By putting the word “evil” back in our public discourse, we will at least describe the true nature of some people and the true description of certain actions. We may mitigate evil acts by recognizing evil as evil, instead of explaining it away.
The famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger published a widely acclaimed book in l974 titled “Whatever Became of Sin.” He argued that, in all of our psychological analysis –– both professional and the psychobabble in the media –– we have forgotten the biblical doctrine of sin: that there is a dark side of human nature and that we are overly centered upon the self.
It seems to me that one could write another book today called, “Whatever Became of Evil.” In all the articles I have read about Jared Loughner and the tragic events in Tucson, and in all the TV commentary by the talking heads, rarely did the word “evil” come into the conversation. Why?
The explanations for Loughner’s crimes went from the psychological (he is mentally ill) to the sociological (our political climate contributed to the killer becoming unhinged). No doubt mental illness contributes to acts of violence in many instances, and no doubt our culture of violence and overheated political debate are toxic, which may affect the human spirit even to the point of influencing behavior.
But what seems to be missing in all of this discussion is that people, at times, choose to do evil. The biblical perspective on human beings is that we are free to make choices. Yes, we might be tempted, as in the story of the Fall in Genesis. But Adam and Eve made choices.
Many modern thinkers, such as Freud and Marx, argue that we are not free, that we are “determined” by our instincts or by the forces in our economic system. But even they assumed that we had the freedom to choose to enter into therapy or start a revolution.
Mental illness does limit our freedom, but the insanity defense only is successful in a trial if the defense attorney can prove that the defendant did not know the difference between right and wrong. That hardly seems to be the case in Tucson, or with Ted Bundy or Al Capone.
The prophet Amos says in 5:14, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.” And Jesus in Mark 7:22 says that even our intentions are evil when they concern “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, etc.” The Bible teaches that we have free will and that human beings often choose to do evil –– we choose to murder, or we choose to be unfaithful to our spouses. The Bible is full of such stories.
Why is the biblical premise on human nature so hard to accept and then apply to our current state of affairs? Maybe it is simply too hard to stomach that someone who intends to do evil can choose to buy a gun, and then can choose to use it in acts of murder. Maybe too much free will scares us.
Moreover, it is hard to do a background check on evil intentions. Drugs and mental illness and a lousy childhood may intensify those intentions and even inspire one’s acts of evil. But we are still left with the cold hard fact that some people choose to do evil.
For certain people, evil is pleasurable, as in adultery and even killing for some. This makes eliminating evil an impossible task. But we may mitigate evil acts by recognizing evil as evil, instead of explaining it away or by solely using other forms of discourse, however helpful, as with psychiatry.
The photos of Jared Loughner in the Jan. 24 issue of Time magazine has the face of evil on them. But that is after the fact. Not many recognized the face of evil before the murders, which is precisely the problem.
By putting the word “evil” back in our public discourse, we will at least describe the true nature of some people and the true description of certain actions.
Idema is the pastoral assistant at Grace Episcopal Church in Holland, Mich. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- The Holland Sentinel (Mich.)