Evil is a problem. And for millenia, philosophers, theologians and novelists have grappled with this problem: what is evil, how did it start, why does it exist, how do we respond? It has been, and continues to be, a confounding intellectual and emotional challenge.
For me, and for so many of us, evil is an experiential reality. We see evil, we may have experienced evil, some of us may have participated in evil. I would like to say that I have steadfastly avoided being a purveyor of evil, but I know that there are a few people – particularly during my twelve-year tenure as bishop, who would say – with deep conviction and venom, that some of my decisions and actions proved that I was an agent of the devil. That I was wrapped in evil.
As cruelty, degradation and horror escalate all around us – the war in Ukraine, increased gun violence, white supremacy, political paralysis which leads to continuous shaming and viciousness, there is a tendency to be overly quick to diagnose evil – in someone else. And even to go so far as to say that certain people are, in fact, intrinsically evil. Examples are frequently cited: bin Laden, Putin, Hitler. Closer to home, more and more people include Donald Trump on that list, which has precipitated his defenders to identify the former president’s favored adversaries as warranting similar designation: Fanni Willis, Jack Smith, various judges involved in Mr. Trump’s indictments.
This is a problem. Partly because it creates a spiral of condemnation, which is so dispiriting, but even more problematic is the tendency for more people to feel freer to identify certain people – be they public figures or neighbors or family members, as evil. And what inevitably follows is the notion that if you get rid of the person – or group, you carry the misguided illusion that you get rid of the evil. Henri Nouwen, my teacher and mentor in seminary nearly fifty years ago, remarked – more than once ,that when people are identified as evil, there comes with it a conviction that there is no opportunity for them to change. That they can’t be redeemed. When a person or a people is identified as evil, Henri continued, you end up with holocaust.
We cannot dismiss evil. Or erase it. It shows up, more than we would like. I remember a contentious meeting I chaired several years ago. People came into the meeting upset and angry – at people who weren’t there, at each other, at me, their bishop. People said mean things. Nasty accusations were made. Somehow, in the midst of it all, I could sense that an invisible toxic dust had entered the room and stuck onto people’s arms. I couldn’t shake it off. It brought out the worst in me – and in everyone else. Evil had entered the room. It was very tempting to identify the source of the evil – that it came from a particularly annoying person. That would be too easy, not to mention unfair.
Evil exists, and my example, while depressing for all who were present at that meeting, is on the low end of the evil Richter scale. So many have experienced so much worse. What I have learned from experiences of evil, no matter its cruelty or force, is that it is always disorienting. My center disappears. My moral compass gets hijacked. I don’t know what to do – even when I could anticipate that evil would show up in a particular situation, and I had prepared my response in advance. When the moment arrived, I lost my spiritual and emotional bearings.
What is perhaps most problematic for me in dealing with evil, is to witness an increasing number of people who do not seem to be disoriented when evil shows up. They expect it. They are comfortable in it. They can manipulate the evil, and even direct it, confident that most people will be either disoriented by it — or pick up on the evil and become allies in directing it against so-called enemies. Donald Trump, with all his nastiness and vengefulness, is a master at this. But then, people who have positions of significant power, often hurl insults, invective and injury around, often without much, if any consequence. Some would say their rise to power is a result of their facility with evil.
Two thousand years ago, Saul of Tarsus was, in his early career, the point man for diagnosing evil in the Roman empire. He was a vigilante. He hunted down Christians. He put them to death. Along the way, he had a conversion experience. He was blinded and literally fell off his horse. It took him years to recover and he became an ardent advocate for the Christian movement. His name was changed to Paul. Paul had known evil, and was a facilitator of it; and over time he eventually learned about grace and hope. In his letter to the Romans, he admonished his readers, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another in mutual affection…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Do not repay anyone evil for evil”. (Romans 12: 9,14,17)
Evil is real. So is love. St. Paul paints a verbal picture of what love looks like. Love is an antidote for evil. Probably the only one. Let’s use it.