Evil or Ignorance?
“Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:22)
“By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.” (Proverbs 16:6)
My childhood Christian education was in a lovely old low-Anglican church. I remember the gentle ease of going there, the upbeat message of God’s love, the feeling of comfort from stories of Jesus, and the feeling of thick wax that came off under my fingernails from the old carefully-crafted wooden pews. Going to church was undemanding, and even the hymns sung as a cacophony of the tone-deaf congregation seemed somehow ‘all right’.
Dottery old Canon John was a quiet kindly individual, whose confirmation classes I best remember for their chocolate-glazed donuts. In thinking back, even though some of the Common Prayer Book may have mentioned ‘evil’, there was never really any meaningful articulation of the concept of evil in my young Christian upbringing.
To not dwell on evil – to not have hellfire and brimstone preached to me, always struck me as humane. My life – our lives – are full enough of fears without having to additionally concern ourselves with purgatory and hell, as many others raised in a different Christian denomination or a different time experienced. I grew up, and spent my early adult years unaware or immunized from notions of evil, and like so many of my generation, and like so many today in our secularized humanist world, came to regard evil acts as products of stupidity and ignorance. I grew up in a world – a world that still exists – where kindly thinking liberal-minded ‘intellectual’ people regard Jesus as a notable humanist, and ‘good and bad’ as a relativistic concept. A world where the more tolerant and accepting one can be, the more one is regarded as well-educated, wise, and humane. Or so it would seem. Clearly there is some truth to this, as bigotry, intolerance, and ignorance are clearly causes of evil acts. All the same, though, there are evil acts, acts that we explain away as being about ignorance and stupidity through the powers of our intellect and using the ideology of humanism.
But this isn’t reality. Evil acts are evil acts, by definition. They may also be stupid acts, or ignorant acts, but they are, first and foremost evil. It has taken me a long time to unlearn my undemanding formative years of Christian education to realize that evil exists in and of itself. The Bible tells us that. Our life experiences tell us that. It is only the symbols of our over-intellectualized educated selves that deny it.
It is utter arrogance to rationalize away evil as psychological aberrations or as a consequence of poorly-designed social and economic institutional structures. It is also not terribly useful to think this way. Albeit, we may still choose to practice mercy, even in the face of evil-doing, but at the very least we should recognize evil when we see it. And we need to recognize evil. We need to believe that evil exists, not to add another fear to our lives, but simply to deny it. For one way or the other the evil is still there, and to call it something else is to truly act in ignorance. We need to choose God’s righteousness over the forces of evil. We cannot in good conscience and truth assume God’s righteousness contrasted only to an imagined relativistic benign world. We only need to open our eyes to know that what many in our society explain away as everything but evil, is indeed evil. And perhaps there is the logic of it all … the true evil then becomes that we are fools enough to deny the existence of evil itself.
Peter’s Thoughts for This Day!