There are few moments that are truly capable of resizing a person. Death is the main force that cuts people down to size. It is inevitable, and the only guarantee in life. As many have pointed out before, we often live as though death is a myth. We exercise, wear deodorant and make up, pretending that we can stall aging, we can elude death, but when we are faced with tragedy we are all brought back down to the hard and indiscriminant truth that death will find us all.
I am filled with a number of impulses when I hear about a tragic news story. The first is shock. The second is denial.
I am shocked at the depravity of the world. I find myself speechless that people are capable of such evil and such violence towards each other. Language has no claims in the land of grief. Words seem too light and too insensitive to begin to address the heart ache that grips me in the face of tragedy. There is no kernel of wisdom or rationale that can makes sense of what has happened. Whenever I stand near a casket, or learn of a fatal illness, or hear about a mass shooting I am filled with static and unable to move forward. I sit motionless glued to sources of information that wash over me with the incessant message that an unspeakable evil has just happened…it really happened…it really happened. I once lived in a world where this tragic event had not just happened, and now I live in a world where it has and I simply cannot imagine that I will learn to accept that such evil is possible, and so I sit and listen to the news reports as they try to convince me that tragedy has truly just happened, but I am overwhelmed with horror and grief and shock that moves towards denial.
Denial, at first glance, is manifest in my desire to pull the covers over my head and plug my ears and pretend that the evil in the world is not real. This, however, is quickly replaced by deeper self reflection. As I listen to the news reports I want to join in and disassociate and externalize evil. Evil is out there, it’s a lone gunman, it is in a foreign land, it looks different than me, speaks a different language, and it operates without rationale and is one dimensionally bent against all of us, the good people. I want to blame parents, and video games, or the internet…but I have to wonder if these are just tools of denial. Tools that help me deny the violence within my own heart. They deny the violent world and culture that I participate in every day. I want to point to the evil out there, because I don’t want to point to the evil in here. I can scapegoat everything that influences people, because I want to deny that evil is in the posture of the human heart.
Who has not stood back and looked at their own actions and been shocked by the destructive potential they hold in their hands?
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Ryan Mahoney is a pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church and a fan of art. He loves being creative and, wondering about the big beautiful world that God has placed us in.
I’m not sure if “evil” is a supernatural (in the most literal sense of the word) force. I think human beings have a really hard time seeing themselves as mammals, as part of nature. We forget how “evil” animals can be. They eat their children, they murder other animals of their own species in competition for resources and reproductive activities. Genetically modern human beings, in the 500,000 we have existed, have been civilized for maybe 1 or 2 percent of that time. Our DNA isn’t specially adapted to living in close proximity to each other, following the rules, delaying gratification, and suppressing rage. It’s adapted to do exactly all of those things, just like any other mammal. We have to learn to be civilized, and it’s a tough job, when you think about it. That’s why the holy books that came out of the cradle of civilization, including the hebrew scriptures, talk so much about “divinely inspired” rules for property law, remuneration for transgressions, and municipal authority. Surely when ancient Sumer was first setting the ground rules for modern life, it wasn’t easy to take people not far removed from nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes and make them get along with each other in a cramped, walled city. (And they really only had to get along with each other one city at a time; burning down and pillaging a different city was fair game — be as primal and nasty as you want as long as it’s not to your own city!)
What we call “evil” is just people acting on instincts. We’re always fighting against those, and we use myth, ritual, and negative reenforcement to try to do it. I think part of the Individualism experiment America has been carrying out for 200 years, is that we’ve set ourselves back a few steps by cutting out the major institutions that impart values. If we let people do what they were really born to do, in a complete vacuum of values, it really isn’t that pretty. It’s a reminder to keep working on the art of civilization. We can all learn good values if we’re taught, but the community has to be center — the global community today.
Hunter-gatherers didn’t live long (25 years old on average) and they were frequently, and brutally, murdered. Civilization has been a powerful, if imperfect, way to restrain primal instincts. Believe it or not, but the rate of murder and violence in the last 1,000 years has been far, far lower than in the 5000 years preceding it. People slip through the cracks though. We need to keep instructing people, from a young age, to value the people in their communities, and to “domesticate” themselves better. We need to work harder to make people not feel alone and isolated. We need to teach people that the evolved instincts we have should be moderated in certain ways.
We can’t begin to work on solutions until we understand the nature of the problem. The problem isn’t a metaphysical “dark force” in humans. The problem is something that we share in common with all animal life on this planet. The solution is known: Encourage people to take on the yoke of civilization, in exchange for the betterment of the species. You can’t rid the world of “evil”, because it’s right there inside us, at the heart of every cell of our bodies. But we can train humans, and we can construct systems and environments that encourage the best in us, too.
People have been asking the question “what is evil” since the first literature of Sumer and the first civilizations. Many models have been proposed, including the supernatural Satan models, the “people are animals” model, the conflict model of good versus evil, the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic models, and many more. But the overriding answer that comes down to us through the thousands of years is that we don’t know. Evil is real, but it remains a mystery. We should certainly do all we can to improve humanity, but I think if you look at all the progress we’ve made, we haven’t made a dent in human evil. My guess is that all the science, technology, and rationale thinking in the world will never be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Great post Ryan, the problem resides inside of me.
The Bible introduces us to evil at the very beginning. Its origin in satan is declared but the “how” is left as something known to God alone at this point. At the fall of Adam God decreed that sin would enter the human race because of Adam’s disobedience to the command. Man’s ability to know and be at peace with God suddenly disappeared. The first murder was committed shortly thereafter and violence and debauchery reached a crescendo just prior to flood as revealed in Genesis. I believe the second crescendo is being reached in our generation just prior to Jesus return to His 1000 year reign. We will never know God or ourselves apart from His revelation, the scriptures. He made us and He alone knows us well enough to show us our true nature. In Jeremiah 17:9&10; the Lord tells us that the human heart, more than anything else, is deceitful and desperately sick (and we’re not talking about the flu here.). That’s quite unsettling to the average thinking person. V. 10 affirms that the Lord is the One Who searches the heart and mind of every person. That’s a comfort to those who have bowed in repentance and received the gift of Life in Christ, but a cause for gnashing of teeth in those who want nothing to do with love and service to their Creator.
There will be no improvement to humanity. The prophetic Word is clear that in the end times evil and deception will go from bad to worse until the Lord Himself returns. My prayer is that many will turn to receive the unbelievably awesome gift of eternal life that He paid to give us before they must see Him without it. Maranatha!