Evil has seemed everywhere over the past several weeks. The Boston bombings. Gruesome murders of babies who survived failed abortions. The kidnappings, forced rapes, and forced miscarriages of the women in Cleveland.
Sometimes I’ve found that my students — often steeped in relativism — have to be prodded to consider “evil.” The word has religious connotations. It sounds judgmental (unless applied to the Religious Right, I’ve noticed, because it’s evidently fine to judge judgmental people). It invites self-righteousness, because if some “other” is “evil,” than we are “good.” Most of my students are willing to label the Holocaust evil, but some hold back because, they say, who are they to judge? By whose standards is something evil? I suggest that they use their own standards.
What about Soviet communism, I then ask them? Most of my students are unwilling to condemn communism, because it’s an economic system. I tell them to set economics aside and consider gulags, show trials, returned Soviet POWs, the imposition of dictatorships across Eastern Europe, etc. Most students then agree that those things are evil, if by evil we simply mean profoundly immoral. But it’s very uncomfortable for them to say so, because to label America’s Cold War enemy “evil” suggests that America was/is “good.” What about Jim Crow, for instance? I encourage them to forget about the United States. Regardless of whether the United States was/is just as evil or less evil or pretty good, was Soviet tyranny evil?
I do this exercise partly because many of my students seem to lack the courage to make moral judgments. Making moral judgments invites accusations of hypocrisy or self-righteousness. I’ve always found Reinhold Niebuhr’s thoughts on such matters to be extremely helpful: “One of the most terrible consequences of a confused religious absolutism is that it is forced to condone such tyranny as that of Germany in the nations which it has conquered and now cruelly oppresses. It usually does this by insisting that the tyranny is no worse than that which is practised in the so-called democratic nations, and however serious may be their failure to conform perfectly to their democratic ideals, it is sheer moral perversity to equate the inconsistencies of a democratic civilization with the brutalities which modern tyrannical states practise.” The quote is from Niebuhr’s 1940 (I think) essay “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist.” I want my students to make moral judgments with a clear sense of their own subjectivity, but I still think it’s necessary for us to be able to name evils in the world.
Then I have them apply Niebuhr’s reasoning about tyranny to more recent events. Should Christians have opposed “evil” in Rwanda? Tyranny in Iraq? Should they oppose tyranny in Syria? Niebuhr makes a strong argument against pacifism, but he is less helpful at helping Christians assess the wisdom of any particular opposition to tyranny or evil. Clearly, it’s dangerous to throw the “evil” label around too lightly.
Reading Kelly Baker’s excellent piece for the Christian Century and at Religion in American History, I wondered about the wisdom of the above exercise. Baker cautions us from applying the label “evil” to religious episodes such as the Jonestown mass suicide or the Branch Dividians:
The common assumption follows that these religious groups can be marked as evil because they are imbricated in violence, death and destruction. We can cluck our tongues sympathetically at the supposedly brainwashed people deluded into joining these movements, and we can rest easier at night by assuming that our religious commitments must be the safe kind…. Marking religion as good or bad might reassure us about our own choices, but it doesn’t explain anything about how religion functions in the lives of people. What’s more, it often obscures the complicated place of religion in our historical and current worlds. False or true, evil or good—these are normative claims, not analytical ones, and they simplify the fraught complexity of human lives that are often mired in violence.
Baker’s caution reminded me of what Robert Orsi wrote in Between Heaven and Earth about Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain. Covington immersed himself in the world of Pentecostal snake-handling, only to draw back in horror when he encountered views about women he considered repugnant. Once he drew back in repulsion, he could no longer pursue understanding. In short, once we label any religious group evil, we can no longer easily seek to understand its members.
There are stark differences between historical / scholarly investigation and ethical inquiry or moral reasoning, and there is perhaps a also difference between judging actions and judging movements or even people. Judgment belongs to the Lord, in any event. I have no problem with labeling murder “evil,” including the murders that took place at Jonestown. But our job as historians is to understand. And as Christians, we must recognize the humanity of all of those we encounter, in the present and the past.