Overused Words That No One Understands, No. 2: Good & Evil
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:9-21
Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. – Mark 10:18
In the knowledge of good and evil [humanity] does not understand [itself] in the reality of the destiny appointed in [its] origin, but rather in [its] own possibilities, [its] possibility of being good or evil. [Human beings know themselves] now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that [we] now know only [ourselves] and no longer know God at all; for [human beings] can know God only if [we] know only God. The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God. Only against God can [ a person] know good and evil. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp. 17-18
I sometimes think we are so wedded to certain words and concepts and images because they make it easy to understand the world. In and of itself, such a tendency isn’t bad. We are living in an age when we are bombarded with so much information it has become nearly impossible to filter out the important from the trivial, the relevant from the nonsensical. We need these filters in order to keep our brains from overloading. It becomes more than just habit to apply them. soon, it becomes such a part of who we are that we do it when, perhaps, it might be better to stop filtering and think about what we are reading, or hearing, or seeing, and give it the privilege of actual thought.
I know I’ve written about what I call “the kitten-burning trap” before: A story spreads on the internet of someone burning a kitten or kittens. Everyone bewails the horror of kitten-burning. For some reason, the discussion switches from the horrors of kitten-burning to who and who does not denounce kitten-burning. Not long after this, people who do not denounce kitten-burning are targeted with demands to denounce it; failure to do so is seen as the absence of a moral compass; perhaps the person in question is a closet kitten-burner?
Substitute any alleged moral failing for kitten-burning, and I think the “trap” element becomes clear enough. It should go without saying that kitten-burning is horrible. Indeed, that there are many who do NOT denounce kitten burning testifies not so much to a secret society of kitten burners as it does to those with enough moral sense to understand that even a child would understand how heinous such an act would be. Why waste time and energy denouncing what most folks already understand to be a morally vicious act? Yet, silence is too often understood as consent, whether it’s kitten-burning, the Hindu practice of Sati, or chattel slavery. We descend down spirals of lunacy as some demand a moral stand on something that is obviously horrific, and those with a willingness to allow horrors to speak for themselves become accused of silent, perhaps even active but secret, practicioners of said despicable crime.
In St. Paul’s benedictory comments in his letter to the church in Rome, there is an absolutely beautiful call to live as those saved by Christ. At the very beginning, he writes, “Hate evil; hold fast to what is good”. That, it would seem, trumps any theologians attempt to set to one side the discernment of good and evil as a Christian imperative. After all, how can we hate evil and hold fast to the good if we set to one side the discernment Paul seems to be calling for?
Yet, Jesus makes it clear enough in the Synoptics – the word “good” can only be applied to “God”; he denies it even to himself. What, then, should we do? After all, how often are we told it is precisely the ignorance of good and evil that is that root of so much of our social dysfunction. A staple line in many contemporary horror films, particularly those that feature some kind of demonic entity or character, is a character’s confession that he or she didn’t really know what evil was until the event or person at the center of the film’s plot made itself known to them. The extension, then, sounds clearly enough with ears to hear: We just don’t understand good and evil. Pres. Bush told us that, and the echo chamber sounded it far and near. Liberals were those who failed to call evil by its name, either out of ignorance or complicity, therefore they were either morally deficient or, the usual supposition, morally vicious enough to sympathize with “evil doers”.
To all those who insist “true” or “real” evil is only the presence of something described as demonic, I wonder how they would describe the kidnapping, rape, and brain-washing of nearly a 1,000 women by Nigeria’s Boko-Haram terrorist organization? What about mass graves that dot so much of the world’s landscape, from the site of the World Trade Center through Bosnia-Herzogovina to Cambodia? Are these not mute testimony to evil in the world? What about efforts by elected officials to deny the needy the resources they need to survive? These are just a few of the things I would call “evil”, if I thought the word useful. It doesn’t take coming face-to-face with some poor person possessed by the Devil for me to know “evil”.
Back to Romans. I think it is important to note that St. Paul spends absolutely zero time describing what he means by “evil”. On the contrary, his effort is to exhort and encourage the fledgling Roman Christian congregation to live out of love toward all, even those who persecute them. The problem, it seems, wasn’t an abundance of evil. It was, rather, a lack of good that was part of the problem in the Roman Church. The call to good works demonstrates a need that was not being addressed.
So what about today? Why am I so annoyed by the whole “good versus evil” thing? It isn’t because I secretly wish to encourage antimonianism. That’s just kind of stupid, really. It is, rather, to note that – like the word “community” – the words are so overused they have become meaningless, empty except perhaps by the pet peeves of whoever is using them at any particular time. Part of Bonhoeffer’s description of “good and evil” as “falling away from God” lies in the Biblical story of the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. This event is often referred to as “the Fall”, the moment humanity broke the most basic covenant God made with Creation – simple obedience. From this flows history in its long, bloody footprints across the globe. Another reason Bonhoeffer insists we set to one side an emphasis on “good” versus “evil” is that, for the Christian, the question is not the simplistic moral choice. Nor is it creating ethical formulas for acting “good”. Rather, the primary ethical duty of the Christian is each day, perhaps more often, to seek the will of God then live it. For some, actions followed under this call might look like evil. Like, say, helping people plot to assassinate their national leader . . .
Whether or not Bonhoeffer was setting up some kind of theological justification for his participation in the Abwehr’s plot against Hitler’s life, his theological position has, from the moment I read it, sounded far more in line with Christian teaching than our too-often abused search for good and evil, for good guys and bad guys, as if being a Christian was like a child’s game of cops and robbers. For example, those women kidnapped by Boko Haram? They were recently rescued by the Nigerian military and are in refugee camps, being tended by therapists and counselors as well as medical professionals. Yet, all insist that, for all it was a good thing the women were rescued from what would have been a life of little more than sexual slavery, they will face all sorts of challenges when they return to the towns, villages, and cities from which they were taken. Women are too often viewed as willing and complicit in their violations in such acts. They could face everything from expulsion from their homes and separation from their families to death by those who see honor killing as the only recourse. So, the kidnapping was evil, sure. Has the rescue been a good thing? What are we, far away and ignorant of so much of the life and mores of Nigerians, to do? Denounce them as evil as well? Is it really that simple?
And the shooting in Texas. . . When a group led by a well-documented anti-Muslim bigot gathers a bunch of people together to draw cartoons that insult the Prophet of Islam, is that good or evil? When Muslims, morally and emotionally exhausted by the constant insults they see and hear and read day in and day out, resort to violence, is that good or evil?
How many more mass graves do we have to uncover before someone demands “Enough?” What if some of those mass graves are in the United States, evidence of our history of warfare and violence against the native peoples? Are we really prepared to admit that we Americans are no better than the Serbs, the Soviets, the Germans of World War II, the Chinese under Mao Te-tsung, or the Khmer Rouge?
What if we spent a moment or two thinking about what is going on in the world, and realized the world is a strange, complicated, contrary place and even the most horrific event might well be far more nuanced than our simple “good and evil” filter tells us?