A Response to the “Evil” Dilemma: All About Intent

I would like to welcome my friend, very old friend actually, Eddie Matthews to the podium. I have known Eddie  since early-high school, and probably before. We had a lot of great times back then, and no, I won’t tell those stories. At least not now. But, besides being a long time friend, interesting soul (bomb squad anyone?) and fellow techie, Eddie now serves part time as pastor for a church in middle Tennessee. So, it was with great interest and not just a little trepidation that I read his response to my last couple of blog posts. Wow, he still has his wits about him!  I asked his permission to post what he wrote to me.  His introduction and then the actual comments follow.

Eddie MatthewsI read your recent articles on evil, which I thought were good by the way, and felt compelled to write a response.  I was just going to post a response to one of them on your blog, but it turned into more of an article in itself, so here it is.  – Pastor Eddie Matthews

Questions regarding the nature of evil are as limitless as the imaginations of people. Likely, most of these concerns will never be adequately resolved in this world. However, Michael Carnell raises some interesting issues in his two recent articles which beg close examination. While I cannot answer the overall question of evil, I hope to clarify the discussion by a more in-depth look at what evil really is, and how it applies to the human condition.

In his first article Michael laid out an argument for a loose definition of evil as a concept which can be applied to individuals, corporations, and politicians alike. (Carnell, Whence Cometh Evil? 2013) In his second article he expands on the subjective nature of evil to include how the hypocrisy of people helps to bring about evil. (Carnell, The Hypocrite’s Life 2013) He makes many good points in his articles; but in both cases, the nature of evil is described all at once as being both personal and impersonal, a direct result of certain individuals, and an indirect and oft unavoidable fact of life. These seemingly contradictory descriptions of the nature of evil lead to a fundamental confusion concerning its nature, with an end result of evil being objectified and distanced from its connection to man. The quote from Edmund Burke, “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing” is a prime example of this objectification. It’s as if Burke is suggesting that evil exists as an entity in itself, supported and encouraged by, but separate from humanity.

This subjective and abstract conceptualization of evil broadly applied to a range of personally disagreeable conditions is prevalent in society today. I’m sure many would agree with Michael’s assessment, but I believe this issue should be approached from a different perspective. Unlocking the confusion begins with realizing the current understanding of evil has been heavily influenced by a slow shift in word usage over time. The word evil has become, in modern usage, synonymous with “bad.” By extension we naturally view this as the opposite of good. That may sound simplistic, but ponder the consequences. “Bad” is also the opposite of “good,” and both are completely subjective concepts. What I consider to be bad may differ greatly from another’s opinion. After all, we all have very different personalities. Even within ourselves these concepts of good and bad evolve over time. Our opinions change as we mature, and our viewpoints shift as we learn to see things from alternative and wider-ranged perspectives. So, “bad” is a completely relative and subjective term. On the other hand, “evil” was never intended to have a subjective connotation, and neither is it the opposite of “good.” Please read on before you judge this last statement.

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The Hypocrite's Life

So two days ago I wrote a long post about evil. I wrote about how evil creeps into our lives either directly or indirectly. I also talked a bit about how often it is not deliberate conscious actions that bring about evil, but more often that not it is by our own inactions that we allow evil to manifest itself. Another often-overlooked action that I find disturbing, and that can actually help bring about evil is hypocrisy.

ScaryThere is a definition on-line of hypocrisy that reads like this, “the practice of engaging in the same behavior or activity for which one criticizes another; moral self-contradiction whereby the behavior of one or more people belies their own claimed or implied possession of certain beliefs, standards or virtues.” I see these practices and behaviors in many of our politicians and other of high office. Unfortunately I also see them in normal people  – my friends, my family, myself.

For instance, I have a friend who has a handicapped placard for his car. This will let him park in all those juicy reserved spots up close next to the doors of buildings. I have no problem with. That is what they are there for – he has a knee problem and his doctor decided he qualified. But, this is also the same conservative who decries all government programs that give aid to the poor or needy as government handouts that come out of his pocket and make the receiver week. Um, well I hate to tell you, but that handicapped placard is exactly the same type of aid. It is telling private businesses how they must run their private parking lots so that a certain group of people will have an advantage, or a leveling of the playing field if you will, when it comes to parking.  Where it goes even further beyond is that this friend has a gym membership so that he can go to the gym and walk three to five miles on the treadmill every day or so. Yes, this is the same person who needs government assistance to get a preferred parking place. And, I must repeat, the same person who says government aid is bad.

