On being shrewd as a serpent.
After thinking about it for a few minutes, I realized that I wasn't going to determine the motive. My wife pondered the question for quite a while, and she too was totally unable to figure out any possible motive for the killing. It turns out that the woman was hoping that the man would appear at the funeral again.
It is a good sign if a person is unable to answer the question, but if a person is able to determine the motive, he or she thinks like a psychopath. I was happy to know what I've always known; namely, that I am not married to a psychopath, or to a woman who thinks like one. But it was my wife's reaction to discovering the motive that I found striking. She screamed in horror. She simply could not fathom how anyone could be so utterly depraved. Indeed, there is something horrifying about the void at the core of the psychopath. We are horrified not at what is there, but at what is not there. Evil is precisely a lack of something that should be there, and evil is terrifying, which is why many people deny its possibility and choose to convince themselves that horribly "evil" behaviour is simply caused by factors outside of the person himself, such as his environment, or something chemical or neurological that eventually, with enough scientific knowledge, we will be able to control.
Behaviourism, however, has failed. Evil is real, and Jesus counseled us to be shrewd as serpents: "Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents yet innocent as doves" (Mt 10. 16). The Greek word phronimos (wise), since it is associated here with the serpent, is best translated as shrewd or cunning. The shrewd are subtle, discreet, and have a cautious character and a penetrating mind, able to detect evil behind a mask of goodness, so as to be able to plan accordingly.
Morally wholesome people can be dangerously unsuspecting of the motives of evil. For we tend to see in others what we see in ourselves, and if our motives are good, it is hard to suspect others of malice. Moreover, good-hearted people have a great deal of empathy, something that the "character disordered" (i.e., psychopath) are completely lacking. But excessive empathy has a way of clouding the intuitive light of phronimos. Empathy is a kind of projection, an ability to enter into the feelings of another. Empathy is the mark of the humane. It is a kind of "passion", which is why the empathetic are often moved to "compassion". Nevertheless, excessive passion, like lust or inordinate anger, can cloud judgment. Empathy falls short in that it does not allow us to enter into others' judgments, decisions and the motives behind them. That is why the excessively empathetic tend to be vulnerable to the artful schemes of evil and blind to the preternatural malice of Satan; for they readily believe that everyone is good willed and are thus dangerously unsuspecting.
Confusing ontological goodness (the goodness that belongs to anything insofar as it is created by God) with the goodness of the will is very prevalent today, and it is a very convenient confusion of which the character disordered can take full advantage. We know from Scripture that everything God creates is good: "And God saw that it was good ... God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good" (Gen 1, 10; 31). But it is a serious mistake to conclude from this that everyone is fundamentally good willed. It was Rousseau who denied Original Sin and argued that man is corrupted not by sin, but by civilization. He concluded that fundamentally, man is naturally good willed.
But such a notion is completely incompatible with the fundamental principles of the Christian faith. In fact, it is the heresy of Pelagianism all over again (Pelagius taught that one could attain salvation without divine grace). The Christian faith asserts that man needs a saviour. He cannot save himself. Without divine grace, none of us are good willed, and certainly not everyone cooperates with divine grace. But those who do not, those who choose to embrace evil, will choose to hide their depravity. This is inevitable, because those who love evil loath themselves, for there is nothing loveable about deficiency. And so they learn to become masters of disguise. In his book The People oft& Lie, psychiatrist Scott Peck writes:
"Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them. They seem to live lives that are above reproach. The words "image", "appearance" and wardly" are crucial to understanding the morality of 'the evil'. While they lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their goodness is all on a level of pretense. It is in effect a lie.... Because they are such experts at disguise, it is seldom possible to pinpoint the maliciousness of 'the evil'. The disguise is usually impenetrable" (p. 75).
That is why we have been exhorted to be "shrewd as serpents". Those who love evil will hide their depravity behind a facade that appears to be truly good, and they often do so brilliantly. They can be priests, psychologists, teachers, and politicians--liberals if liberalism is popularly associated with goodness, or conservative, in which case they are not as well hidden. They can even be disguised as bishops. St. Paul writes:
"These people are counterfeit apostles, dishonest workers disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. There is nothing astonishing in this; even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. It is nothing extraordinary, then, when his servants disguise themselves as the servants of uprightness. They will come to the end appropriate to what they have done" (2 Co 11, 13-15).
There are other reasons besides excessive empathy why we might fall for the pretence of the character disordered. We tend to identify evil with the obvious, such as Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein, especially as we now see them. But most of us never knew these people before their exposure. We did not know their disguises, and so we wrongly assume they were never well hidden. Moreover, people generally want to believe that everything is well. They want peace, and they are willing to believe there is peace when in fact there is no peace. The character disordered capitalize on this desire in others. But a Christian should know better: "Without concern they dress my people's wound, saying, 'Peace! Peace!' Whereas there is no peace" (Jer 6, 13-14). Moreover, Christ said: "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too" (Jn 15, 20).
So how does one maximize one's ability to penetrate evil's pretext? Remain innocent as doves. It is the pure of heart who will "see" (Mt 5, 8). The character disordered are cunning because they know themselves from within and can readily see character disorder in the countenance of one just like themselves. The innocent, on the other hand, have to rely on the light that comes from the gifts of the Holy Spirit: "The Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God" (1 Co 2, 10). But the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ's Mystical Body, and so there is an ecclesial dimension to this supernatural intuition. For Jesus said: "Simon, Simon! Look, Satan has got his wish to sift you all like wheat; but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22, 31). Peter is the weakest link of the twelve; for within a very short time he went from "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Mt 16, 16) to "I do not know the man." (Mt 26, 75). But Christ holds the weakest link, and so it will not break. Peter's faith will not fail. When we are faithful to Peter, we share in the benefits of Christ's prayer for him. We too will not fail. But without fidelity to Peter (rock), there is no solid ground on which to stand and no permanent standard by which to judge the full range of ideas coming from a person or school of thought. One's intuitive grasp will ultimately fail.
Doug McManaman teaches the philosophy of religion in Toronto.
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|Title Annotation:||Feature Article; identifying evil|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2005|
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