Evil, Evil, Everywhere

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.

 

 

  • stanz2reason

    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.

    You might re-consider the wisdom of your students not to condemn an economic system as evil, rather to note the observed consequences and compare it to other systems.

    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.

    There’s nothing courageous about being self-righteous. I’m not making a case for the prohibition of taking action for ethical reasons, just that it’s wise to pause and consider how strong your grounds are before imposing your views on another. Your grounds for condemning a tyrants actions are far stronger than, say, your grounds for condemning homosexuals. Moral courage is having the strength to act when required and the strength to remain silent when it’s not.

  • Jerry Lynch

    “It invites self-righteousness, because if some “other” is “evil,” than we are “good.” And this is often a fact about the psyche. You want a nation to go to war? Demonize them as evil or the “Evil Empire.” I agree that the designation of evil be apportioned to actions, not people or movements or political systems. But what I have recently dedicated myself into commenting on is the unnecessary introduction of partisan politics into discussions such as this: “(unless applied to the Religious Right, I’ve noticed, because it’s evidently fine to judge judgmental people).” Why? For me, resorting to this kind of thing detracts from any attempt to advance the kingdom or have an open discussionn. It is uselessly antagonistic and distracting.

    To the topic, I find Niebuhr’s arguments against pacifism as evil, the ordinary evil of the reasonable and practical mundane mind. “Sure, we are to love our enemy but let’s get real.” I know his arguments go far beyond that simplistic remark, but they boil down to that point.

    • John Turner

      Jerry, you’re correct about the unnecessary introduction of partisan politics. I have heard that, however, with some frequency. I should have added that my students are quite often very ready to condemn Jim Crow segregation and related racism. That’s the other topic that tends to generate the label of “evil” among my students.

  • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

    “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.”

    I read Covington’s immersion as having lead to profound understanding of the snake-handlers. Once he understood, he could entertain becoming a snake-handler evangelist. His encounter with snake-handler views regarding women, though, halted that experiment. His drawing back meant that the snake-handlers — though in some sense “his people” — did not represent his true community (especially in the context of his wife and his daughter’s self-esteem).

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