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Whence Cometh Evil?

I have been wondering a lot recently about the nature of evil. Or specifically, how evil actions come about. It is pretty easy to look at the actions of lone crazed murders or rapists, declare them evil, decide there is something wrong in their minds, and move on. But what about the politicians we elect? Or the corporations we buy from and work for? Where does evil arise.

Angel and devil on shoulderA lot of people, me included, would look at the actions of the banking and mortgage industry over the past few years and declare them evil. Actions that put good people out of their homes, devastated retirement or investment accounts, and generally brought about the failure of the American economy. The actions of the corporations were in direct opposition to the general welfare and well-being of the population and so would be considered evil. But each of those corporations is made up of people. Individuals. Individuals who, if you talked to them individually and looked at how they led their lives and fed their dogs, are what we would think of as good people. So how did these good people come together to perform works of evil? It is very similar, though no where near the same scale and deadliness, as Nazis during the holocaust.

Another example is the bill going before the House to protect the rights of LGBT people in the workplace. There are many, at least in the Senate, who supported and passed the bill in a bipartisan manner. But the bill looks like it will fail in the house – in large part because Speaker John Boehner is against it. Here is a man, who even if you disagree with is politics, is someone we would normally consider to be a good person. But in this case he seeks to deny rights and equal protection under the law to a group of people because it might cost jobs. Directly said – money is more important than human rights. Again, most would say that is a statement that borders on evil. So how does this happen.

I do not pretend to know the answers to these questions. I do not even go so far as to say I know how to react to the individual evidences of the actions. I am at a loss to explain how people, either individually or in a group can do evil. These action, to people of all races, colors and sexes, hurt me deeply. Cruel acts to animals and children hit me deep in the heart. Why does it happen? And how do you deal with it?

I do know that there is a fantastic quote attributed to Edmund Burke that says, “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” And I firmly believe this. We must do something. We cannot sit idly by, and we must call out evil where we see it. We must cease worrying over our own discomfort, desire for wealth and status, and we must feel for the world. But the implementation of that? As hard as finding the root causes of evil actions.

Nightmares of Our Own Making

We torture ourselves far more than any one else ever could. When we read The Scarlet Letter back in high school (at least by then hopefully) we marvel at the Reverend Dimmesdale’s self mutulation. “How could someone do that to Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, circa 1781themselves?” the young voices in the classroom ask. But, we do far worse to ourselves with amazing regularity – instead of the welts and bruises being hidden by our clothes, they are concealed deep within us.

We use our hopes, fears, loves and doubts to brutalize out egos and self-worth. We find the possibilities our hearts fear the most and dwell on them until our world swells with an anxiousness that anticipates with far greater magnifications the outcomes of what will happen. And then we pull ourselves back from the brink. We find reason, small shards of the glass we view reality through, reasons to hold out that what we want may be real or at least possible. And what we fear the most isn’t so.

That zigzag, too and fro, yo-yo of the emotions is what breaks us in the end. Holding a strip of tin maybe, no a paper clip, in our hands we bend it back and forth. This paper clip that should be holding the pages of our life together. Keeping everything neat and tidy and it the right order, but we are bending the metal back and forth. Bored? Expectant? Why do we do it? Hell, who knows, but we keep on flipping fore and back. Watching the joint, the bend, slowly turn murky and white as the structure weakens. And we keep going. With some perverse pleasure we wait for that small sound. That little click that accompanies the severing of the strand. And now it is apart. And can’t be put back.

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The Paradox of Our Age

Saw this quoted from the 14th Dali Lama. Love it.

The Paradox of Our Age

 

We have bigger houses but smaller families;

more conveniences, but less time.

We have more degrees but less sense;

more knowledge but less judgment;

more experts, but more problems;

more medicines but less healthiness.

We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,

but have trouble in crossing the street to meet our new neighbour.

We built more computers to hold more copies than ever,

But have less real communication;

We have become long on quantity,

but short on quality.

These are times of fast foods but slow digestion;

Tall men but short characters;

Steep profits but shallow relationships.

It’s a time when there is much in the window

But nothing in the room. — the 14th Dalai Lama.