In the beginning, evil was born – God’s creations were disobedient. The story goes that Adam and Eve (actually, it’s Eve who gets most of the blame) ate from “the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” after being told not to. In other words – they wanted to be able to decide what’s moral and what’s not, rather than just taking God’s word for it. They sought self-determination. Afterward, they realized they were “naked” before God, and hid from him, knowing that now he would know their minds by the actions they take of their own volition. God saw that they were no longer under his control, so he severely and cruelly punished them by banishing them from the garden, instituting hardship and death, and then throwing in submission and painful births for all women forever for good measure. I guess before that it wouldn’t have hurt to forcibly push a 6-8 lb. infant (my last one was almost 10) through a 10 cm. opening in one of the most sensitive areas of one’s body. But I digress. God separated himself from them – put them on an extended time-out for the crime of wanting to govern themselves. When they call it a “lost paradise,” they mean that from that time on, we had to fend for ourselves, and make our own way in the world. We gained knowledge, gained autonomy and a certain measure of independence, but lost having someone provide for our every need for the rest of our idyllic lives. Kinda like growing up.
The intended cautionary tale of the Garden is that we must listen to our superiors to avoid unpleasant consequences. It’s clear that the writers of this fable were setting the groundwork for a justification for demanding strict submission to authority, subjugation of women and using shame as a tool to manipulate and exert control over others. So who were the real evil-doers? And why would a “good” deity be so cruel and wrathful?
After the “fall,” now that human beings know the difference between good and evil – would they choose to do good and avoid evil? Starting with Cain and Abel… looks like the answer to that would be no. Knowing the difference between good and evil doesn’t necessarily mean people will always choose one over the other. The choice often depends on the situation, how you were raised, where you were raised, so is very subjective.
“Evil” is often defined as morally reprehensible, sinful, wicked or harmful. A brief look around would show that under this definition there is a plethora of evil and people who remain unpunished (or even rewarded) for it.
Although I no longer believe in the devil or god, I was raised Catholic, and there was a strong emphasis on the differences between good and evil in my early learning experiences. We were taught to avoid evil (which was the under the purview of the devil) at all costs, and to gravitate toward the good (that which comes from God). But, as an adult looking back at those lessons, I’m struck by a glaring truth – we were not really taught what constitutes the evil that people do, and we weren’t taught what being a good human being looked like, other than to avoid what was written (“thou shalt not”) in the ten commandments. We were not given training on how to love others, and what that means. We were not taught how to honor and respect our fellow humans, animals, and our planet. When I once asked a priest why we believe a certain tenet, I was told, circularly, that it’s because that’s what we are told to believe. Don’t ask questions, just accept what we tell you. End of discussion. Leave that forbidden fruit alone. Questioning and disobedience was “bad,” and if we disobeyed we needed to confess and repent (through penance – payment in prayer) or face (eternal) punishment. Being “good” was to follow the teachings of the church and our parents – to obey.
Therefore, if and when our church and/or our parents were evil (and it’s clear that some “men of the cloth” are perpetrators of what most would consider evil), we were following the teachings of the church by emulating them. Did that make us good, or evil? Some religions actually teach that entire segments of the population should be hated, ridiculed, reviled, even killed for their opposing beliefs or even the way they were born. They twist traditional teachings, omit inconvenient facts and justify their morally reprehensible, sinful actions as demanded by God. Are their obedient followers good? Or as evil as the ideas of the churches they embrace?
In school, we were taught to sit in our seats, pay attention and follow the rules. We were graded on our performance – how much information we retained on test days and were able to coherently express to those who supposedly knew the “right” answers. We weren’t taught (and I think the omission persists to this day) how to think for ourselves, care for one another, how to be an integral part of a functioning society or how to be a good citizen of our country or world. In fact, there is a current movement in the United States against teaching children about the evil that has been done to some people throughout our history, to whitewash it and pretend it never happened. As we know, those who aren’t taught about the past will be doomed to repeat it; and in our case, what a tragedy that would be.
