Evil, part 2.
Here are some of my “wrap up” thoughts from last month, before I launch into the next topic. As a reminder, we were talking about various ways of responding to evil (however one defines it).
I contend that Western American culture (including many subcultures) tends to think we’ve “moved on” from evil–we have this idea of sociological/technological/spiritual progress. In the early 20th century, we put a lot of faith in technology and were really surprised that this technology enabled nations to kill masses upon masses of soldiers during World War I, and then 6 million Jews in World War II. And while our culture has this collective memory that can assure us that technology will not eliminate evil, we still presuppose that humanity will “get beyond” whatever is bothering us.
We don’t trust technology as much as we did in the 1920s, but the approach to life lives on. Hegel gave it philosophical legs with his thesis/antithesis/synthesis model of world history. When you hear someone say, “Foreign country x needs to get into the 21st century as far as human rights goes”, or someone else say, “I can’t believe that today in America some people still think that we need to meddle in other countries’ affairs”, or someone else say, “Man, I’m so glad dance music got past the 70s disco phase and brought us to the 80s geniuses like the Pet Shop Boys,” you’re hearing this assumption in action.
I’m not saying any of those statements are true or false, but as I see it, that’s how we in western culture tell the story of how evil is dealt with in the world. Bad stuff happens, but the wheels of progress turn, running on the tracks of whatever we think will get us beyond whatever is vexing us—being more religious, encouraging free markets, learning to express ourselves and listen to one another, etc. The problem is, most of us have told ourselves this story, and it makes evil fairly surmountable, and when we do encounter evil, we can react in singularly immature ways. Our culture, I would say, doesn’t really know what to do with evil when it’s staring us in the face.
Other cultures have different ways of dealing with the appearance or reality of evil. I think the divide between the way we deal with evil vs. the approaches of cultures (ancient and contemporary) is at the root of some of the main things that offend us about other cultures. We can’t understand aspects of other cultures because we have assumptions about evil that differ greatly from other cultures’ assumptions about evil. Some cultures assume that evil is a part of every human person. Our culture—even the Christian subcultures within western culture—doesn’t really have this assumption. Even religious people tend to think that their religious zeal protects them from committing anything seriously evil. Lots of religious westerners have effectively “moved beyond” evil, too.
For instance, when I read my Bible, I am sometimes shocked at how angry God is portrayed and how fierce God’s judgment is. Other times, when I’m thinking about all those bad people out there committing radical evil around the world, performing acts of genocide, etc., I am sometimes shocked at how merciful God is. Why does God allow these people to keep living? The classic problem of Evil when directed against the God of the Bible is, after all, why does God allow evil to exist? I’m on the one hand offended at God’s judgment and on the other hand offended at God’s mercy. (Interestingly enough, various Biblical writers wrestle with the same two opposing questions throughout the book.) The Bible tells a story of God dealing with evil—an evil that infects every human being. And in dealing with evil, the God of the Bible is both more fierce and more forgiving than most of us are comfortable with. Perhaps we’re not comfortable because we’ve moved beyond these primitive approaches to conflict. Or perhaps it’s because we don’t really understand evil.
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