Evil: A Case Study

June 16, 2018 § 3 Comments

The vehicle drives through the gate of the concentration camp and armed guards herd the People Declared as Other into a large, loud, chaotic processing room. Everyone is given a number—fathers, mothers, children, babies—everyone.

Then the children are torn from their mother’s arms, screaming, crying, calling out, “Momma!” echoing desperately across the room. The mothers, too, are screaming, crying, calling out their children’s names, arms outstretched, struggling in vain against the armed men restraining them, as their children are dragged away.

To another concentration camp, the parents to one, the children to another hundreds of miles away. The mothers’ numbers enter the database with one state bureaucracy, the children’s with another. No one anywhere can answer the question, Is there some central database that can ever bring them back together again?

When is this? 1942? Where is this? Bergen-Belsen? No. San Diego, 2018. Land of the free and the brave.

Who is this? Hitler? Himmler? No. Trump. Sessions.


Knowing, willful, “legal” violence against innocents. Cruelty. Indiscriminate cruelty. Or is it indiscriminate? Cruelty in the name of the law. Cruelty to satisfy the baser instincts of one’s supporters. Cruelty in service of some principle. The principle? America first. Cruelty for the Fatherland. As defined by white, old, rich men.

Shrouded in the red, white, and blue. Red for the blood shed for the Fatherland. White for the color of the skin of those who deserve to live in the Fatherland. Blue for bruises on the arms of mothers and their little children.

Who are these people, who want to do such things? Who believes it’s righteous to orphan children? Who believes in torture? Who laughs about grabbing women by their genitals?

Now, I know that by calling these acts, this policy, maybe these men, evil, I am really saying more about me than I am about them. I am crossing some kind of line. I am declaring a radical stance in opposition to these acts, these policies, these men. I am saying that I believe they need to be condemned, damned, and stopped, if possible.

But how? As Jesus taught, not with violence, but with the truth–and with my body. Not my fists, not that part of my body. With my wrists. With my feet. With my breath. As on the cross.

If these acts are not evil, then what acts are? If these policies are not demonic, not an addiction to power, to lies (“the Democrats did it”), to force, and to dehumanization, then what policies are evil? If these men are not evil, then what are they? What god DO they serve?

Ideological Evil

June 1, 2018 § 2 Comments

In 1391 Christian mobs in Seville murdered 4000 Jews and drove 5000 Jewish families from their homes. Why?

The Gospel of John had told them that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of their god. In fact, all the gospels had made that claim, to one degree or the other. And the Church was glad to elaborate.

Some darkness in the soul of Christianity impelled those people to this atrocity, people who otherwise probably loved their dogs and their children. Some failure in Christian thought and Christian institutions allowed those people to ignore “Love thy neighbor” and some other important teachings of their Jesus.

The gospels also painted Pontius Pilate as a hand-wringing weakling, when in fact he was so maniacal and brutal that the Roman Senate removed him from his post as governor of Judea fearing he would foment revolution. Which in fact he did, it turns out. Christian scripture is at great pains to make nice with Rome, with Gentiles, and with empire, while Jesus was Rome’s sworn enemy, ambivalent about Gentiles, and judicially assassinated for rebellion against empire.

Two thousand years later, Dick Cheney celebrated American empire in a Christmas card, claiming he had God’s sanction, perhaps even God’s direction, when he invaded Iraq. He made torturing insurrectionists “legal” when the god he claims to have worshiped is the most famous insurrectionist in human history to be tortured to death.

Hitler had his neo-Teutonic master-race mythology. Lenin and Stalin had Das Kapital.

Human communities can become possessed by an idea or set of ideas that encourage their potential for evil. Demonically possessed.

By this I mean possessed as by an addiction—a compulsion to satisfy a need against their better judgment, even against their “will”. That’s my definition of demonic.

Evil ideologies work like an addiction in the collective psyche. Addicted to the tribe’s desire for solidarity and even identity as established over and against something or someone—the desire for the false security that can be found in “us” and “them”. Addicted to denial of one’s own shortcomings, to projecting them on another—to finding and punishing the scapegoat. Addicted to the will to power.

I think we should be more mindful of ideological evil in our consideration of Quaker testimonies and the testimonial life. This means thinking in terms of the evil ideas that encourage evil acts and that enable passive acceptance of empire, ideologies to which society, or at least some of the communities within society, have become addicted.

Evil as spiritual

May 19, 2018 § 10 Comments

What do I mean when I say that for me, evil is “spiritual”?

By spiritual I mean transcendental. Real evil transcends individual consciousness. Psychopaths and sociopaths not evil, they are sick. Evil for me is social. Yet it even transcends normal social interaction. It has a power of its own, though it has no existence in itself.

Here, I am deeply influenced and inspired by Walter Wink’s series of books on the Powers. I’ve reworked some of his ideas for my own understanding, but I think his basic approach is right on—defining angels, demons, etc. as the spiritual dimension of “sociological” phenomena, the ways that humans embody collective impulses to power in human systems, institutions, and collective behavior more generally.

