Good People Made Evil

Photo: ATC Commphoto, Unsplash

“We have seen

Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,

Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.”1

Edwin Muir was a Scottish poet, raised on farms on the Orkney Islands, whose family fell apart when they moved to the slums of Glasgow in 1901. They were forced off their farm by high rents, but the move to Glasgow proved even more devastating. Within five years, Muir’s mother, father, and two brothers were dead. Muir himself—who went on to become one of the most respected translators, poets, and critics of the mid-twentieth century—likened the transition to being born and raised in the eighteenth century and suddenly finding himself in the twentieth. “When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time.”2

That fascination with time and our movements through it, forward in hope and turning back in memory, characterized his poetry, which he came to rather late in life. In “The Good Town,” a poem that describes a town where no one had to lock their doors, Muir reveals how drastically it changed after two wars.

The soldiers came back from the First World War, maimed and ragged, to find the countryside divided up, the roads crooked, the light falling strangely. But after the second war the houses that sprang up from the rubble looked like prisons, families and friends were scattered, and all that was good and kind was thrown away. “How could our town grow wicked in a moment?” he laments.

His answer is that in the past the townspeople were swayed to follow good leaders; now “the bad are up . . . And we, poor ordinary neutral stuff/Not good nor bad, must ape them as we can/In sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.” He closes with the epigram quoted above, and adds, “Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace/Look at it well. This was the good town once.”3

The disappointment and regret evident in his tone might be dismissed as simple nostalgia for a past that can only stand in the way of progress, except that it stands as a warning just as relevant today as he thought it to be in the early Fifties: how to fight evil without becoming evil?

In the good town, people went about their lives without much thought given to how their town might devolve into fear and suspicion. In the absence of threat, families took up their responsibilities and cared for others when needed. Vigilance for such freedoms was not pressing because everyone followed, more or less, the example of conscientious people.

But therein lay the weakness, Muir seems to say. Most of us simply follow those who lead, happy in the confidence that they will solve—or at least deflect—problems which we would have to face without them. But when the bonds of community evaporate and the corrupt and cunning thrust themselves into power, we must suddenly “ape them as we can,” either in “sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.”

Muir’s warning takes us to task for our naiveté, while mourning the loss of good will that made life peaceful and harmonious.

***

Recently, an incident was reported in national news in which a couple who wanted to rent a facility for their marriage ceremony and reception were denied on the grounds that the prospective groom was black, and his fiancée was white. The owner explained that the Bible did not condone mixed-race marriages and thus she would not rent the facility to the couple. The groom’s sister asked for clarification, but the woman refused to elaborate. It was simply part of her Christian belief.

The video of the exchange between them, while civil and restrained, went viral. In the aftermath of a wave of outrage, the woman and her husband issued an apology. Having been raised in Mississippi, it was her belief, she maintained, that such marriages were condemned by the Bible. However, her pastor had helped her to understand, she said, that the Bible does not condemn or prohibit bi-racial marriages. She and her husband were sincerely sorry.4

When I read this account, my immediate reaction was to condemn outright such obvious racism being justified by the Bible in the name of Christianity. It was yet another example of an agenda fueled by inbred prejudice, an assumption of white superiority, and a grievance reflex in which evangelicals believe their religious freedoms are in jeopardy. Added to that was the unthinking assumption that one’s dominant culture—in this case white Southern culture—was somehow ordained by God in the natural order of things, and that Christians who questioned or refused to honor that order were disobedient to God’s law as outlined in the Bible.

Then I began to reflect on my reaction. It was not that I regretted it or questioned my beliefs. They sprang into light spontaneously and I knew they were genuine. What I began to wonder about was if my reaction was a mere accident of geography.

If I had been raised in that woman’s culture in the South, growing up with legalized and socially acceptable discrimination and racism, would I have questioned those embedded assumptions? She looked like somebody’s grandmother, the kind who bakes cookies and keeps an immaculate house—hardly the face of evil. Nevertheless, I felt a surge of anger and impatience. In order to suffer from cognitive dissonance, you need to be engaged in cognition. Would I have felt that dissonance, now so evident, had I grown up in the Sixties in Mississippi?

