Monday, June 11, 2007

Can we first define "evil"?

The nominee for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in February, 2007:

In his opening remarks, Mullen, a Vietnam War veteran, told Pearl Harbor sailors: “I honestly believe this is the most dangerous time in my life.

The enemy now is basically evil and fundamentally hates everything we are — the democratic principles for which we stand … This war is going to go on for a long time. It’s a generational war.”
Jeane Kirkpatrick, apparently without irony, would label this attitude "making war to keep peace." And, apparently, it really is all about "how we comprehend evil." So let's consider, outside a religious context, if we can, what "evil" means.

Is it slasher films and "gorenography"? There is more than a passing connection. "Hostel II" is, once again, set in Europe. Americans have always known, implicitly now, but explicitly before, that Europe was "decadent," so the premise of the films is easily accepted in that setting. Then again, all the victims are unpleasant and deserving of punishment (just as in the slasher films, where the teenagers who engage in hot sex for our prurient viewing, are the first to die at the hands of the maniac killer); so we get to eat our cake and have it, too. Just as easily, we can believe (though this is not a chicken or egg proposition vis a vis horror films) that the world outside our borders is decadent (just as it once was inside our borders, until we "pacified" the natives by exterminating them) and so we must make war in order to assure peace.

It's not that I don't think evil is a real concept, names a true thing, has, as we loosely say, "existence." But evil should be, always was, extraordinary; it was a word set aside for the worst imaginable. Adolf Hitler was evil, we were told. The Holocaust was evil. It was so evil, we had to coin a new word for it: genocide. Extraordinary Evil: Why Genocide Happens, a book coming out in the fall, captures that meaning, almost preserves it, now. Because evil is on its way to becoming banal, when it isn't linked to religion. And it's hard to argue that claiming the people killing in the name of, on behalf of, because of, or simply for the reason of, a religion, is not itself a religious use of the word. Moreover, it makes the conflict of "good" (us) and "evil" (them) religious as well. No one doubted when we took on the Axis powers that they were evil (if only because they were agressors); but no one cast the battle in explicitly, or even implicit, religious terms. Any who did were clearly marginalized at the time, and by history. But now we've come to rely on evil as our good. We need evil in order to justify our violence. This is an old song in American history, but it can only carry us for so long. Having declared Hitler evil, how do we go higher? When evil is no longer evil enough, what do we look for then?

There are two ways to approach this: one is philosophical/theological, and abstract. The "irony of American history," if you will; the idea of a pure nation (America) in a fallen world (everybody else). We cling to that one whether it is in our foreign policy, or our choice of horror films. What Adm. Mullen wants to claim is an exalted status for us, one that sets us apart from our enemies in every way. No surprise: Alberto Gonzales has made the same claim. Niebuhr, as I said before, saw this. Niebuhr, as it turns out, was also too much of an optimist, and not enough of a Calvinist:

"The Christian understanding of human nature, of course, is that we are always like our enemy. Reinhold Niebuhr called it the "Christian idea of the ambiguity of human virtue." Writing about America's response to Communism during the Cold War, Niebuhr noted the irony of our opposition to Communism:

John Adams in his warnings to Thomas Jefferson would seem to have had a premonition of this kind of politics. "Power," he wrote, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party." Adams's understanding of the power of the self's passions and ambitions to corrupt the self's reason is a simple recognition of the facts of life which refute all theories, whether liberal or Marxist, about the possibility of a completely disinterested self. Adams, as every Christian understanding of man has done, nicely anticipated the Marxist theory of an "ideological taint" in reason when men reason about each other's affairs and arrive at conclusions about each other's virtues, interests and motives. The crowning irony of the Marxist theory of ideology is that it foolishly and self-righteously confined the source of this taint to economic interest and to a particular class. It was, therefore, incapable of recognizing all the corruptions of ambition and power which would creep inevitably into its paradise of innocency. In any event we have to deal with a vast religious-political movement which generates more extravagant forms of political injustice and cruelty out of the pretensions of innocency than we have ever known in human history.
"Niebuhr was writing about the tendency of America to become like the Marxist system it then fiercely opposed, often with the same language of facing a "new enemy" in a "perpetual war." But he was optimistic that matters would not decay to the point that the Marxist systems would become indistinguishable from the American one:

