Finding a good way to talk about evil

A shorter version of this article first appeared in ‘The Friend‘ on 20 April 2017.

In general I find British Quakers reluctant to talk about evil. Can we use the words ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ in a way that is helpful and life affirming? The writers of Twelve Quakers and Evil (2006) show a strong desire to understand evil and see the good in the perpetrator, but I also detect an unwillingness to condemn evil, and a reluctance to see God as one who judges and rejects evil. One contributor writes that ‘answering that of God in everyone means first of all finding it in, say, Fred West or Adolf Hitler’. I find this difficult to accept. Surely when faced with evil on such a scale as the Holocaust, our first action should be to name it and work to prevent or mitigate it. To say our priority is to understand the humanity of the tyrant is a slap in the face to those they are crushing underfoot. We need to be able to name the evil we witness and experience in the world (whether that’s the evil of the suicide bomber or the evil of selling bombs to Saudi Arabia). If we consider ourselves to be a community concerned with truth and peace, then we have to be equipped to call out lies and injustice.

We also need to be able to articulate the darkness within our own community.  Churches that are comfortable with talking about sin appear to be better at addressing their own racism. Churches less fluent in the language of sin and evil may find it harder to take the planks out of their own eyes. Micah Bales, a fellow Quaker blogger from the States, recently asked ‘If humans are basically good, how did we end up with Trump?’ This is an important question for Quakers who believe in the goodness of humanity, and the inevitability of moral progress. Micah sees the election of Donald Trump as a vindication of our inherent wickedness and depravity:

But just because Trump and his supporters are wicked does not mean that you and I are righteous. The will to power is strong, and we’re all seeking our own ways to be on top. Even under the guise of being meek, caring, pious, and Christ-like – we’re wolves in sheep’s clothing. All of us.

I understand that this is strong language, perhaps too strong for British liberal Friends to take. How can we affirm our experience of human goodness as well as the reality of evil and our responsibility for it? How can we hold these things in tension?

The problem of theodicy

The ‘problem of evil’, simply put, is how to square the belief in a good, powerful God with the existence of evil. Since the 18th century, attempts to solve the ‘problem of evil’ have been known as ‘theodicies’, a term coined by the German philosopher Leibniz in 1710. Since then, evil has been explained variously as necessary for free will, or the existence of good – how can we choose good if we can’t also choose evil? – or as a way of making us better people, but any attempt at an explanation is problematic. If evil is explicable, if it has a reason to exist, if evil is a necessary part of our world, then God as creator must be implicated in evil’s existence. How can we worship a God who requires the possibility of Auschwitz?

Privation theory

I’d like to offer a perspective on evil that I think would be helpful for Friends. It is known as ‘evil as privatio boni’, or as privation theory. It affirms both the goodness of creation and our experience of evil, without needing to explain evil as a necessary phenomenon.

Privation theory was developed in a Christian context by Augustine of Hippo, a fifth century African bishop and highly influential theologian. In his youth he became a member of the Manichees, a gnostic sect who believed that the spiritual world was made by a good god, and the material world by an evil god. Augustine later rejected their teachings, arguing that, from a Christian point of view, there was only one good God who had created everything. Therefore everything, both material and spiritual, was good. So how did Augustine account for evil? Augustine developed an idea previously expressed by classical philosophers that evil does not exist as a thing in itself. Evil is a corruption or lessening of good. It is an uncreated thing. Evil could be thought of as a hole in a sock. The hole is nothing in itself; it exists purely in relation to the sock. Take away the sock and the hole cease to exist.

As evil doesn’t exist, it cannot be pursued for its own sake. When someone does something evil, at the heart of their action is the desire for something good. When the good that we desire is not the highest good (that is, when we turn away from God, from ‘that of God’ within us) we commit evil. In 1961, Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. In Eichmann she saw, not a monster, but a very ordinary, unthinking man who ‘never realized what he was doing.’ Eichmann pursued the goods of efficiency and hard work, and in doing so enabled one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century. Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, capturing this sense that evil is committed not by especially evil people, but by those who are ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

