Friday, November 27, 2009

Judging Evil

I’ve recently had a number of conversations about evil men and their evil deeds. As I’ve listened to the judgments cast on these men, I found myself silently disagreeing. Not with the badness of the men, but on the judgment of them. So I’ve had to reflect on why I disagreed.
Firstly, I think I disagree because of my view on what evil is. Evil committed by men is a mis-ordering of goods. Success in business is a very good thing; but you are greedy when you overemphasis on this success. You do indeed have great value as a human being; but you are guilty of being prideful when you value yourself more highly than you should. I believe every sin or evil deed is like that.
Men do what is right in their own eyes. Nobody does evil simply for the sake of doing evil. We can pick out unrealistic bad guys easily by their pure desire to do evil. Even sadists don’t do harm for the sake of harm; they do harm for the sake of pleasure, which, by itself, is a good thing. A person may do wrong knowing it is wrong, but it is because of some other good thing that is overvalued. An adulterer knows that adultery is wrong, but counts the pleasure greater (or gratified desires, or rebellion, or relieved boredom) than the value of lost faithfulness.
When considering bad people, I realized that the greatest evils don’t come from selfishness, but from foolishness. It comes from men who do not well think and pray through their motivations and actions. It came from bad philosophy (“love of wisdom”; philosophy in the Platonic sense). Nazis wanted a good thing: a strong Germany. Some of it was misplaced priorities (a strong Germany was more important than a strong France). But the most vile part of it was strong and good ambitions mixed with very bad philosophy. In this case, Social Darwinism and Anti-Semitism inspired the Holocaust and good German ambitions were driven to very evil ends.
Similarly with Colonialism, it was originally motivated by a desire for richness for friends, family members and countrymen. Later, it morphed into badly-executed altruism. Kipling’s infamous poem, “White Man’s Burden,” relates this altruistic desire: “Take up the White Man’s Burden/ Send forth the best ye breed--/Go bind your sons to exile/To serve your captives' need.” But in the case of the Colonialists, even those with the good ambition “To serve [their] captives’ need,” were thwarted by racism (i.e. viewing the colonized as “captives”), and the result has been the Pandoric post-colonial world. It is their fault that I get asked a hundred thousand times by children in Kenya, using the only English phrase they know, “Give me money.”
As a result, I think it’s possible that men who have good hearts do harmful things. I think there were many benevolent men who were also colonizers. Some good men who destroyed continents may only be guilty of foolishness, if indeed they acted by benevolence. In fact, I myself may be one of them; men may look back in a century on development workers and show the terrors that were made possibly by our work. But I believe I will be judged good; my motivations are benevolent, though it may turn out that I am guilty of some foolishness.
So what does that mean for “evil men”? I face “evil men” on a daily basis. But how different are these men from me? How often do I mis-prioritize Goods? And how much of my goodness was just a historical and social accident? I was raised in a good time and by a good family. Would these men have been the way they are if they had my advantages? Moreover, is what I’m doing even Good in the long run? These questions cannot be answered by mortal minds. And I suppose this is why we are told “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
An old Christian-ism is when watching and evil person to say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” No person is special. No one is immune from the risks of sin and evil. And we cannot judge one another because we are all guilty of sin. Though sins do have different gravities, we as sinners do not have different categories. I am in exactly the same moral situation as the “worst of sinners;” even the best of sinners is still a sinner. All of us mis-prioritize.
I can (and should) look at actions and call them evil or good. But I cannot be certain, so I should not judge another; the proclamation of damnation and salvation is not my domain. We certainly need to make judgments on actions; we need to aspire to the good and fight the bad as best we are able. But for the purposes of ranking humans above or below myself, I can see neither the heart which produces an action nor the action’s ultimate outcome. I cannot look into the future to show what will come of his action. I cannot look at a man and presume to know his heart. Even if I could, I think I would be horrified by the lack of diversity in shades of black.
Note: I think I am totally ripping off C.S. Lewis with this essay. His ideas have so inspired my own I cannot identify which were originally planted by him.

City on a Hill

“And all God’s people said, ‘Amen,’” said the tall, thin Pastor James.

“Amen!” the congregation replied. And with that, yet another Sunday’s obligation was met.

The emaciated congregation exited the church, completely without emotion except for the children who knew no greater joy than this salvation from boredom.

After his flock was led out, his heart overpowered his mind in controlling his face. His thin lips which had formed a calm smile turned to a deep frown. His dark brows furrowed, and tears flowed from his dark eyes down his sharp face. His congregation had been dwindling and their passion was growing cold. He was a young pastor leading an old congregation. Many of his members had joined a new megachurch nearby and he was having trouble paying the bills.

The pastor went over to the altar, knelt and prayed, “Dear Lord, I pray for this congregation. I ask you to give me wisdom to lead these people, and for guidance. Most of all, Lord, I pray for exhortation. I pray that I would be guided to do what I must for these people, regardless of how hard it may be.”

He spent the rest of the day in his office, reading his Bible hoping to find some guidance. The search was in vain. An unintelligible vision of discs in Ezekiel caused him to flip ahead to Zecheriah, only to discover an unintelligible prophecy of chariots. Going ahead to Matthew, he was confused by five of the seven kingdom parables. He read the letters to Timothy, hoping for new insight, but the words were stale. He prayed, but his prayers were forced and uninspiring. As the sun set, he put his things away, tidied up the church and then went to lock up the church.

