Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Random Thoughts On Radical Evil

I have an occasional interlocutor who insists that the only proper, Biblical way to think and talk about sexual morality is to limit proper human sexual behavior to that between two married persons, one man and one woman. Anything else, he insists - rather tirelessly - is a violation of God's law. In my haste to point out the error of this view, I have too often sounded - certainly not out of belief - as if I thought God didn't care about how we humans relate as sexual beings to one another. Even though I have written quite a bit about Christian sexual ethics, I think it is important to be clear - few domains of human life are more open to danger than sex. We humans have a remarkable capacity to do one another a great deal of harm, especially in situations where intimacy is involved. Human relationships are fraught with peril.

To insist on a moral vision, however, which limits human sexuality to heterosexual marriage, and to make the further move that this is the central moral position of the Bible, Biblical morality tout court as it were, is a gross oversimplification. The situation is far more complex than that, the Bible far more expansive on the question of the moral life and our ethical choices, and we human beings far more capable of making good sexual choices than this.

On the other hand, this view does have the merit of limiting the damage we do to ourselves and others.

I mention all this by way of introduction to a discussion of radical evil because it encapsulates so much of what I wish to say. There are views of radical evil that are over-simplistic, that sacrifice nuance for the sake of clarity of vision, contain a kernel of importance, even truth, even as they contribute to other evils. Trying to talk about evil without talking about specific instances of it is a bit like trying to sculpt ocean water - it just doesn't work.

As a senior in college, I read the second volume of Jeffrey Burton Russell's four-part study of how we human beings in the west have talked about radical evil. He began that volume - as he did all the volumes in the series - with a confession that he believed there was such a thing as "evil", and used the example of a serial killer. There are so many examples of evil, however, that using one such as this as an example causes confusion. Living in the Chicago suburbs, there is a living memory of what John Wayne Gacey did to too many little boys. What about the people who supply drugs and guns to gangs? What about the gangs themselves? Can they be thought of, too, as examples of radical evil?

We Americans personalize and individualize our understanding of God, of religion, of faith; we also personalize and individualize our understanding of evil. When Pres. Bush called the people who attacked us ten years ago "evil doers" he was both right and quite scary. It should have been obvious to anyone not a sociopath that people who would plan, organize, and then carry out an act of violence on this scale were evil. Naming it as such served no moral purpose. It did, however, give folks on the right something to scream at folks like me - we refused to agree with the President that suicide bombers like this were evil! Liberals were morally confused!

Talking about evil, when we really want to talk about it, is difficult. Like the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell said of obscenity, I won't define it, but I certainly know it when I see it. Is terrorism "evil"? Well, it depends on the terrorists. If we in the US were occupied by a foreign force, I might think it justifiable to take action against an occupying force, including using violence. I certainly would not rule it out a priori. On the other hand, being the resident of an occupying power - sure, absolutely, terrorism and terrorist acts are evil.

You see what I mean?

Some cases are easy. Aforementioned serial killers. Anyone who deliberately harms a child.

Some cases are more difficult. What about a member of the US military, under constant strain in a combat zone, in a situation where both tension and adrenaline run high, thought takes a back seat, faced with less than a second to make a choice, and as a result of this choice facing news reports and court martial proceedings for killing a family? Is he or she evil? There are many, including me, who would insist not; I, for one, would go further and insist that, even if a violation of military law is found to have taken place, it would be preferable to allow such a person to undergo treatment rather than do time. On the other hand, were I a member of the extended family of a victim of such an incident - and there have been far too many such incidents in recent years as the toll of years of war-fighting start to show on our young men and women - I would certainly not only demand legal justice, but view the individual who committed such an act as an evil individual.

It doesn't get easier, does it. Both sides have merit. Different views have much going for them. No view is "true", in the sense that some binding authority can determine for all parties what the "proper" way to view such cases "should" be.

As I wrote above, we tend to individualize and personalize matters of evil. Child molesters. Murderers. Psychopaths of various shades.

What about a corporation that corners the market on global rice production and distribution, then withholds its product creating global food shortages? This happened a few years back when Archer-Daniels-Midland, possessing patents on a small variety of hardy, high-yield hybrids of rice, created artificial rice panics. The price of rice sky-rocketed, even as supplies of the grain disappeared. Warehouses full of the grain sat and rotted because the asking price for distribution was too high.

What about burying tons of toxic materials underground, then lying about it, allowing home developers to build on poison ground?

What about politicians who refuse to act to alleviate dire economic and social conditions - from slavery and lynching through Depression and unemployment, which bring on a host of hardships - out of a desire for political gain, or the belief that these are not evils to be fought, but natural conditions to be tolerated?

We human beings are capable of horrendous acts of evil and violence against our fellows. Whether it is the polemicist who dehumanizes, the individual actor who strikes out, or groups and even nations who act either out of fear or some narrowly-defined understanding of self-interest, all can cause great suffering. Too often, we tend to offer excuses - it was necessary to keep the stock price up, to defend our national interest, he was an abused child, she was a drug addict - that do not name what has happened. We do not want to be the ones who are evil. Evil is they. It is those other people - car-bombers and the people who put IED's by the side of the road; child molesters and serial killers; political movements that threaten the status quo - who are evil, who want to damage what we hold precious.

Except, of course, when we insist others are "evil", we are doing an evil. No one gets free from the indictment. For me, as a Christian, this is one of the lessons of original sin; our best intentions, our most sincerely held principles and beliefs - even, perhaps especially our religious beliefs - can be a source of horrific violence and brutality.

When, at the end of her Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil, too many people misunderstood her point. Juxtaposing those two words has brought about arguments about which should be emphasized. Really, her point was far more simple, and disturbing. Any of us, carrying out our duties, going about our daily round, is capable of monstrous evil. The Ted Bundy's and John Wayne Gacey's of the world have a certain panache, but distract from the troubling thought that, in fact, the difference between them and us, between the Einsatzgruppen with their orders to kill the Jews and communists and socialists and local political leaders and intellectuals and the US with its precision-guided weapons and Seal Teams going after individuals is largely artificial. The recognition of the banality of evil is the recognition that we are all guilty.

Like Art's insistence that Christian morality demands limiting sex to heterosexual marriage, it rewards us for being virtuous without even trying, yet causes far more mischief, far more damage, than a different point of view. Which is not to say he is either "right" or "wrong" in any absolute sense. With him on this, as on much else, I disagree, yet I would be lying if I said I thought my position had greater moral merit than his. Like talking about evil, talking about morality always has that trap, a trap in to which we fall far too easily. I refuse to reward my position with a virtue it cannot possess. All I can do is live it out the best I can, with careful attention to make sure I'm not screwing things up too much along the way.

Which is kind of how I think we need to talk about, and think through, the whole matter of radical evil. Rather than talk about it in absolute terms, we need to remember the differences between those others who are evil and we who are not are, at the best of times, differences of appearance only. The real heart of darkness lies within all of us, and in the midst of all of us.

Virtual Tin Cup

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