But how can an institution or a collective behavior have a spiritual dimension? The spiritual dimension of these collective human systems, institutions, and behaviors lies in their power to affect and even infect individual moral choice, very often against the will, or at least the natural inclination, of those involved.

Mobs are the most obvious example. “Good,” “Christian” men and women caught up in a spirit of rage or fear to do something or enable something that they would never do on their own—haul a wrongly accused black man from the county jail to string him up in a tree, cover up or stay silent about the fact that your pharmaceutical company’s drug causes heart attacks.

But here it gets tricky. I am saying that the forces that turn a society or a person toward harm, toward violence and oppression, are manifestations of evil. The evil is the momentum in collective human behavior that calls to the darkness that dwells within each of us, the shadow side of our consciousness, and that turns us away from the light, that animates harmful behavior.

That momentum has no existence apart from human experience and consciousness. It is not self-existent; it is not the devil. Or rather, the devil is not some independent, sentient spiritual embodiment of evil, but rather the force of evil as a phenomenon that emerges sometimes spontaneously in the interaction between individual humans through their fears, desires, and hatreds when they are gathered together in human collectives and someone or something lights the spark. The spirit of evil manifests in these collectives and takes on a life of its own.

These negative harmful impulses can manifest in a mob, or in the Third Reich, but they live in human interaction, in parking lot conversations, media content, Facebook posts, popular songs and stories. They are collective nightmares given mouths and hands and feet.

And some persons get energy from these manifestations, these impulses. For me, evil people are people who get energy from doing harm, very similar to the way we get energy from sharing love with each other, only turned back to the shadows, towards deep wounds, needs, fears, and negative impulses.

This is essentially a Jungian argument. We’re talking about the collective unconscious, which is the “consciousness” that dwells in a “body” or infrastructure comprised of human groups, institutions, and systems. We are talking about collective memory stored in stories, art and literature, in the news and the “media”, in religious liturgies and theologies, in political ideologies, Facebook trends, Oscar reception speeches, urban myths, and conspiracy theories.

When a human collective experiences trauma, the memories and the wounds evoke an impulse to repress the experience, to deny it or push it down.

But this does not work. Just as psychic wounds cause neuroses in individuals, collective trauma causes collective neuroses. Just as individuals store the impact of trauma in their psyches and even in their bodies, so human groups store their shared pain in their narratives and their institutions. This repression affects collective behavior. A generation traumatized by the Great War punishes a generation of Germans, who then lash out against their persecutors with another war and traumatize another generation.

The whole thing turns “evil” when it enters a down-spiraling feedback loop, a maelstrom into the shadows caused by holding the microphone up to the speaker, a group listening to its own angry and fearful voice and getting more and more worked up.

But the collective needs the voices—and the ears—of real people. The collective consciousness needs its tongues and hands and feet. Someone has to be Hitler. Someone has to propose the lynch mob. Someone has to say, we’re going to cover up this data about our drug or product. Someone has to get off on this cycle—or at least get something out of it.

For me, the momentum behind this kind of feedback loop is what I call evil.

Still, calling something or someone evil says more about the person doing the calling than about the thing they are calling evil. What am I saying when I call something or someone evil? What do I become? I want to explore this in the next post.


May 19, 2018 § 4 Comments

Back to sin and evil, the topic of my last post.

While according to Wilmer Cooper, Rufus Jones offered a viable new understanding of sin for liberal Friends, Cooper’s little article does not address Jones’s understanding of evil, and I don’t know Jones’s work well enough myself to fill in the gap. However, Jones’s “theology” of sin points in a direction that feels congruent with liberal Friends’ attitudes toward evil. Just as we are uncomfortable with the idea of sin, we are even more nervous about evil. Many of us just don’t want to think it really exists.

Here I suspect that Jones’s ground-breaking theological innovation of a divine-spark understanding of that of God in everyone is part of the reason. If there is something divine or at least quasi-divine about the human, then where does human evil fit in? How could the two coexist? I suspect that this cognitive dissonance explains part of our our unease with evil.

But there’s more to our unease with evil than believing that we all have a divine spark. I think we associate evil with theism and with the traditional Christian understanding of divine judgment and the war between good and evil that’s implicit in that worldview. And this links in with our cultural distaste for conflict in general.

Because “evil” calls for a much more radical response than mere human brokenness and mental disease, which are our usual alternatives. One feels called to a kind of spiritual warfare if you face a kind of spiritual darkness—a la the Lamb’s War. I suspect that modern liberal Quaker sensibilities and sensitivities are loathe to wade past the shallows of moderation into the deep waters of spiritual warfare. I myself can’t help but be repelled by the image of Bible-thumping evangelicals quoting Ephesians on the whole armor of God—while I am also weirdly attracted to it.

So taking evil seriously does cause problems. But so does denying its existence.

That’s why I’m headed out into those waters. Something important seems missing to me if you can’t recognize evil when you see it, some dangerous blindness. And that blindness inevitably leads to a dangerous moral reticence and confusion.

I “believe in” evil. I think it does exist. And I believe that people can be evil.

