen

    There’s more, much more, but I have to say you’re talking about ignoring rare instances of evil seems to miss Solxhenitzen’s point and the true element of evil dwelling in every human heart. There’s only one cure, repenting to Christ and allowing the forgiveness to cleanse and change our silly, selfish, self-righteous hearts.

  3. JB, there was much criticism levelled at aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology for precisely the reasons you described: The Christian mainstream view that we love because He first loved us, that good works are done not to earn salvation, but done out of gratitude for unmerited forgiveness.

    When one warns against cheap grace, then, one is liable to be accused of heresy. This has happened to me when I have argued for long prison sentences for child molesters and my friends tell me I am unforgiving and a bad Christian.

    It helps, as you and others have noted, to distinguish between divine forgiveness and human forgiveness.

    I tend to agree with Elisheva that it is presumptuous and hateful to forgive harm done to others. A duty, or at least a goal when the damage done is to oneself. But when one isn’t the one harmed, how dare one tell the sinning violent person they are forgiven?? It’s a bit like showing how virtuous you are (as a politician) by taxing people and spending their money, to show how generous and caring YOU are.

    I tend to think that certain kinds of reconciliation are still impossible in this fallen world. For example, you can’t do anything with Somali warlords or Idi Amin’s raping armies except defeat and disarm them, if necessary killing many of them. Or the vile British teenaged gangs attacking people and making cellphone videos of their rampage. They belong in jail. Or child molesters. Or shameless insider traders.

    Because we are sinners, despite being redeemed by God, our world is still brutal. Pacifism, for example, cannot halt some of the evil things going on in the world. On a small scale, when I see someone whacking their kid or their dog in the street, I go up and make them stop. If they hit me, so be it. The thing is to stop the child or the animal being brutalized. One doesn’t want to order someone about or bellow, or even slap them to get their attention away from their victim so the kid can escape. But sometimes one has to.

  4. For those who believe in coincidence here’s another one. I have been tracking a bunch of Mennonite young people for some time.

    Today’s post at Young Anabaptist Radicals addresses this very question in contemporary terms.

    A few years ago when talking with a Caribbean friend about pacifism. What if refusing to use violence meant not just your death as an individual, but the death of your entire people and culture? He told me with the story of the Taínos, who were among the first to meet Colombus and welcomed him with gifts and open arms. For loving their enemy, they had the honor of being the first indigenous American culture to be made extinct by the Spanish through a combination of disease and having their hands cut off for not meeting gold quotas set by Columbus. Is this what Jesus had in mind?

    The story in Massachusetts Bay colony is more complex, but no less challenging to us as Christian pacifists. Massasoit’s decision to form an alliance with the Pilgrims was not simply the act of a noble man with good heart. It was a calculated political move driven by his people’s need for allies against rival tribes in the face of devastation by disease. The alliance was strengthened by cross-cultural relationship building and trade on both sides over the first few years. Both sides benefited from peace. So far, so Mennonite morality tale.

    However, as the colonists grew in number, they became less reliant on the Wampanoag and more interested in their land. Their towns grew quickly with immigrants from England and they gradually pushed the Wampanoag into smaller and smaller pieces of land. Sound familiar? Its the process that settlers in the West bank are attempting to use on villagers in At-Tuwani today.

    More at the links, but that’s enough salt to toss into one comment thread. I hate when a conversation starts drifting into the philosophical ether. I like to relate with stuff that’s happening today.

    BTW, while we’re keeping inventory of evils, I just this afternoon learned of one new to me. Retreiver’s mention of insider traders reminded me of it: “janitor insurance.” A few years ago companies were found to be taking out life insurance policies on their employees, apparently without the employees’ knowledge, with the company trust officers named as beneficiaries. When the employees eventually died (now that’s what I call a sure thing) the policy paid off to the company which used them in a tax-dodge maneuver to compensate executives! Legislation was passed making this kind of thing illegal, but (are you ready for this) the banking industry found a loophole! Hold your nose and go to this link from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

    Webutante is spot on. The true element of evil dwells in every human heart. I have to remind myself as we speak of evils that there but for God’s grace go I. Dr. Bob’s central point about shunning “secular relativism” and calling out counselors when we have more need for priests is well-taken. It’s not easy to find the plumb line in an earthquake, but still we must never stop trying.

  5. Art: Years ago I saw the movie about Corrie ten Boom. In my (Jewish) view, Corrie could forgive those that wronged her personally because she was a victim of their evil. But it would be wrong of me to forgive such evil as the Nazi’s did, for I would be presuming to speak for the dead and injured. It is up to such Nazis as are left to repent and ask for forgiveness of those they harmed who are left. However, I would not hold my breath. If you consider the court transcipts of the trial of the more infamous Nazis, you will find that most of them rationalized and justified what they did in the name of their beliefs. As Doctor is In stated in the original post–these men were not crazy, they were not “just following orders”, they believed they were justified to commit genocide. The same may or may not be true of their lackeys in the SS and among the Einsatzgruppen.

