Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Evil In Politics

Ever since Reinhold Niebuhr published Moral Man and Immoral Society, clear-eyed Christian political thought has remembered the inherent limitations in any and all social institutions. Rooted in Niebuhr's Lutheran "Two Kingdoms" theology, the work had the merit of reminding Americans that even the best intentioned, most carefully thought-out institution is rooted in the human brokenness we call sin, putting a ceiling on the expectations we should have for serious social reform. I will note that I am not a huge fan of Niebuhr, and even this, certainly his most famous and arguably his most important work, is deeply flawed on a number of levels; nevertheless, I think the core argument on the limitations inherent in social institutions is basically sound, and something of which we should all remind ourselves.

In light of Rick Warren's really stupid question at the Saddleback Church Forum - "Is there evil in this world?" - I think we should take a moment and consider the issue. Ever since 9/11, Pres. Bush has spoken of "evil" and "evildoers", and his cheerleaders in the right-wing have commended him for calling evil by its proper name. For myself, I think it far less obvious that he has done anything important, or even correct. Obviously, the terrorist attacks on that fateful day were acts of evil. Yet, they were hardly less evil than the "collateral damage" our own bombing campaign over Iraq produced. They certainly pale in comparison to the monstrous evil of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the long and torturous fiasco in Vietnam. The list of political evils is long indeed, a list that certainly has American entries on it. Forgetting these at our peril, we pretended to a virtue we cannot possess and to a clarity of moral vision that is always lacking to pride ourselves that our cause was just, and our duty clear.

Discovering and naming "evil" is a child's game, and hardly relevant to the public sphere. While it may be cliche, it is important to remember Hannah Arendt's description of evil in our contemporary world as "banal". The devil does not seduce through corruption and ugliness, but entices through a facade of beauty, ease, and the best intentions. This is another way of saying that naming evil in others is easier than discovering it in ourselves; the latter is far more important anyway.

Politics is a fallen human practice, steeped in the pursuit of power. Even the best governance is inherently flawed; the most earnest pursuit of public welfare tainted by the desire for control. For Warren to as whether evil exists, and if it can be pointed to is a question for a freshman survey class on philosophy; a far better question might have been whether or not the banality of the evil that resides in the contemporary world is clear enough for us to recognize it in ourselves. Pres. Bush may have rallied those who think spotting "evil" is either important or necessary. Warren's question favored such public idiocy. I would much rather banish talk of "evil" from our public discourse than engage in these kinds of frivolous seminars.

Virtual Tin Cup

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