I think of the Third Reich as the  touchstone for virtually any modern discussion of evil. An entire nation swept up in a vision of hate, torture, death, and domination, with it’s individual disciples, its Himmlers and its Mengeles—these realities take me past the moderate shallows of human frailty into something much deeper and essentially spiritual in nature, something beyond the social, political, psychological, and/or medical in the human experience.

I am defining evil as something spiritual. What do I mean by this? This post would be very long if I continue, so I’m going to break here and resume in a subsequent post.

Sin and Evil

April 27, 2018 § 11 Comments

Ever since Dick Cheney was our torturer-in-chief, I have been thinking about the place of sin and, especially, of evil in modern liberal Quakerism and I’ve had some trouble sorting my own thoughts out. But I recently returned to my research for my book on Quakers and Capitalism and focusing on the rise of liberal Quakerism at the turn of the century, I started reading Thomas C. Kennedy’s British Quakerism, 1860–1920: The Transformation of a Religious Community (a terrific and very thorough book). In it I ran across a bibliographical citation that I hunted down: “The Influence of Rufus Jones on the Quaker view of sin and evil,” by Wilmer A. Cooper (Quaker Religious Thought, Volume 66, Article 4; available here).

Cooper claims that no one has had more influence on modern faith and practice than Jones and I found his little article very compelling. It has inspired me to finally start a series on sin and evil, starting with this historical piece. So here are some excerpts and some thoughts about about Jones’s take on sin.

Origin of sin. Cooper claims that Jones believed the source of sin to be “inherited ‘relics’ of fears, of appetites, of impulses, of instincts, and of desires” that arise from our biological nature, not as ‘original sin’ but as “raw material which is to be reshaped and molded into character”. (quotes are from Jones) At some point in our evolution, instinct and moral insight “collided” to give us a conscience, knowledge of good and evil.

This evolutionary approach actually makes some sense to me, in contrast to the utterly impossible and historically catastrophic myth of a first couple who were tempted by Satan, gave in, and infected the whole human race with original sin.

Transformation, not forgiveness. Coming from this view, Jones did not see sin as a debt to be paid or a condition to be forgiven, but a condition that required a transformation of “personality”. (“Personality” is a term much used by Friends around the turn of the century and does not mean what we usually mean today—our style as a person; but rather it denotes our personhood, the full expression of who we are as persons.) So sin comes, not from some human breaking of our relationship with God, but rather from a surrender of our will to lower instinctive impulses.

To Jones’s evolutionary approach I would add psychology, impulses that come from the unconscious, from our woundedness and our conditioning, especially as children. And then there’s mental illness. I want to treat these things separately in subsequent posts.

Thus, according to Jones, “there is nothing fundamentally wrong or bad about persons as such. There is no essential perversity of will.” (Cooper) Therefore what we need in Jones’s view is “spiritual illumination and moral re-enforcement. Christ is the source of both of these.” (Jones) What we need is not repentance but enlightenment coupled with renewed effort in the spirit of Christ.

Sin and liberal Quakers. This seems to me an elegant modern refreshment of the original Quaker focus on “perfection”, overcoming sin over and again, day in and day out, temptation by temptation, by turning toward the light of Christ within us, rather than through a one-time conversion based on faith in the atonement of Christ on the cross.

And, except for the Christ part, it does jive with how many Friends of my acquaintance seem to view sin, not as some inherent corruption in human nature, but essentially as a mistake. I’ve heard many Friends, for instance, claim that the biblical word for sin actually means “to miss the mark”, as though a sin was someone trying to do the right thing and failing.

To me, that seems like a liberal, make-nice idea designed to back us away decisively from the old theology of blood atonement and cuddle up to the idea of that of God in everyone. Hogwash. I do “believe” in sin and it’s choosing to do the wrong thing, not missing some aim at the ideal.

Atonement. As for atonement, Jones “did not reject the need for Atonement but took the view that the atoning role of Christ was exemplary. . . . This view holds that Christ atones for our sin by providing an example, a model, which draws us toward God and excites us to emulate the life of Jesus and the way of the cross.” (Cooper)

I don’t think an “example” really qualifies as “atonement”; I would quibble with the semantics here. But I am clear that atonement through a propitiatory blood sacrifice required of his (sic) son by a judging deity is not only repellant to me as a moral person (talk of bad example!), but unthinkable in the the mind of Jesus himself, and thus a heretical, and dangerous, pagan belief. Such blood sacrifices were required by Baal, God’s arch-rival in Hebrew scripture (Baal was a sacrificed dying-and-rising god himself). Thus such human sacrifice was the ultimate abomination in the eyes of the Hebrew prophets. This rejection of filial sacrifice in the Jewish tradition goes all the way back to Abraham and Isaac. Or for that matter, in the negative example, to Cain and Abel, which was not a murder, but a human sacrifice on the model of Romulus and Remus and other brother sacrifices at the founding of a people.

What about evil? But this is all about sin, not evil. Cooper has really wrongly titled his article when he includes evil. So—next time, about the origins, and even the very existence, of evil.

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