Where I did grow up—in the foothills above the Napa Valley in Northern California—my private Christian college was only fully integrated in the early Seventies, when a group of African American graduates from a Christian academy in Oakland came to campus. It wasn’t that there was an official policy barring them, it was rather that they did not feel welcomed or respected.

With numbers comes strength; one of those young men ran for Student Association president in his sophomore year and won. Gradually, attitudes began to change, and friendships developed. But if those African American teenagers hadn’t questioned the status quo, those embedded assumptions, how long might it have taken for understanding and acceptance to flourish?

We Christians are too easily satisfied with our cultural assumptions. We are living in a country founded upon some of the highest ideals in human history. But the tragic fact is that those ideals, in order to be fully realized, were made possible by our original sin of systemic racism. Freedom, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness—all of them were premised on the foundation stones of slavery, prejudice, and discrimination. We are enmeshed in this historical legacy.

“The unbelief of believers,” wrote Thomas Merton in 1968, “is amply sufficient to make God [appear] repugnant and incredible.”5 In words startlingly current, he writes, “A ‘Christian nationalist’ is one whose Christianity takes second place, and serves to justify a patriotism in whose eyes the nation can do no wrong . . . The pastors themselves tend to look to the state as a font of divine decisions in the practical order. All dissent in the civil sphere thereby automatically becomes a religious betrayal and a spiritual apostasy.”6

“Rust never sleeps,” sang Neil Young, and we may be sure prejudice and racism never do either. Christians are no strangers to it—it was there from the beginning and it nearly tore the nascent Jewish Christian community apart. It took a strange and disturbing vision for Peter to put behind him centuries of ceremonial religious exclusivism toward all those outside his heritage. Peter, the disciple most likely to get things right about Jesus, was also the one who could show spectacular obtuseness when stretched beyond his norms. Yet, it is Peter, together with John, who responds later to authorities with the words, “Is it right in God’s eyes for us to obey you rather than God? Judge for yourselves. We cannot possibly give up speaking of things we have seen and heard (Acts 4:19,20).”

And what had he seen? Jesus constantly challenging the cultural norms against women, against the poor, against the weak and dispossessed, against the established means for grasping and preserving power. What had he heard? Jesus, setting his face toward Jerusalem and his death, turning to the disciples on the road to say, “What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self? What can he give to buy that self back? (Mk 8:36,37).”

“What matters,” suggests Merton, “is not simply to set conformity over against dissent, to call the one evil and the other good, and be satisfied with that.” In a way that requires patience and humility, it is not enough for the dissenter to accuse and condemn, but “after showing the need for spiritual awakening and constructive analysis, to break open the way to dialogue and keep it open.”7

Edwin Muir was right to be dismayed that good people can become crooked while fighting against crookedness. But he was off the mark to assume that neither the “good” nor the “evil” can change.

All of us fall short of the glory God sees in us, but none of us is beyond redemption.

  1. Muir, Edwin. “The Good Town” in Collected Poems 1921-1951. London: Faber and Faber, 1952, p. 161.
  2. Quoted in “Edwin Muir,” The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edwin-muir
  3. Muir, “The Good Town,” 161.
  4. https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/9/3/20847943/mississippi-event-hall-interracial-couple-wedding-religious-exemption
  5. Merton, Thomas. “Violence and the Death of God,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 197.
  6. Merton, Thomas. “The Unbelief of Believers,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 203.
  7. Merton, Thomas. “The Unbelief of Believers,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 204.

Evil: Ancient and Modern

“It’s an old story

but one that can still be told.”

— Herbert Mason, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

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It’s important to pay attention to the history of the question of evil. Seeing how our understanding of evil changes through the centuries shapes our present response to it—and may give us more compassion and forgiveness for others looking back.

Depending on how one defines evil, the earliest recorded story of its entrance into the world is in the Babylonian creation myth called the Enuma Elish.  We will compare it to the account in Genesis 1. We’ll also look at the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest stories in the world, and one that has helped to shape how we view friendship, loss, and death. Finally, we will look at Susan Neiman’s book, Evil in Modern Thought, to see how philosophical thinking about evil has changed since the Enlightenment.

