Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Problem of Evil

"human kind Cannot bear very much reality"

It was Jan Sobrino's observations that, I later realized, brought the issue to mind.  There is so much discussion of evil in the world, and what causes it.  Too little, however, do we bother to examine the question of evil itself:  that is, what is "evil"?  Because reflexively, we think of evil as what is done to us; which excludes evil as something we do.

Let me give you a perfectly mundane example:  I walked into the kitchen as I was writing this.  The radio is in there.  NPR was running a story about business meetings, and it noted that the people who run meetings often don't realize they aren't doing it well.  But the people who attend the meetings report the meetings are not run well.  The problem, the story reports, is a lack of self-reflection by the people in charge of so many unproductive business meetings.

Not exactly an "evil," perhaps; but it nicely (and serendipitously) illustrates the point:  evil is what is done to us (bad meetings by poor leaders), not something we do (those who lead meetings don't think there is a problem).  What is missing is any sense of self-reflection, any sense that you and I are participants in the world, active agents rather than acted upon.  We shun, in brief, responsibility (which is, oddly, the root of "too many meetings":  multiple meetings diffuse responsibility and delay the need to make hard decisions).

So ISIS is evil, and Al Qaeda, and religious belief in general, because all true religious belief is fanaticism (the Sam Harris postulate, let's call it).  But nationalism is not evil, nor a source of evil, not even when it destroys social orders and leaves other nations open to the predations of fanatics, religious or otherwise.  Tribalism is good so long as it is our tribalism, because then, of course, it isn't tribalism at all (and so E.O. Wilson imagines we would all be holding hands and singing "Kumbayah" by now (with no reference to God, of course!) were it not for religion (which has made absolutely no moves toward ecumenism in the last century or so, right?.  Honestly, if these people would just read the scholarship on fundamentalism alone, they'd understand fundamentalism is a response both to the modern world and to ecumenism, which is part of the modern world.).  Tribalism itself is evil, and we are not evil:  they are!  Nationalism is the assertion of privileges for our tribe.  Seldom do we see it as the excuse to inflict evil on others.

We see our support of the systems which "reinforce present structures of injustice, oppression, and exclusion" as evil only if we pay attention to what our support does; so we don't pay much attention.  Instead, evil is the fault of someone else:  corporations; the Koch Brothers; Republicans; FoxNews.  There is always a catalog of evil-doers, and we are never in it.  So whatever Stephen Weinberg does for his family is not evil but merely ethical, because Stephen Weinberg couldn't stand one moment of self-reflection on the consequences of what he thinks is an ethos, at all.  He cannot bear it, so he will not do it; he pronounces himself good, and is done with it.

But how different is he from the rest of us?

Some of this is what can be fairly labeled "boundary work," and is well explained this way:  "This is who we are, and that is who you are--behave accordingly."  To do this we create "artificial boundaries in a field which is 'naturally' continuous."  Distinctions between religious fanaticism and the demands of either nationalism or capitalism are actually hard to maintain; the fields can be said to be "'naturally' continuous."  But we can't have that, because that implicates us in evil; so we must establish boundaries.  And any attempt to break down those boundaries, disturbs us.

So in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither slave nor free:  but there is forgiven and unforgiven, and that is something that must be earned.  Why else do we read the anointing in Luke as a story of a woman weeping over her sins, rather than trying to seduce a customer?  Do we find it easier to participate in a movement for her empowerment (and so release from the forced life of prostitution as the only option for a woman with no family support?), or do we demand she earn our forgiveness, and God's?  Ah!  Are we evil now because we condemn this woman?  Or are we simply insisting she "behave accordingly," and entering a roomful of men and touching one of them, indeed washing his feet with her tears (body fluids!) and drying them with her hair (which Paul tells us should be bound, not free!) is not appropriate, and certainly not Godly,  behavior?

How easy it is to say:  they are evil, but we are good.


  1. You take all the fun out of tribalism. How can I be good if you aren't evil?

  2. Wilson's solution is to eradicate me, in the name of the greater good.

    Which is double plus good, I guess.

  3. Wonder if that's ever been tried before...

  4. Hah! You'll never take me alive, copper!

    TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!!!!

  5. And: Godwin's Law!