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The snake coiled deep in our hearts: evil's origin is a problem for every religion.

Between Ronald Reagan's characterization of the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire and Sept. 11, 2001, the word evil was rarely heard in public discourse. It cropped up only on the fringes, in frenzied World Wrestling Federation promos or pumped-up dialogue from Marvel comics -- in phrases like "Taste the creamy goodness of justice, evildoers?

But then news coverage of the terrorist attacks in the United States showed us evil's effects close up -- innocents burned, then crushed in apocalyptic clouds of fire and dust, the perpetrators praising God in the aftermath.

Evil came back in vogue.

On Sept. 16 President Bush pledged that the United States would "rid the world of evildoers," the term he has most used to describe Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida operatives. Later he said, "War was declared on the U.S., not by a religious group, not by one country vs. another, but by people motivated by evil. ... This great country will not let evil stand."

In late November, explaining why the bombing of Afghanistan would not stop during Ramadan, the president said: "Evil has no holy days."

Others, playing off Bush's theme, have called the attacks "devilish" and the terrorists "fiendish."

World events have us once again publicly contemplating age-old questions about evil. Where does it come from? Is it here to stay? Is evil merely an illusion or an impersonal quality that is part of the world, or a personal spiritual being that exists eternally just to pester us? Are some of us completely under evil's influence and others not?

We know it when we see it. Evil presents itself through behavior, either on the part of nature or humans, which greatly frightens and troubles us or directly makes us suffer. When it appears as a hurricane or drought, cancer cells prowling the blood of an innocent child, or misfiring neurotransmitters causing a mental illness, we know somehow that it's not a perfect world in which we live. Nature is, at best, impersonal, indifferent; at worst, defective.

When humans are involved, then it becomes moral evil, because humans, by definition, are not impersonal. This brand of evil is much more troublesome to us.

We think of evil as a mysterious entity that somehow compels us to destructive behavior. Collectively we share an apprehension that this destructive behavior is wrong to varying degrees. Genocide, incest, child prostitution, cannibalism, terrorism -- most agree these are way beyond the pale and never justified. Hugely destructive behavior is often excused, though, if one's particular group sees it as a means toward an end that represents greater good for that group. Evil is then in the eye of the beholder.

Elsewhere in the living world, examples of what we would call "evil" behavior are present from the low end on up. Animal behaviorists, particularly students of our relatives, the primates, point out that apes have been observed committing deceit, murder, rape and small-scale warfare. Snakes symbolize evil but are actually fairly docile creatures that keep the rodents from overrunning us.

Only humans truly comprehend the difference between right and wrong, then go on to slaughter each other in huge numbers in the most horrific ways. In the 20th century alone, casualties resulting from human evil run into the hundreds of millions.

Whether encountered in a history book, on the evening news or in the results of a recent biopsy, evil is a problem. Every religion has to tackle it in a convincing way.

An appalling absence of good

Evil is back in our vocabulary, but do we really know what it is? Stephen J. Duffy, professor of philosophy at Loyola University, New Orleans, wrote the entry on "evil" in the New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality. "I subscribe to St. Augustine's view of evil," Duffy told NCR. "Augustine pointed out that love is a reality, good is a reality, the array of good things are real. Evil is simply an absence of a good that ought to be there. If I murder you, it's because of an absence in me of empathy, shame, et cetera. The results of this absence, of course, can be catastrophic and horrific. The effect of evil is to somehow cause suffering in others, and sometimes that suffering occurs on a horrendous scale. The absence of good can do great damage."

There are four ways to explain evil's ultimate origin, according to Duffy, all expressed in ancient myth.

"Myth tells the story of how the human condition became wretched," he said. The Babylonian myth argues that evil comes because there are evil gods. The Greek myth says evil is part of human destiny. The Gnostic or Manichean myth holds that matter is inherently evil, that good exists only outside the universe. And finally the Judeo-Christian argues that evil is a choice made by humans. God allows it so that humans have free will. Without free will we are mere automatons, puppets.