    John Ballard: Pardon me, but the word “Jehovah” is a made-up word. It was invented by German Bible scholars, who upon reading Hebrew pointed text, were confused by the diacritical marks for the word “Adonai” applied to the unpronouncible Tetragrammaton. It was pointed this way to remind the one chanting Torah to chant “Adonai” instead of pronouncing the Name; or, since the Name is a play on the root “to be”, it would be a natural mistake to try to chant the future present tense verb. I understand that this German confusion led, in a roundabout way, to the name of a Christian sect. The ironies of history abound!

    And forgive me again for pointing it out, but Jews do have a tradition of reconciliation. However, we also have a tradition of personal responsibility as well; by saying so, I am not implying that Christianity does not have the same. It looks to me, from my admittedly limited experience, that certain forms of Christianity may not? Or that there is dispute among the sects about how this works with other Christian doctrine?

    In any case, the formula is this for Judaism: “For sins against the Almighty, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against another person, it does not atone.” This leaves it up to individuals to make atonement with one another, thus achieving reconciliation with one another. But also: “The gates of prayer are at times, open, and at times, closed; but the gates of repentence are always open.”

    We do believe in confronting evil, as well as to “relieve, overcome, and destroy it.” However, atonement by the sacrifice of good to evil is not a Jewish idea. The confrontation with evil is active resistance, in which one might lose one’s life, but that death is to be resisted as far as possible without committing evil oneself. This is definitely a great difference between Judaism and Christianity.

    And Judaism has many martyrs as well; from the Ten Martyrs of Roman times, the Jews of the Rhineland during the Crusades (when 1/3 of the Jewish population were murdered by Christians who were on their way to war with Islam), the expulsion from Spain and the Inquisition, the Pogroms of Eastern Europe, and in the last, bloody century, to the Six Million turned to ashes above Europe. We remember them all.

    Finally, and this is not an accusation, but an observation: American or western Christianity cannot be an interlocutor in the Middle East for two reasons:
    1) Christianity also has the blood of both Jews and Moslems on its (figurative) hands from the Crusades and European persecutions;
    2) It is easy to let others be first in line to “face (evil) in faith, with no resistance, even to death”, as Europe and America seem wont to do, as they negotiate with Achmadinajad in regard to the Iranian nuclear capablities.

    It is a fine thing for President Obama to lecture Bibi Netanyahu, making moral equivalencies, as the world turns inevitably toward a war for the 13th Imam and the Caliphate. To take a page from the Other Testament: They cry peace, peace when there is no peace.

    Israel’s population, which comprises half of the Jews left in the entire world, is on the front lines. And clearly, just as in Europe, they are expendable.

  6. Wonderful comments here, and thank you to retriever for steering people to my blog.

    I apologise for being scattered, but you guys have just touched on too many good topics here.

    Forgiveness of Nazis. That seems rather distant to me, even though I read a great deal of Holocaust and Eastern European history. I don’t think I’m called to sing that song. Crimes against humanity are horrifying and we wish to stop them and consequate them, but I can really only forgive an evil done to me.

    Forgiveness is not a feeling of goodwill or wishing cakes and ale for others, but a decision to not hold their sin against them in any material way. I have a person who treated me badly for years. Forgiveness does not mean claiming that what she did was good, or no problem, but in not rising to punish her and take revenge whenever her name is brought up, as I did for years.

    Not that I always succeed. Forgiveness is an ongoing act, and I might forego revenge ten times and still take revenge on the eleventh.

    God’s forgiveness is often described, both OT and NT, as not holding a person’s sin against them – of putting it out of His sight. This is not the same as approving of it, or removing consequences. CS Lewis tackles the problem by looking at how we treat ourselves when we sin. We still feed ourselves, care for ourselves – but we might feel we fully deserve consequences or punishment. In an extreme, we might feel we deserve to be hanged for what we have done. So too for our attitude to others. We might believe they deserve punishment, and certainly deserve to be made to understand, yet still feed them, pray for them. The two attitudes are not incompatible. Bringing up children gives us a flavor of this.

    Elisheva’s reference to reconciliation is apropos, though this is slightly different. I do what is in my power to offer reconciliation, but to actually get to reconciliation might still require telling my enemy quite firmly what I believe was wrong. And my emotions may be so strong against them that I am only able to manage scraps of forgiveness. But reconciliation is indeed the goal.

    And as Lewis said, it is better to start with the small sins of those near us than the great sins of those far away. The latter is mostly an illusion of forgiveness.

    Next up: M Scott Peck defined evil as malignant narcissism in his People of the Lie. I think that can apply to an Ahmadinejad, but it has an intensity in tyrants we are unused to experiencing. Dictators grow in narcissism (as do cult leaders, or just about anyone who is unaccountable) until they are nearly unrecognisable as human beings. But Solzhenitsyn is also right. Were we given such power, with so many fawning over us and puffing us up, we might become very similar. The kernel of that evil is indeed within us, but most of us are fortunate enough to live in circumstances which check our narcissism rather than encourage it. In tyrants, that kernel has been allowed to grow unchecked, and so consumes the person who once inhabited the body. We smaller folk may be made of no better stuff, but by training, grace, and the force of reality avoid becoming such horrors.