The Enuma Elish (named after the first line which begins, “When on high”) is the Babylonian cosmogony myth (story of how the world and the universe came to be) and theogony myth (story of how the gods came into existence). It is also the oldest combat myth on record, in which the universe is seen as a battlefield split between good and bad divine powers.

In this story, reality begins with two gods, Apsu and Tiamat. They create all the other gods, which live in Tiamat’s body until she births them. The children of that generation, the grandchildren of Apsu and Tiamat, get on their grandparents nerves. As children do, they get noisy, so noisy that Apsu, their grandfather, threatens to kill them. Before he can, Marduk, one of the grandchildren, gets wind of the plot and kills his grandmother, Tiamat. From her body he forms the earth and the sky, and in the process becomes the primary god in the Babylonian pantheon.

This myth has several aspects that are key to understanding prehistorical views about evil. First, Tiamat, the chaos god, is not identified with evil as such. Rather, the emotions of hatred, envy, fear, and murderous rage are associated with the younger gods such as Marduk. Second, these gods, the ones victorious over Apsu and Tiamat, show us that evil is in some way intrinsic to reality and the inevitable conflict to establish the cosmos. Because it is brought to being through conflict and chaos, through combat, the cosmos is laced with evil: evil is literally embedded in the very substance of the cosmos.

When we turn to the Biblical creation myth of Genesis, especially the first one in Genesis 1, we can see some striking differences from the Babylonian combat myth. For one thing, there is no destruction at the creation of the world. Rather, God “created the heavens and the earth” without struggle. The “deep” (tehom) over which God’s spirit hovers, passively awaits God’s action. Further, God sees what God has created and deems it good, very good in fact, if God says so Godself. The author of Genesis 1 seems to be distinguishing the narrative in contrast to the Enuma Elish, with which he was most likely familiar.

For the ancient Hebrews the Fall is not the entrance of evil into the world. Rather, Adam and Eve actualize the potential for evil, which is part of the structure of the cosmos that God has created. As Charles Mathewes, a scholar of religion, points out, despite the fact that the Genesis account resists the Babylonian combat myth, “it still suggests that evil and temptation were a potential presence in the world (Mathewes 20).”

Adam and Eve act on that potential, eating from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the serpent’s words, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

This raises all sorts of interesting questions.

What is the sin here? Is it the experience of temptation or the disobedient act itself? Does God know evil objectively or subjectively, from observation at a distance or experientially through suffering from it — or causing it? Was the Fall inevitable, given the combination of human freedom plus desire, arrogance, and ignorance?

Or is the Fall a tragic breakthrough of human consciousness, one that opens the universe to us through imagination and desire, but in so doing defines our limits and their consequences?

The Hebrew root of the word for ‘knowing’ suggests an intimacy that goes beyond acquiring a set of facts; it’s more akin to sexual intimacy in which two become one. In some way the knower and the known enter into one another. For convenience we might think of the symbol of the Tao, two complementary opposites joined as one.

The third great myth is the Sumerian-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the first recorded attempt, as Mathewes says, “to understand and inhabit a world in which suffering occurs and perhaps a world in which suffering is partially constitutive of what makes us human (Mathewes, 9).” The tablets found at Ninevah date back to the 7th century BCE, but scholars now believe that the oral traditions of Gilgamesh most likely emerged about 3,000 BCE, well before the Genesis account.

Gilgamesh is the aggressive king of the great city of Uruk. He harasses and tortures his people until they cry to the gods to give him a competitor to distract him. The gods send Enkidu, a wild man from the desert. The two meet in the wilderness, engage in combat, and Gilgamesh is the victor. They become best friends and go on many adventures together. But the gods become jealous of their friendship and kill Enkidu. Wild with grief, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to find immortality.

“Perhaps insane, he tried

to bring Enkidu back to life

To end his bitterness,

His fear of death.

His life became a quest

To find the secret of eternal life

Which he might carry back to give his friend.” (Mason 55)

Through a perilous journey Gilgamesh makes his way to the sea of Death, on the shores of which a young woman finds him and cares for him in his extremity. She tells him:

“The gods gave death to man and kept life for

Themselves. That is the only way it is.” (Mason 65)

Eventually, Gilgamesh returns to his city of Uruk, older, sadder, perhaps wiser, knowing now that death is what lies ahead for every person, and in that knowledge he is able to find some peace in the achievements of his people.