"Evil's ultimate origin is a problem because," he said, "as Christians, we make God very personal. Does evil come from God? How can we reconcile these three propositions: God is all-good; God is all-powerful; evil exists in creation? This is the problem that every religion must address, and the explanation is called theodicy."

What about the concept of the demonic -- evil as a spirit roaming the world or a spiritual force? It's valid, Duffy believes, as a symbol. "We don't like to admit that evil resides in us, so we project our own evil outward on others. But, as the Catholic doctrine of original sin was trying to tell us, evil is inherent in us humans. It's that reptilian part of the brain that still resides in us and carries, for example, the urge to aggression that had evolutionary value once but no longer.

"The demonic in society is certainly expressed in unjust systems, institutions, corporations and practices that we are complicit in as members, consumers or stockholders. The seamstress in El Salvador making a barely living wage so we can have cheap but elegant clothes is just one example. The web of evil runs through our society," Dully said.

"We have to remember also Paul's letter to the Romans: Where evil abounds, there is grace also. Christ has overcome evil. Evil does not have the last word."

Are there persons motivated purely by evil? Eleonore Stump, professor of philosophy at St. Louis University, told NCR: "I would be shy about saying I know the motivations of others. An act can be perfectly evil, even demonic, and have good motives in the eye of the perpetrator." The atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to hasten the end of the war and prevent even more killing.

The bottom line, she said, is that "the whole crust of file earth is Soaked with the tears of victims of evil. Some evils that humans have perpetrated stop discourse entirely, like the Holocaust. Then we must recognize we are members of a species that is capable of such horrors and put your hand over your mouth in stunned amazement. Self-reflection and prayer should ensue. We are infected by evil, all of us humans. This is the Christian idea of original sin."

However, God can use suffering to cure by way of atonement, purging, to accomplish good, she said. "A child with leukemia undergoing chemotherapy is suffering, but only because the regimen wards off a greater harm, which is death. God can use evil as therapeutic regimen. This is the medieval view of evil expressed, for example, by Gregory the Great. St. Gregory pointed out that the ways of God are mysterious when God lets `good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people.' Wait! Isn't that backward? No. If suffering is part of a medicinal regimen, then you would expect the good to get a stronger regimen than the bad. Seen through eyes of faith, God must have a morally sufficient reason, a benefit so big that it's worth the suffering. And that benefit is intimacy and ultimate union with God."

The notion of the demonic, that there are immaterial, intelligent beings who are evil, is not helpful, said Stump. The human capacity for evil is sufficient, unfortunately, to explain results.

Everything God created is good, said Theresa Sanders, associate professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington. "If we take John's Gospel seriously," she said, "then we know God is love. Evil has no real existence. Bad things happen to the extent that love is absent." The devastating effects of love's absence is a testimony to the power and scope of that love.

Sanders said this Christian view of evil is an existential one. People who do bad things have willfully turned away from the good. The question she asks her students when confronting the problem of evil in classes: If God can intervene and avert evil consequences and then does not intervene, why should we worship such a deity? Most students, she said, answer that having free will is worth the price and that, in the end, all will be well.

Evil in the balance

According to Fr. Peter C. Phan, president of the Catholic Theology Society of America and Warren-Blanding Professor of Religion and Culture at Catholic University in Washington, evil is a term that is useful in describing actions or results that cause much suffering. But it's a danger, Phan thinks, to ascribe evil to persons. "First, when we project evil onto others, then we forget that it comes from the innermost heart of all of us. We see it in others, but fail to see it in ourselves. And, secondly, we forget that evil dwells in institutions, structures, systems of law, ways of doing and thinking that we all are complicit in. We say we are the only freedom-loving people in the world; we forget that others love freedom just as much as we do."

Born in Vietnam, Phan believes the Asian religious perspective can be helpful when considering evil. Asian philosophy emphasizes the tension between two forces, good and evil. When one dominates, then the other is neglected and can rise up in unexpected ways. In the Asian view, there is no absolute evil, only this tension of opposites. "So we seek a balance between them," said Phan.

"It's not like the Manichean approach, which absolutizes good and evil and sees them as forever opposed. Either/or, we think, not both/and. Asians realize that when we reach the pinnacle of goodness on one side, then beware: The other side will somehow show its face, for there is no absolute light or darkness. Also, the reverse is true. In the murky depths of evil, there is a spark of light.

