Several years ago, while still an active bishop, I facilitated a meeting that I suspected would not go well. It didn’t. People, including me, came in angry or scared – or both. Half the group resisted the agenda, and the other half resented the resisters. Nearly everyone took on the role of victim. It was ugly. I don’t remember the outcome of the meeting, but in retrospect I could sense that an invisible toxic dust rose out of everyone in attendance, settling on each person’s face and arms. The dust was not going to be removed – at least during the time we were together. Upon further reflection, I had the powerful sense that evil had risen up into the room, coming out of each of us, which brought out the worst in everyone. We struggled to be civil, but it was hard. And disorienting, not to mention profoundly upsetting. Echoing in my mind were the voices of many people over the years who would say to me, clearly and unequivocally: “I hate meetings,” and did everything they could to avoid attending them. I understood that sentiment, and on this occasion I felt it deeply. And then I came back to myself with the lame and decidedly negative justification: meetings are necessary evils. But then I realized that most of the meetings I led or attended were attempts to get something done; and a byproduct was that the gatherings brought people together and fostered community. But not all of them. Certainly not this one. Which then provoked the question: where did the evil come from?
It would be tempting to say that the angriest and most fragile person in the room was the source of the evil. And that removing – or at least silencing the offender, would take care of the problem. We could have tried to finger one person as the purveyor of evil: God knows, it had been done millions of times before. Identify the offender. Banish or burn them. Related to this temptation is the widespread feeling that evil is an embodied force – called the devil, Satan, Beelzebub, the antichrist (and hundreds of other appellations) – which takes root in people, or takes over people. And that this malevolent force, this evil, needs to be eliminated.
This attitude is being played out in various grotesque ways. As the war in Israel and Gaza drags on, we are hearing – from some Israelis, that Hamas, and sometimes by extension, Palestinians, are evil and need to be destroyed. Similarly, we are hearing – from some Palestinians, that Israel is evil and needs to be wiped off the map. In this country, as the vitriol escalates in advance of November’s Presidential election, we hear – from some, that Joe Biden is evil and needs to be removed, and some would say executed. Conversely, we are hearing – from some, that Donald Trump is evil and needs to be locked up, or worse. Under this way of thinking, whether it be military or spiritual warfare, the enemy (the evil) is clearly identified, and almost always resides outside of the accuser.
At some level I understand the impulse to cast evil in this way. It seems to solve the problem – at least in the short term; it reduces anxiety, builds up self-righteousness, and provides the illusion of safety. I understand the impulse, and at times I have succumbed to it (as in that meeting several years ago). But it is wrong. And dangerous. As most of us know, evil does show up, and it can be annoying (as in meetings that go off the rails) or horrific (in verbal, military, or physically violent campaigns and outbursts). And in the disorientation that evil always generates, we ask the questions: why is there evil? How is there evil? Where does it come from?
For centuries, these questions have stymied philosophers and theologians – from every tradition and corner of the globe. One of the more well-remembered explanations for the existence of evil comes from St. Augustine, the fifth century bishop and theologian. He said that evil is a privation, which means that God’s ongoing creation left some gaps, allowing evil to seep in. Augustine’s proclamation seeks to answer how evil got here, but does not address the why of evil. There has always been a need to explain evil, but I have learned over the years that evil is fundamentally unexplainable. Evil is a mystery. Being too quick to ascribe the presence of evil in someone else has inevitably been an evil accelerant, and usually leads to disaster. And to suggest or insist that a person or a group or a nation is fundamentally evil is even worse. It invariably leads to genocide. People can do evil things, yes, but they are not inherently evil.
Evil exists. It is part of human nature. Try as we might – and wish, we will not be able to eradicate it. Evil shows up – from attendees at a failed meeting, or in wanton violence, or in intentional betrayals or lies. Instead of trolling for evil, which serves as a kind of contagion for it, we would do well to develop practices that help to mitigate evil’s effects. I can think of two: to recognize our own capacity to generate or participate in evil; and, more importantly, to commit ourselves to respect the dignity of every human being. To see the spark of goodness in others – even in, no, especially in, those people who appear to be up to no good. It is hard work. It is a choice we have the capacity to make. It is a counterintuitive exercise. We may not be able to transform the person or group who drives us crazy – or who is deeply threatening; but by searching out the good we just may be able to transform ourselves. And that can make a difference.