Thoughts about Evil


Experienced evil

In the Bible, evil at the level of experience means harm – that which hurts and destroys. So, the biblical wisdom literature can assume that Yahweh God sends both good (benefit, gain) and evil (harm, loss), that Yahweh gives and takes away, creates and destroys. Yahweh breathes into humans and animals the breath of life, and Yahweh also withdraws his breath leaving them to perish. It is assumed that Yahweh has this right. Life is a temporary gift, a sort of loan made for a time.

I find it helpful to render evil as harm in various Older Testament passages where what is attributed to Yahweh is not malevolence but the exercise of God’s right to put limits on human life which God gives only for its time that is God’s to determine. If the good comes as a blessing, then it may not be assumed as a right; therefore, God’s taking it back is not a wrong. I don’t think this degree of resignation is fatalism but surrender to the reality of being a creature given life and vitality for a time. It’s the acceptance of limits, of times and seasons, of waxing and waning. Everything lives only for its time.

Hope enters through the twin ideas of God’s steadfast love (Hebrew chesed) and truth (Hebrew emeth, solidity and reliability). Hope intensifies as we see that Yahweh commits to the human creature and self-identifies in terms of relationship with the creature that is loved. This self-emptying in love ties Yahweh’s own future as God to Israel’s future as God’s people and extends to all humanity and on to the whole of creation. Resignation to being creaturely cracks enough to admit the light of this hope.


Internal accommodation to evil

The ability to countenance and do evil enters the human through denial of empathy. Some people seem to lack empathy entirely, even the capacity for it, and we tend to regard such people as monstrous. They are those who can hurt and destroy without feeling regret or remorse; they have no brakes to apply in their doing of harm.

But lack of empathy can also be cultivated, and it grows in the fertile ground of fear and disgust. Those who hate and set out to enlist others in hating, for whatever purposes of ambition to power, portray the designated victims or scapegoats as disgusting. Donald Trump regularly labels people as disgusting, and the label effectively enables the fearful and enraged to see the people so designated as not truly human, not fit for empathy or compassion. People so otherized become repulsive. As disgust is an auxiliary affect related to food rejection, this enraged disgust becomes the desire to spit or vomit out the disgusting people.

To kill without troubled conscience, a person must deny empathy, break connection, invalidate relationship. Here is the biblical and theological definition of sin: the denial and negation of relationship. Cain spits back at Yahweh, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Why should I keep track of his whereabouts? What have I to do with him and his well-being? But it starts earlier in the Genesis stories. “You shall be as gods knowing good and evil.” The humans reject their relation to Yahweh God and take god-ness for themselves, no longer content to receive life as a gift. Sin is not mere wrongdoing or even the simple desire to do wrong; at its heart is the denial of God’s being our God and the second (and like unto it) denial of relationship with our neighbor. No longer is the woman our mother, sister, or daughter with whom we feel and acknowledge relationship and, therefore, empathy and compassion. Now she is just, from a male viewpoint, a body to be used or a smaller less muscular being to be ignored or patronized. No longer is the man our father, brother, or son with whom we feel and acknowledge relationship and, therefore, empathy and compassion. Now he is ally or competitor, even enemy. Sizing him up replaces respect for him as a person.  So it is that sin and love, disgust and compassion, isolation and empathy battle each other within and among us.


Crossing over

Lack of empathy can become delight in cruelty, a feeding upon the pain and humiliation of others. Lest we regard this possibility as strange and monstrous, we need to see that we all have it within us. Children take pleasure in teasing and tormenting other children they designate as victims. They drink in the victim’s distress. They learn to take pleasure in humiliating the weaker. They learn through practice to enjoy dominating, even when they pretend it’s all just harmless fun. There is some sadism in all of us, and, yes, it forms connections with our sexuality as has long been observed. Often the one abused becomes in turn an abuser, as also has long been observed.

Do some become utterly evil? Is it possible to become so enamored of cruelty, so hungry for pain and distress, so eager to hurt and destroy as to be devoid of compassion, incapable of empathy and disgusted by the very thought of it? I cannot even speculate an answer to this question. It asks whether the human can become no longer human but satanic.


Systems that foster evil

We humans have long developed systems that deny validity to empathy and compassion, that teach and train us to be inhuman. Our hallowing of competition comes to mind, but I think it stands upon foundations far older than capitalism. When faith becomes religion – systems for gaining, not only security, but approval and rightness – then the foundation is laid. Throughout history, religious people have developed systems based upon the false notion that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get, that some are created for or born to greatness and others to subservience, and that, therefore, empathy and compassion are at best suspicious weaknesses and at worst sins against the gods of the systems.

Is the sick person being punished? Does a failed business or employment indicate fault with which we ought not sympathize? Are the poor and miserable being punished for sins in a former incarnation, or are they just created to be lesser people in the service of their betters? Does the currently popular prosperity gospel’s assurance of success-blessings for the faithful or right-thinking justify misery for those who fail to think or believe properly?

Systems of reward and punishment, of deserving and undeserving, of lessers and betters implant and sustain evil by replacing empathy with blame and compassion with disgust. They justify evil.

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