As he walked out, a disheveled man was laying out a blanket on the threshold of the church. The opening of the door startled him and he looked like he had been caught. He was a fat man, with a mess of hair that was mostly black, but whitening in streaks. His clothes were dirty, and his pants and jacket were denim.

It would rain tonight. It was the Oregon, so it rained every night. It was particularly chilly, so James was feeling compassionate.

“You can sleep here tonight. I won’t call the police,” said James.

“Thank you,” said the man in a gruff voice, “The Darkness is growing.”

“It is getting dark out. Have a good night!” said James with the awkward voice of a man who only rarely has conversation with people wearing tennis shoes.

“Ha. Yeah, that too,” the man chuckled.

“What do you mean?” asked the pastor.

“I mean that the Darkness is growing. You’re a pastor. You should understand what Darkness is. Or at least you should know what the Bible says about it,” replied the man.

“I guess you’re right. Secularism is on the rise.”

“Are you stupid or something? Darkness, as in ‘this present darkness;’ ‘the powers of darkness of this age;’ or ‘the prince of Darkness.’” The man spoke slowly, saying each word deliberately, “The – Darkness – Is – Growing.”

The pastor looked concerned.

The man sighed, and looked the pastor dead in the eye, “Do you believe in demons?”

“Yes. In Christ’s time, He cast out many demons,” responded James with the proper catechized response.

The man wasn’t satisfied. He asked, “Do you believe in demons today?”

“Well, I suppose in theory,” James responded as he looked down.

“Screw theory. Do – You – Believe – In – Demons – Today?” asked the man, saying it slowly and loudly as if speaking to a foreigner.

“Not really, I guess. I’ve never seen one,” admitted James.

The man relaxed, “Praise God for that. That means I’m doing my job. Praise God that you are ignorant of the creatures who stalk your flock like wolves, lusting for the opportunity to devour their bodies and souls. This town has no idea the debt it owes you; if those monsters weren’t restrained by this church...” the man shook his head. “It seems to please God that I fight the powers of darkness directly so you and your flock can have peace; you can spend your time focusing on God without having to be distracted.”

“By Demons?” asked a bewildered pastor skeptically.

“Yeah, by demons, jackass,” the man replied. “Have you ever tried sleeping near demons? With your spiritual guard down, they can burrow into your mind and cause horrors which make nightmares seem like fantasies. Or have you ever been hanging out with friends, joking around, and a possessed comes over shouting and foaming at the mouth? It really ruins the mood. Or trying to hear the voice of God in His Word over choirs of demonic shrieking? Or trying to get time alone with God and having to keep watching your back? Fighting them is really goddam distracting to living a normal life.”

The pastor’s eye twitched.

“God damn it. I forgot you pastor types can’t bear swearing,” sighed the man.

“Umm,” started the pastor with a failed attempt at bravery. “Surely you know the Third Commandment.” His voice wavered, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.”

The gruff man looked him dead in the eye, as if waiting for the punch-line. A few beats passed and he said, “You’re kidding, right?”

“I do not joke about the Law of God,” responded the pastor with unwavering piety.

“Well you should,” said the man with disapproval. “You hold it in such high esteem you’re not even holding it anymore. Maybe if you laughed once in a while you might read your Bible more than one time in a goddam week. The Third Commandment isn’t about vocabulary. It’s about ambassadorship. Do not take the name of the Lord, unless you mean it. Don’t call yourself by His name, unless you’re goddam serious. I’ve got a foul mouth; but I sure as shit take my role as Christ’s messenger seriously.”

He paused, scratched at his crotch, and continued, “We’re getting distracted. I came here with a message from God. ‘Pray unceasingly’. You normally have prayer meetings on Thursdays, and cancelled it last week.”

The pastor looked surprised, “It was just me, brother Ron and sister Gladys. And they both fell asleep! I didn’t think there was a point. But how did you know that?”

“Because there was a shitstorm out there on Thursday!” shouted the man, “I got my ass handed to me! You’re the only church in fifty miles so I knew it was you who did some dumbass thing.”

“There’s a hundred churches in this town. What are you talking about?” asked the pastor.

“I don’t know much about theology or leading churches. But what I do know is that I can sleep without harassment here and nowhere else in this town,” the man said.

He continued, “My message is simple. Please keep having prayer meetings. For the love of God! I don’t care if it’s just you and Gladys! I can only do so much. The shit is gonna start spilling over if you don’t keep doing your job.”

“What does this have to do with demons?” asked James.

“You don’t understand. Do you think God tells you to pray for shits and giggles? Do you think He’s a big jokester, handing down commandments for fun? That shit’s for a reason!”

“You’re telling me that Gladys and I are holding back demons?”

“Yes. That’s what I’m saying. There is a goddam reason! So please, do me a favor: keep praying.

“OK. I’ll do that.”

“A City on a Hill cannot be hidden. This whole town is in a deep darkness. Your very presence is drawing their souls to Christ and driving the demons away. Since you came, they’ve hated it here. No matter what happens or how depressed you get, you are the Light of the World.”

“Alright. And thank you. I prayed that God would send you. Are you an angel?”

“Do I look like a goddam angel? Do these look like shining garments to you?”

“Well if you’re not an angel, can I get your name?”

“My name is Mike,” said Mike.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mike. Mike like the archangel?”

“Sure. He’s cool: strong and glorious. But I think I’m closer to Mike like Tyson: strong and viscous.”

So the pastor got in his car and drove home, wondering at the things he had seen and heard, swearing to God that he would never again cancel another prayer meeting.