I read news and politics on my phone before I get up every morning. It’s a bad habit that may be on my list of things to change in the coming year. Reading about the injustices in the world – that which I would call truly evil – leaves me feeling angry, anxious and sad. The rampant greed, and the deification of money and other assets, acquisition at all costs, and using the pursuit of them to justify all manner of injustice to others just staggers me. We glorify those who happened, through business acumen, manipulation, succession or pure luck, to acquire riches beyond comprehension. Some food for thought: a thousand seconds is 16 minutes and forty seconds. A million seconds is 11 days, 13 hours 46 minutes and 40 seconds. A billion seconds is a bit over 31 and one-half years. And, since it’s only a matter of time before one of the world’s multi-billionaires acquires a trillion in their currency, a trillion seconds is slightly over 31,688 years. Think of that in terms of how long it would take for one of them to spend one dollar each second.
Millionaires and billionaires are often seen as successful, and take great pride in their “accomplishments,” even (sometimes especially) those that others may consider to have been achieved by harming others. They often see their bounty as a license to avoid the rules (such as paying taxes, treating their employees fairly or following laws) that they believe only apply to other people. They may see themselves, and be seen by others, as superior to those who haven’t accumulated as much. Some spend their wealth on pursuits that others may consider selfish or frivolous, rather than sharing what they couldn’t possibly spend in one lifetime. They may look upon the suffering of others, which may be alleviated with a miniscule portion of their wealth, with indifference or disdain. They are the ultimate hoarders, yet instead of being universally reviled or pitied for this disorder, they are often admired. Does this make them evil? Is it evil to be indifferent to the suffering of others, especially when you could easily allay that suffering, and to break laws – or get into a position to change the laws in your favor and disenfranchise those who oppose them – to keep as much of your riches as possible, without regard to the consequences to others?
Trigger alert – the next paragraph details a culture of rape and torture
I read recently about a doctor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has made it his mission to treat and attempt to repair damaged tissues of women who have been horribly injured through rape, despite threats and at least one attempt on his life that killed close friends and relatives and necessitated his temporary flight from the country. Rape in the Congo, which is almost constantly engaged in civil wars, is systemic, and has been used not only as a sanctioned tool by the military, but by family members and community members (even women), in a society where women are thought of as less-than-human possessions. And this isn’t just rape in simple terms, it is accompanied by internal damage, external disfigurement, severed limbs and body tissues, burning, torture and infliction of pain and degradation of an almost unimaginable scale. Evil, yes? But to complicate the issue, boys are taught from a very young age that they will only gain status and manhood by raping women – and when they join the military, as many are forced to do before they reach their teens – they are initiated through being raped themselves. This early indoctrination and desensitization to rape and violence is endemic in the culture of the Eastern Congo. Is it evil? Are the 12 and 14 and 16 year olds who rape villagers when they are ordered to by their superiors evil? Are those giving the order evil? Is the entire country evil?
Is the world becoming more evil? I suppose the answer depends on your perspective. When I was in college, I believed that abortion was evil. Now I see that it’s a very complex issue, and consider myself pro-choice. I believe that politicians, clergy and television and radio personalities calling for a violent overthrow of our government, who systematically use polarization through lies and misinformation to weaken and destroy our Democracy, are evil; but others not only agree with them but consider them heroic tellers of their truth. In fact, I believe that those trying to change our system of government to ensure that power is concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy self-interested individuals are evil, whether they advocate violence or not. Yet there are others who vote them into office to represent them, again and again.
Evil is in the eye of the beholder. I consider myself a witch, and adhere to certain beliefs about our place and purpose in this world that predate most organized religious traditions. Some see witches and witchcraft as evil, by definition, mainly because of one line in the bible. Do I deserve to die because of my spirituality? If a groundbreaking and powerful man whose words are an inspiration to change many lives for the better is an adulterer, is he good or evil? Is allowing climate change to occur unchallenged and unaddressed evil? Does the determination hinge on whether it’s allowed through ignorance, or thinking it will eat into a profit margin? So many dilemmas arise around matters of modern-day morality that it’s no wonder I spend each morning trying to make sense of it all. Maybe the nihilists were right….
The distinction between good and evil is important enough for the writers of the bible to have started their stories with an allegory on that very subject. But here we are all these centuries later still trying to figure it out. I think that’s partly because it’s a moving target, partly because it’s so subjective, and partly because the definition of each concept has been manipulated to control others. I don’t ever see us going back to the Garden again, but I am hoping for a time of Enlightenment, after which the differences will become obvious to (and adhered to by) all the world. Hopefully for good.