"Evil is unavoidable; it is part of the fabric of the universe," said Phan, "not necessary in a metaphysical sense, but always there in our experience. In Asia we don't try to eliminate evil, we try for balance. If we try to annihilate evil, then right off we encounter obstacles and we obliterate those obstacles. We can't see the good in the obstacle." Hitler justified the Jewish "final solution" this way; he saw them as blocking the realization of his perfect world. "Terrorists surely think this way," said Phan. "They say: `You are an obstacle to our goal, so we will eliminate you.'"

The Christian perspective suggests that a totally good world is God's gift, Phan said. "Eliminating or subduing evil is a gift bestowed on us, not something we can accomplish through our own efforts. Usually the attempts to eliminate evil cause even more evil. Gratefulness and humility are the proper response.

"When we see peace and order as gifts, we won't run roughshod over everything else," he said.

All of the Western religions -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism -- have this Manichean tendency, Phan said, that crops up over and over. It comes from Persia originally.

In the Manichean view, God and Satan are opposites, and both are absolute. "When you absolutize evil, you try to remove it and do whatever that takes. You demonize others. You call them devils, the anti-Christ. You say that who is not with us is against us." This view has been labeled a heresy in Christian history. "Actually the Christian doctrine is that evil is limited," says Phan. "We profess actually there is only one absolute being -- God. Everything else is finite."

The challenge for religious and spiritual leaders, according to Phan, is to remind us of these basic lessons of our religion, to keep always in mind the teaching that peace is a gift from God, maybe not something we achieve by bombing everyone who opposes us.

When good people do nothing

What we need, according to Jesuit Fr. John Kavanaugh, professor of philosophy at St. Louis University, is to look into how massive destruction can pass itself off as a good thing, not to justify it but to understand it. How does such moral perversion take place?

Kavanaugh told NCR: "In the Middle East now, one side calls us the great Satan while we call them the evil ones. I think these are marketing terms really for the various sides to rally support."

The questions we need to ask, according to Kavanaugh, are these: What is the dynamic that causes these people to do unspeakable evil, and how can we deal with that dynamic in constructive and more peaceful ways? "Everybody that has ever been killed has been killed for a `good reason,'" said Kavanaugh. "Ramzi Yousef, the convicted World Trade Center bomber in 1993, said, `I am a good terrorist.'" We need to make some progress in understanding evil, Kavanaugh said, because the world is getting smaller and more interconnected every day.

As Edmund Burke said, all it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing. Good requires courage, nobility and vision, according to Kavanaugh. "Hitler came to power because no one really resisted him. The U.S. turned away ships loaded with Jews looking for refuge. European powers appeased him."

Resistance to Hitler in Germany was confined, as Simone Weil pointed out, to the youth, the eccentrics and crazies. The churches, with some notable exceptions such as the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said nothing. The Austrian peasant who resisted conscription in Hitler's armies, Franz Jaggerstatter, is often held up as an example, a simple man who did what church leaders and others could not do, say no to an evil system. Both Bonhoeffer and Jaggerstatter were executed by the Nazis; both are modern martyrs.

"Once we have dealt with the terrorists," Kavanaugh said, "we need to look at major problems in the world, at all who are unfed, unloved and unheard, who maybe seethe with resentment." The weapons that are so easy now for terrorists to acquire and use are too destructive for any other response.

The Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn pointed out that dictator Josef Stalin, who was responsible for the murder of some 20 million of his own people, could not have enjoyed his spectacularly evil success without those around him turning a blind eye or refusing to speak out for fear. Reflecting on his own experiences in Stalin's prison camps, Solzhenitsyn wrote:
 Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil
 passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political
 parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human
 hearts. This line shifts. If only it were all so simple, if only there were
 evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it was
 necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. Yet
 even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is
 retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner
 of evil. And who wants to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Jesus weighed in on the topic of evil not with a label but with a story: the parable of the weeds and wheat. Let good and evil grow up together, then let God make the harvest; meanwhile do good to those who hate you. If evil is only privation of good, those we call evil must necessarily be partly good. In doing good to them, the good in us calls out to the good in them.