Evil and Freedom

Privation theory also requires us to rethink our understanding of freedom. If freedom means freedom of choice, then only willing one thing (the highest good) sounds like imprisonment. But what if being free meant freely being our most true self? According to this understanding, our freedom increases the more we are what we were created to be. When learning to play the piano, I had the choice to practice or not. I often chose not to! But having that freedom of choice did not make me more free to be a pianist. The more I practiced, the more fluent I became, the more free a piano player I was. Similarly, a virtuous person is not virtuous because they continuously choose not to do evil. To be freely virtuous is not to choose at all, but to be so practiced in virtue that good deeds flow naturally. The most freely virtuous person is the person who cannot help but be virtuous. From a privation theory perspective, freedom of choice was the ‘original sin’. When Adam and Eve chose to trust the serpent, it wasn’t that they made a wrong choice, it was that they thought there was a choice to make in the first place. The act of choosing was a turning away from a reliance on God, the highest good, to a reliance on their own will.

Privation theory for Quakers

So to put privation theory into Quaker-speak:

  • We are good in that we share in the goodness of God with all created things.
  • When we turn from the Light, from ‘that of God’ within ourselves, our vision is darkened and our will weakened.
  • When we follow our corrupted desires, although they be for good things, we allow evil to flourish. We become less freely our true selves.
  • Only when we give over our own willing and desiring and ‘sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart’ will we find the evil weakening in us and the good raised up.
  • When faced with evil, we do not have to rationalise it as part of a Divine plan. Although good may come out evil, evil is not required to bring about good.

To view evil in this way is both sobering and hopeful. All of us are capable of the most terrible evils, and we may be extending evil’s reach in all manner of unseen and innocuous ways. Responsibility for the Holocaust does not lie solely at the door of one dictator. Yet we can be confident that evil has no legitimate foothold in creation. God does not will it, require it or excuse it. We are free to hate and reject it. Does this mean that we should destroy evil doers? No, for every person is part of creation and therefore good. Evil is not a thing in itself, and so cannot be destroyed. It is a hole in a garment that needs stitching, a corruption that can only be healed, and we are all in need of restoration.

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7 thoughts on “Finding a good way to talk about evil

  1. Stuff happens for all sorts of complicated reasons and there are always many sides to every question. Was Eichmann evil personified or just a dutiful but weak man who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time? Were the RAF pilots who destroyed Dresden heroes or villains? Are the Quaker Meetings which have no black members any more racist than the African church which meets in Kingston Quaker Centre and has no white members? We all bear some responsibility for the good and the evil in the world, and religious practice helps us veer towards the former rather than the latter.

    1. I don’t know about Eichmann being evil personified, but from a privation theory perspective, being dutiful and weak within a fascist regime is evil. And not a special kind of evil, but evil that any of us can be responsible for.

  2. Very good, Mark – much needed. I’m so pleased you articulated clearly that bad should be named and judged, and “To say our priority is to understand the humanity of the tyrant is a slap in the face to those they are crushing underfoot”. Quakers in England seem to have developed the habit, within Meetings, of blaming the victim and smothering the perpetrator with understanding; bullies always win because it would be wrong to discomfort them by standing up to them, and the victim is blamed because they have made everyone else so uncomfortable. And I like the analogy of evil as the hole in the sock! It all makes sense. It’s only the translation into Quaker-speak that begins to obfuscate again.

  3. Much to ponder. I don’t recognise what you have experienced, Imran Perhaps our meeting is more conventional.I sometimes feel overwhelmed with victims and the tendency in UK society ( reflected in our meeting) to look for others to blame and others to sort out our problems. I like the hole in sock analogy because most holes are small and can be mended if we choose to bother. I’m not sure I have ever encountered a person I felt was evil but I’ ve met plenty who are scary, who are weak or indifferent or unkind or bullying. Most bullies seem to have difficulty understanding that they are just that. I’ll probably stick with trying to face out that behaviour. Quakers have been and are associated with people who others think of as evil because they are gap-filling – who else cares for them? Jesus had a very high level of acceptance. ,

    1. Thanks for this Gillian. One of things I like so much about privation theory is how it affirms the goodness of every created thing, which feels very Quakery, and makes sense in relation to Quaker opposition to the death penalty and rehabilitative work with sex-offenders.

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