The liberal world which opposes this monstrous evil is filled ironically with milder forms of the same pretension. Fortunately they have not resulted in the same evils, partly because they are not as consistently held; and partly because we have not invested our ostensible "innocents" with inordinate power. Though a tremendous amount of illusion about human nature expresses itself in American culture, our political institutions contain many of the safeguards against the selfish abuse of power which our Calvinist fathers insisted upon. According to the accepted theory, our democracy owes everything to the believers in the innocency and perfectibility of man and little to the reservations about human nature which emanated from the Christianity of New England. But fortunately there are quite a few accents in our constitution which spell out the warning of John Cotton: "Let all the world give mortall man no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will. . . . And they that have the liberty to speak great things you will find that they will speak: great blasphemies."
"The irony now is, in the name of that same Calvinism, the current Administration is hell-bent on tearing apart all of those safeguards against the selfish abuse of power. Niebuhr saw it as The Irony of American History. What he couldn't foresee was just how ironic American history would become, and just how much like our enemy." Niebuhr was more optimistic than that. Interestingly, Al Gore, using Niebuhr, recognizes it:

"Our founders," Gore told [Arianna Huffington], "had an incredibly sophisticated understanding of human nature. They believed that there is the potential for good and bad in all of us. They had a view very similar to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King's guru, who put forth the idea that we all have the potential for good and bad and that the ways in which we relate to one another, and the conditions within which we live our lives, have a big impact on whether our vulnerabilities for bad or abusive behavior increase or decrease."
I would note, as Gore does, that you don't have to be a theologian to understand that human nature is complex, human motivation ambiguous, and that "the conditions within which we live our lives, have a big impact on whether our vulnerabilities for bad or abusive behavior increase or decrease." The Founding Fathers, after all, weren't running a seminary. And, as Auden observed: "I and the public know/what all schoolchildren learn/Those to whom violence is done/Do Violence in return."

The other way to respond to this is concrete. Chris Hedges has a book scheduled for release at the end of the year: Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians. I have no more than the catalog copy on it, but it tells you something:

Collateral Damage is organized around key military operations on the battlefield — Convoys, Checkpoints, Detentions, Raids, Suppressive Fire, and “Hearts and Minds.” Hedges and Al-Arian uncover how the very conduct of the war and occupation have turned the American forces into agents of terror for most Iraqis. The military convoys that speed through the centers of towns, often driving on the wrong side of the street or on sidewalks, have become trains of death. Soldiers fire upon Iraqi vehicles with impunity at checkpoints; pregnant women being rushed to hospital have been killed at roadblocks when their husbands failed to slow down and children have watched in horror as their parents have been killed.

Hedges and Al-Arian show how this widespread pattern of civilian killing has fueled the insurgency in Iraq, giving rise to instability, sectarian violence, and total chaos.
I read that, and I think of the "ordinary American" I saw on a panel on CNN yesterday, who kept saying we need to "remove the restrictions" on our military, so they can win. Because, after all, the greatest military power in the world can't be defeated except by its leadership, right? What all schoolchildren learn, and yet some of us still can't learn it. Now can we talk honestly about "evil"? Because those to whom violence is done, have their own understanding of who is "evil."