The Christian's faith ultimately is that the direst straits and most wretched events that can happen to us humans are bathed in the light of God's eternal love and that, in the end, in the words of the medieval mystic Juliana of Norwich, "All manner of things shall be well."

RELATED ARTICLE: `Evil, be thou my good'.

Evil has a long history

The Christian tradition holds that evil, though not eternal, pre-exists humans. Its origin is in the world of angels, personal and immaterial beings with flee will. One of these, Lucifer, rebelled against God's order. In Milton's words in Paradise Lost, Lucifer pledged, "Evil, be thou my good." In the Old Testament this fall is described as a result of vanity: "Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings" (Ezekiel 28: 16-17).

In the Christian view, evil is not a creation of God but a perversion of that creation, a result of using free will against the very purpose for which it was created. Evil is a parasite of good, a diminishment. Having acquired this diminished nature, Satan and the other dark angels actively try to thwart God's plan with humankind. Their existence is that of spiritual death, irrevocable alienation from good (hell). God has limited Satan's power and only allows evil to manifest itself in order to awaken humans from spiritual lethargy. And, if humans can misuse God's creation, why wouldn't God be able to use for good those who perform evil? Augustine argued that even Judas' betrayal of Jesus, as evil as that was, produced a far greater good. Christians believe the evil that is part and parcel of the world is redeemable.

A good part of church history, however, is a recounting of the struggle against various incarnations of the Gnostic heresy, the religious notion that matter is intrinsically evil and cannot be redeemed. The early church fathers, men like Irenaeus and Tertullian, made their reputations by writing treatises against the Gnostics. Some of them, like Augustine, were reformed Gnostics themselves, In the Middle Ages, these ideas again emerged and swept through southern Europe in the form of the Albigensian and Cathar heresies. The crusades against these heretics began the Inquisition, which lasted another 300 to 400 years and provided the impetus for the rise of the mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans.

In more recent times, the thinkers of the Enlightenment were convinced that human reason could discover the natural laws of the universe, determine the rights of humankind and thereby ensure unending progress in knowledge and moral values, eventually vanquishing evil. Following the onset of the industrial revolution, Karl Marx asserted that evil was embedded in social structures and institutions. In the 20th century, sin was defused by Sigmund Freud's assertion that we are at the mercy of unconscious impulses. His colleague, Carl Jung, pointed out that every good has a shadow. Einstein's theory of relativity was misinterpreted and applied to ethics, and became moral relativism, the belief that our judgment of good and evil are derived from our point of view.

Lucifer himself and his spirit minions, who had somewhat fallen off the radar after the Enlightenment, made a comeback. In the winter of 1973 the film The Exorcist brought the Evil One back into pop culture. Ex-Jesuit Malachi Martin kept the notion that the demonic was yet in the possession business alive with his popular book, Hostage to the Devil. In 1983, best-setting author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck published a book titled People of the Lie in which he claimed that evil was real and palpable in human lives, and that he had met people who were truly evil. The medical establishment ignored him. In the same decade, an epidemic of stories swept the country, alleging that Satan's human followers were torturing toddlers in daycare centers, brainwashing teens through heavy metal lyrics and even abducting and sacrificing infants in Black Masses. In a 1989 report, however, FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, who specialized in investigating alleged "satanic murders," Stated he had yet to identify a single case in the United States.

All of this 20th-century speculation about sin and evil took place in the midst of humankind's largest advances in the art and science of killing. It is estimated that a handful of individuals -- Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet and a few others -- alone were responsible for the deaths of over 100 million. War technology advanced to the point where hundreds of millions could be incinerated in a few hours in a nuclear exchange.

Many say that what is needed now more than ever are great leaps forward in the study of peace. Path-breaking peace and conflict resolution research could find ways to defuse and rechannel the evil impulses of humans.

--Rich Heffern

Rich Heffern is NCR's opinion editor. His e-mail address is
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Author:Heffern, Rich
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 11, 2002
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