  7. Oops. Small correction Elisheva. The Crusades lasted for 1000 years, and Western European Christianity was on defense for 950 of them. The Romanians and Bulgarians remember what we have forgotten. The Jews may have legitimate complaint against many tribes of Christians, but the Moslems are self-deceptive when they claim it. What we call the Crusades were a forgotten part of Arab history, a small sideshow in their own competitive wars with each other, or minor setbacks in their centuries of attempted conquest. They didn’t even mention them until they came to study in the West in the 19th C, read our histories, and realised that they were considered major villains.

  8. Elisheva,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful reply. I’m sorry for speaking so carelessly and stand corrected on all points.

    I knew about that “Jehovah” business, but it’s been in use for so long it’s like fortune cookies to Chinese food. I understand they never heard of such things in China. As you pointed out, what else would Jehovah’s Witnesses call themselves?

    My mention of early Christian martyrs was to underscore that feature of the early church, not to earn extra points. In the matter of martyrs Jews may have every other group in history outnumbered for sure. And you’re right to point out that historically Christians do have blood on our hands. But I do wish there were some way to advance a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

    …Jews do have a tradition of reconciliation. However, we also have a tradition of personal responsibility as well; by saying so, I am not implying that Christianity does not have the same. It looks to me, from my admittedly limited experience, that certain forms of Christianity may not? Or that there is dispute among the sects about how this works with other Christian doctrine?

    Touché.
    Pot. Kettle.
    Very neatly done.

  9. Ass. Village Wiseperson (I really cannot call such an intelligent writer an idiot, though I enjoy the humor):

    Yes, certainly Islam fought wars with one another from the time following Mohammed’s death until now. As Christianity did in the early years, and as Israel did early on–and probably still would if we didn’t have other, more pressing problems. When I refer to the Crusades, though, I am seeing through the lens of Jewish history, which has the same location but different events than the European mainstream version. They say history is written by the victors. Jews believe it is remembered by the survivors. And quite stubbornly, too.

    I have not forgotten that if Christendom had not won at the gates of Vienna, history would be different. Oddly enough though, when Jews were expelled from England and France and later, Spain (following the Reconquista), it was places like Greece and Bulgaria that gave refuge, as well as North Africa. And Holland.

    John Ballard: Your first statement was right, Christianity and Judaism are related and share many ideas (far more so than Islam is to either), and both are Western in outlook and values, but there are fundamental differences. And I appreciate that you said this, because there is nothing quite so dismissive as the claim that they are just alike, which removes from Jews our identity, since we are in Christian culture but not of it.

    Now, two questions: 1) Why are so many Christians in the United States so willing to dismiss evil and dismiss also justice? (And I know this is not a description of you or Doc is In, or of the others here). What I mean is, that what Doc said originally makes sense for secular materialists, but what about the others?

    2) How does Christianity deal with the European “teaching of contempt” for Judaism that did contribute to what Jews recall as the European Nightmare: Crusades, Inquisition, Holocaust?

    This last is not an easily dissected problem, because Christianity is not monolithic, and in different places in Europe, Churches of the same denomination acted quite differently. Nevertheless, there is a sense among Jews that there ought to be some kind of institutional response to that 1,000 year teaching of contempt. And yet to me, it seems wrong to blame Christianity wholesale, although I completely understand when Holocaust survivors do.

    And of course, this question also cuts to the heart of how do we all answer for the evils our institutions have done? We often bear little or no personal responsibility and yet we all feel sullied by what is/was done in our names. This is an especially thorny problem for people who were not even born when the evil occured. They are certainly innocent in that regard, and yet are made to bear the burden by inheritance. This is wrong on the personal level, and yet there is some kind of institutional evil (if you will) that darkens the present.
    So how does Christianity deal with it normatively?

    This has been a fascinating discussion.

  10. …how do we all answer for the evils our institutions have done?

    Elisheva, I’m so glad you said “our.” The phenomenon seems to be endemic to all mankind, doesn’t it?

    It is a critical question that has nagged me all my life. I got politicized in my developmental years (Deep South during the civil rights era, Vietnam, etc.) by the contradictions between what Christians claimed to believe and how they (we) behaved. Even now I live among serious Christians who believe in their hearts that the presidency of George W. Bush was the result of Divine Providence. And this morning I’m listening closely to hear what language Christians will find in defense of torture. I remain Christian by default, embarrassed by those contradictions, clinging to the notion that Jesus and His teachings define for me the template I must follow as best I can.

    I’m sure you know of Messianic Jews whose faith has a Christian amendment. Our two faiths do have more in common than not. I like their conciliatory statement about the coming of the Messiah: “Let us wait together for his final coming, and when he gets here we’ll ask if he’s been here before.”

Comments are closed.