POWELL: They are. Guantanamo has become a major, a major problem for America’s perception — as it’s seen, the way the world perceives America. And if it was up to me, I would close Guantanamo — not tomorrow, this afternoon. I’d close it. And I’d not let any of those people go. I would simply move them to the United States and put them into our federal legal system. The concern was, well, then they’ll have access to lawyers, then they’ll have access to writs of habeas corpus. So what? Let them. Isn’t that what our system’s all about? And by the way, America, unfortunately, has too many people in jail, all of whom had lawyers and access to writs of habeas corpus. And so we can handle bad people in our system. And so I would get rid of Guantanamo and I’d get rid of the military commissions system, and use established procedures in federal law or in the manual for courts martial. I would do that because it’s more equatable and it’s more understandable in constitutional terms. But I’d also do it because every morning I pick up a paper and some authoritarian figure, some person somewhere, is using Guantanamo to hide their own misdeeds. So essentially we have shaken the belief that the world had in America’s justice system by keeping a place like Guantanamo open and creating things like the military commission. We don’t need it, and it’s causing us far more damage than any good we get for it. But remember what I started this discussion saying, don’t let any of them go. Put them in a different system, a system that is experienced, that knows how to handle people like this.
And this, of course, is all just the public narrative, the secular one. These are the arguments you pile up in response to the guy who says the military is "restricted" and could "win" if we'd "just let them." He was quite explicit in what he meant, this unknown gentleman: "Wipe 'em all out, that'll stop 'em," are not his exact words, but very close. "Kill 'em all," the priest allegedly said, "God will know his own." Interestingly, one argument for the historical validity of those words is that they are peculiarly Christian:

The idea of "Killing them all" and leaving it to God to sort out the souls of the dead is a popular one among traditionalist Christians. Indeed it is characteristically Christian. It only makes sense to those who believe in heaven and an afterlife. The phrase would be meaningless to an atheist.
Or, for that matter, to any adherent to any other religion which did not accept the fundamentally Platonic doctrine of immortality. Such is the ambiguity of human nature which Christians are called to witness to. As God says to Jeremiah: "The human heart is devious; who can fathom it? I, God, test the heart...." When even God is not sure what human beings will do next, or why, who are we to be sure we can know, and identify, "evil" in others?

It's an interesting concept, "evil," for a number of reasons. It assumes there is an opposing force in the world, which limits the power of God. There is a problem right there, especially for an omnipotent God. If God allows evil to exist, then perhaps Gloucester is right, as "As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods." But if all things come from God, must we now, as Job admonishes his wife, accept ill as well as good? Either God is the author of all we know in this life, or God abdicates a certain portion of it to an evil power who sports with us. It's a bit of a theodicial trap.

So let's back up from evil a moment, and reconsider the thoroughly debased Romantic ideal that it is all about us. That's hard to discard, because it's also the basis of existentialism and, while few of us may claim to be existentialists, or even now understand just what the philosophy espouses, we are hard-pressed to propose another theory of existence that we can subscribe to, a valid alternative that explains "the meaning of life" to us. We are all, in Western culture at least, Romantics through and through. Even questioning "why am I here" is a question of radical self-importance that would have been literally unthinkable earlier than the 19th century in Europe. We like to imagine that is a universal question, but you will search in vain for it in the stories of Chaucer's pilgrims, among Beowulf and his warriors, or in the Iliad or Sophocles' greatest tragedies. If anyone ever earned the right to ask "Why am I here?", it would be Oedipus, yet the question never crosses his lips. Seek it in the Bible; you won't find it there. Even the Westminster Catechism, written long before Wordsworth and Coleridge set pen to paper to re-invent poetry and being creating the modern world, doesn't cast it's first question in terms of "Why am I here?," but speaks of the chief end of humanity. And what is that chief end? "To glorify God and enjoy him sic forever." Not much Romantic purpose, there; not much to validate my individual existence. But that affirmation is part of the narrative of Romanticism, of Western European culture since the 19th century; the narrative of the authors of the catechism was another narrative, a different narrative, a narrative bound up with a confession of faith. And the question is: what happens when you remove that confession of faith from the narrative, but maintain the vocabulary? The authors of the Westminster Catechism were no doubt quite comfortable speaking of "evil." But we are no longer comfortable using their narrative. We like their vocabulary, though. It's familiar, and we think we know what it means. The problem is, of course, we don't; and it's leading us into nightmare.