From these three ancient myths we can glean a number of insights. From the Enuma Elish we see that combat and conflict is riddled through human consciousness from the beginning. From the Epic of Gilgamesh we understand the tragic joy of friendship and the limit of death upon all our passion and loves. From the Genesis account we learn that knowledge acquired through defiance gives us both freedom and terrible suffering. But most of all it means we are separated from God. Innocence to experience and then to a chastened, but healing, innocent experience.

Now, a leap of centuries to 1755 and the city of Lisbon.

The earthquake in Lisbon on November 1, 1755, took an estimated 60,000 lives in a matter of hours. Hundreds of people who had gathered for All Saints Day services perished in churches. Many rushed down to the quay and the harbor, only to be engulfed by the tsunami that sunk ships and swept hundreds of people out to sea. Then the fires burned for five days. The earthquake devastated areas of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and North Africa, and was felt as far away as Norway, Sweden, and Italy.

The Lisbon earthquake was also a turning point in the history of philosophy, for it marks the beginning of modern philosophy and its attempt to take responsibility for the world we find ourselves in. Up to that point earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other natural disasters were ascribed to God’s acts of judgement on a stubborn and sinful people. After Lisbon scientists, philosophers, and eventually theologians, separated natural disasters from moral evil.

It is Susan Neiman’s thesis in Evil in Modern Thought, that “the problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought (Neiman 2-3).” In fact, she asserts that the problem of evil is the heart of philosophy, especially from the early modern period until the Holocaust. The other end of the spectrum she examines is the Holocaust, what she refers to as Auschwitz. Whereas Lisbon provoked tremendous discussion and the production of essay, plays, books, and bad poetry, the philosophical silence after Auschwitz was deafening. Here we reach the limits of reasoning. If Lisbon differentiated natural disasters from our own moral evil, in an effort to take more responsibility for our actions, then Auschwitz simply stunned philosophers, humanists, artists into silence.

“Before Lisbon, evils were divided into matters of nature, metaphysics, or morality. After Lisbon, the word evil was restricted to what was once called moral evil. Modern evil is the product of will (Neiman 268).”

The problem of evil exists, Neiman and countless others have noted, when we try to hold three propositions together:

Evil exists

God is benevolent

God is omnipotent

No matter how you bend or twist or crush them together, they will not fit. One of them has to go.

“The premodern world,” says Neiman, “experienced earthquakes with fear and trembling that not only didn’t threaten religion but often enhanced it (Neiman 246).” Science looked at the earthquake as the natural world following certain immutable laws. In that regard, there was no sense in blaming God nor should it be taken as a judgement. Rather, there was some relief and certainty in seeing these terrific natural forces at work. Newton, with his laws of the universe, both freed the world from God’s arbitrary judgements and shrank the sphere of God’s influence.

But Auschwitz was several orders of magnitude beyond Lisbon—in fact, not even in the same category. “Auschwitz was conceptually devastating because it revealed a possibility in human nature that we hoped not to see,” says Neiman (254).

The moral conundrum of Auschwitz is that natural evil is now in the category of regrettable accidents and metaphysical evil is just the recognition of our finite limits, but moral evil is that which is produced with evil intention. Yet, “at every level,” notes Neiman, “the Nazis produced more evil, with less malice, than civilization had previously known (Neiman 271).”

Theodicy, the attempt to rationalize evil with a good and omnipotent God, springs from the desire to see the world put right. If our century has given up on theodicy it has more to do with our recognition that reason cannot explain evil, but hope cannot give up on seeking a better world.

In a sentence that frames the Parkland students so well, Neiman says, “In the child’s refusal to accept a world that makes no sense lies all the hope that ever makes us start anew (Neiman 320).”

References

Mason, Herbert (1970). Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Mathewes, Charles (2011). Why Evil Exists. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses.

Neiman, Susan (2002). Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Photo by Atlas Green from Unsplash.com