Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Evil Vs. Good - Talking to Myself Again

Life is full of surprises. Some are good, some bad, some magic, some tragic. In any time there is pain in the world for some, in our current time of unimaginable pain for many people we look for comfort and search for meaning.

Like any individual I have a unique outlook when it comes to matters of faith. I've created my own religion of sorts made up of pieces of Catholicism, Lutheranism, Buddhism, various philosophers and thinkers from a variety of faiths or no faiths at all.

It's been a winding road. I was a little over two years old when my thirty-two year old father was killed in a construction accident. When I was twelve my thirty-six year old step-father was killed when the plane he was flying crashed. I was in need of figures to look up to and try to emulate as a young person. I found those figures in family, friends, teachers and books.


What I wanted to talk about was a trait that was ingrained in me by my early exposure to Catholic ideas about evil. I was taught that Satan is a real presence in this world. I picked up the phrase "satan get thee behind me" from my mother and use it to this day when confronted with evil, which generally involves me thinking something that my conscience tells me is wrong i.e. cruel, mean, selfish, hurtful wrong.

A visceral belief in evil may help to counter the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt wrote about. In other words - if you believe there is an evil presence in the world attempting to overcome good hopefully you are less inclined to let evil acts become everyday events. The challenge is to figure out what "good" and "evil" mean.

People can do, or allow to be done, incredibly cruel things to innocent people in the name of good. Some think it's good to take children away from parents who are in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Some think the proper response to the homeless, or addicted or poverty stricken or incarcerated is to blame them and deny that but for the grace of God (fate if you like) there go I. Some thought it was good to take away Native American's land and put them on reservations. Some thought it good to enslave people. Some thought it was good to try and exterminate the Jews...


There are many reasons to reject the idea that religion helps us to decide what is good and what is evil since we could point out historical, and current, events where just the opposite was/is the case. The problem is we need some "authority" to decide between conflicting ideas of what is good and what is evil. If everyone accepted (including many Christians) the teachings of Jesus in the beatitudes as an authoritative source we would live in a perfect world...maybe some day.

Another interesting look at combating evil comes from the writer Eyal Press in his book Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times. What stuck with me from that book was the idea that a person or a group of people can inflict barbaric acts on faceless and nameless members of a group, but when forced to confront individual people, see their faces and hear their stories our compassionate natures come to the foreground.

Do I believe there's a devil with horns and a tail tempting people?

No - only that there are evil forces that shape human events. To make the point as clearly as possible I'm proposing that ignorance is evil and also pervasive throughout human history. Sometimes this ignorance is harmless other times it can cause devastating impacts to humankind.

The capacity to inflict evil is correlated to a person's power. In general a powerless individual can inflict evil acts on a relatively small group - a family, child, a spouse. As an evil (ignorant) person obtains more power the more their capacity to inflict evil grows - a boss, minor politician, major politician, President all have an increasing ability to bring good (knowledge) or evil (ignorance) into the world.

Knowledge is the opposite of ignorance. But knowledge of what? Math, science, batting averages, how to change a tire? Nope.

Since this is an ethical discussion of good vs. evil and we've defined evil as ignorance then we need to define good.

Good is understanding.

Understanding what?

Understanding the highest Good.

We'll chase our tails all day with that circular reasoning so we need to appeal to some authority. Jesus can help with this because he provides us with the understanding that the highest good know this already - Love.


If you want to believe, you can convince yourself - or be convinced, that literally anything is true. You could convince yourself, or be convinced that this guy represents Christian beliefs for example. I have to remind myself to feel compassion for the sinner no matter how much I hate the sin.

In a perfect world we would all want to believe in loving - our neighbor, our enemies and in some ways the most important of all - our selves.

In our imperfect world the best we hope to do is live in the light and work in small ways to push forward that ideal from one generation to the next.

We lose things that we love and the tears we shed soften are hearts. Loss reminds us to be less prideful of our ability to go-it-alone and more accepting of the fact that everything is connected and we are all in this together.

If nothing else, loss reminds us to appreciate what we have while it's here in this moment, and faith gives us assurance that after the darkness there will be a dawn.