Evil connected to religion, at least "evil" as traditional Christian doctrine understands it, is not "them" and something "over there." It is the state of human nature, the condition of human existence. But when evil is then reserved for Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot, for genocide and terrorism, we quickly remove it from ourselves, convinced we aren't that bad. And we aren't; evil is too easily turned into a club to beat others with, another weapon of our power, our need for control. But then we lose control of "evil," too, and it no longer does our bidding. If only "they" are evil, then only "they" deserve to die, and "wiping them all out" to solve the problem becomes the only solution to every perceived international problem (and national; that same sentiment lies at the heart of the immigration debate today). But if we take evil back into ourselves, if we recognize our complicity in the violence of the world, if we stop thinking of ourselves as "innocent nation" in a "decadent world," perhaps we could start to make a change in the world. For Christians, being "in the world, but not of the world," means recognizing a struggle; Israel called it the "struggle with God." Muslims, as I understand, call it the "jihad," the struggles of the spirit. If those of us who are Christians would start to understand that evil is us, too, perhaps we would start to recognize the struggle is in us, not aimed at us. And the rest of us could at least recognize the religious basis of our vocabulary, and begin to choose our words, as well as our wars, a bit more carefully.


Robert - I don't know if you heard my story a little while back. This truly stunned me.

I was just reading Christ Stopped at Eboli, which is Carlo Levi's account of his year in exile in Lucania - the back of beyond - in Italy under Mussolini. During that year Italy declared war on Abbyssinia. Word for word, this is what Levi tells the reader Mussolini told Italians:

"Abyssinia hates us for our freedom."

I about stroked out when I read that. Word for word.
Perhaps the only reason we were the "good guys" in WWII is because we weren't the "bad guys."


I feel the need to clarify: When Rick (my grate gud frend, as Molesworth would put it) says this:

"The idea of "Killing them all" and leaving it to God to sort out the souls of the dead is a popular one among traditionalist Christians."

This is certainly news to me.

But of course you are right that the first duty to "fight evil" is to fight it within, to struggle against my own evil. That doesn't relieve me of any obligation to recognize that good and evil are capable of gradation and that greater and lesser evils require differing responses. The fact that my motives are always mixed may still require that I take a stand against an external evil. But a failure to sufficiently recognize the ubiquity of original sin, a failure to see that there is no essential difference between myself and an Osama bin Laden, can lead us to become his miror image (and to a large extent, has).

The difficulty is in navigating between the extremes, between, on the one hand, thinking only the other is evil, and, on the other, thinking my own evil is so ingrained that I refuse to confront it outside myself. To act righteously we need both self-knowledge and self-criticism. Our heart is dark, but it's the only thing we've got.
Rick Allen
And I say this:

"The idea of "Killing them all" and leaving it to God to sort out the souls of the dead is a popular one among traditionalist Christians."

I don't accept it, either, nor do I consider it Christian. But then, my Christianity makes me a pacifist, which is also a position at odds with "traditionalist Christians," at least as judged by history. And then there is the question of whether I am permitted to do evil in order to oppose evil. Just because the heart is all we've got, doesn't excuse us from responsibility for doing evil.
I don't meant to be critical or issue a rebuke. But morality is something of a zero-sum game for me; you can't excuse your evil by appealing to good intentions. We're right back, in other words, to the question of power. Is it okay for me to wield power, if I intend to do good? That's the usual excuse, but I think the teachings of Jesus undercut every effort we make in that direction. Faith is radical, and radically individual, and it requires a radical trust ("faith") in God, a trust which may appear to be sheer lunacy. Certainly the early church had to struggle for a long time to make sense of the crucifixion.

That ambiguity and lack of clarity is truly at the heart of Christianity. As Paul said, Christians must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, in the apousia, not parousia, of our Lord. It is, indeed, a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

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