10 August 2015

Reflections on Evil in the World

Recently while discussing child vaccinations with an acquaintance I tried to point out to him that these medical people whether right or wrong are trying to do what they think is right. They aren't dreaming of harming your children while rubbing their hands together with a sinister laugh. He didn't agree. He believes there's a conspiracy to poison children motivated by control and profits. While I may believe a pharmaceutical company will allow something to go on to maintain profits I do not believe there is a deliberate orchestrated plot to harm the public.

That kind of ended the discussion for me. There is a lot of evil in the world and many overtly evil people but his view is more akin to Hollywood or a children's novel than reality.

If you want to understand the complex nature of evil I recommend the Errol Morris documentaries on Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld.

'The Fog of War' was released in 2003 and it's fascinating. I recall Morris caught a fair bit of grief about it because it presents McNamara as a human being. For the portion of the Vietnam generation that was against the war, this man was some kind of incarnate devil. And yet listening to him talk, despite his arrogance and dominance he's kind of a likeable and certainly a very interesting guy.

This shouldn't be surprising but it doesn't mean he's off the hook. It's really a study in man's ability to deceive himself and rationalise his mental frameworks, assumptions and deeds.

The film forces you to stand in his shoes and wrestle with some of the issues whether it's the firebombing of Japan or the Vietnam War. You find yourself at times feeling empathy and perhaps even something close to respect. But then you realise (as a Christian) the whole of his assumptions are just flat wrong. In light of that, his applied ethics, despite his wrestling, are really and truly just an exercise in the rationalisation of power and its evil aims.

McNamara was an evil man. That doesn't mean he wasn't fascinating and certainly no one can question his intelligence. From a statistician/logistics officer during the war who worked alongside Curtis LeMay (another very evil perhaps even diabolical man) to positions of power within the Ford Motor Company, to leading the US military and then presiding for many years over the World Bank, McNamara literally sat astride the Military-Industrial Complex.

He's a poster child for the world system, the evil world system that steals, manipulates and murders.

And yet, from his standpoint it all makes sense. He didn't think of himself as evil. He may not be proud of all his deeds, but he can rationalise them and even offer ethical justifications in light of the assumed system and the circumstances in which he was placed. The quest for power necessitates Consequentialism, which in and of itself redefines the whole spectrum of ethics.

This can lead to a great deal of confusion. In Christian circles the present emphasis on Worldview hasn't helped. In many cases it assumes the Consequentialist position with regard to the building and defense of a so-called Christian society and seeks to integrate worldly knowledge and systems with Biblical Christianity. The hybrid is a distortion, a perversion of Biblical doctrine and certainly ethics. We shouldn't be surprised to find someone like John D. Rockefeller who integrated the 'science' of Capitalism (and its consequent ethics) with Christianity to be on the one hand a very devout man, and on the other a scheming manipulator, exploiter and thief. I think of this when I hear about Bible studies and prayer meetings at Exxon or the CIA.

Evil people can be likeable and are certainly complex.

I found Rumsfeld to be more of a disingenuous person. 'The Unknown Known' (2013) was also a worthwhile film. Rumsfeld comes across as wholly unrepentant and somewhat unreflective. Morris doesn't come at these men with accusations. He doesn't attack. He lets them speak and depending on your own understanding and moral compass you'll either come away sympathetic or convinced of their nefarious natures.

Everyone has their assumptions and it governs their ethics and interpretations. While I have not interviewed cabinet members I have worked for and known many people in many different business and authoritative capacities that I consider to be basically evil. And yet, they are in many cases not even as controversial as these figures if at all. They're considered pretty 'normal' people. The world may in fact revere them. That shouldn't be a surprise to us if we know the Scripture (Luke 16.15).

Our sensibilities on these questions are often very strange to me. I think of people I know who might get arrested for some kind of petty theft or possession of marijuana. They are criminalised and upon conviction or a plea deal their lives are damaged or often ruined.

And yet, others can make a phone call and wipe out thousands of jobs in order to increase short term profits. While preparing to make a move they can manipulate the price of stock, either creating money out of thin air, or eliminating the value of other peoples stocks. They can all but steal another corporation through manipulation, destroy many lives in the process, even whole communities. Their social impact is nothing less than destructive. Their motives are wholly selfish.

And yet they're not criminals. They're heroes and innovators. They get their faces on the front of financial magazines. They get a bonus. They run for office.

This is not to justify the petty crimes of others but it's all a matter of perspective.

There are people that exhibit a barbaric evil. There are traffickers in souls and in flesh. There are wanton killers and sadists. There are plenty of those types of people but the most pervasive type of evil is represented by people who outwardly conform to the system and seek to sit atop it. The world system is an evil lie and so is the theology that posits we can succeed within it or somehow capture it.

McNamara and Rumsfeld, let alone many other types of businessmen and bankers do just as much evil and generate an equal level of barbarism. They just do it from behind a desk and they don't get their hands dirty. That's the difference.

Or I think of the National Geographic documentary '21 Days to Baghdad' where the F-117 pilots who attempted the 'decapitation strike' are interviewed. This was in the last hours before the official invasion started and the CIA had a lead on Saddam Hussein's location. They tried to assassinate him from the air... to prevent the war of course. Anyone who believes US forces would have stood down at that point is delusional.

These pilots are very proud of their efforts despite the fact they failed to get Saddam. The killing of civilians is justified however because they wear a uniform and thus in their minds their actions are wholly moral.

And yet mobsters or street gangs that engage in turf wars that accidentally kill civilians are murderous thugs, right? But because these men wear the uniform of the military, their actions are moral.

I'll grant that in terms of society the state grants a certain legitimacy and we're told to obey the state and pay taxes to it. Yet, that doesn't mean the state is moral nor does it justify its actions. In terms of ethics there isn't much of a difference between the state and organized crime. I'm reminded of Michael Corleone telling the Nevada senator that we're all part of the same hypocrisy.

While I will certainly follow Romans 13 and obey the state, unlike most Christians I don't view its agents as heroes, but as cold-blooded killers, ultimately murderous thugs no different than the foot soldiers of Hezbollah. The death of civilians is justified for the overall political motivations and goals of the power-system they give allegiance to. It defines their ethics. The end justifies the means. Their imperial uniforms mean nothing to me and carry no ethical authority.

I live in that empire. I'll obey its laws and pay taxes because I understand that in terms of Providence the empire serves its purpose but I won't buy into the lies it promotes and I won't venerate its evil deeds. The idea that these men somehow are moral or did what is right is obscene and so is the theology that supports it. One thinks of the 'Land Letter', the morally repugnant document drafted and signed by Christian leaders urging Bush to launch the war.

At that point I could argue that had an Iraqi pilot taken out Clinton it would be 'morally' right. Clinton after all had presided over the death of some 1.5 million Iraqis throughout the 1990's.

Evil itself is base and simple, the manifestation of man's bestial nature but it is presented to us in a complicated manner and hides behind the soul's self-deceptions and the veil of vanity, the world's lusts of fleshly pride often couched in altruism and hiding behind twisted concepts of duty.

Some time ago I wrote about a father I encountered in the mall. His son was killed in Iraq and he had made a tract conflating his son's military service with the gospel. He was a Vietnam veteran, a Dispensationalist, a fanatical patriot and he hated my rejection of his worldview. He could have dismissed me as a liberal. That would have been easy enough. But the fact that I as a Christian and one arguing from Scripture that his worldview was false, that the war was a murderous lie and that his son (by implication) died for nothing or perhaps received his just desserts as a criminal... that he couldn't bear and voiced his desire to punch me in the face.

He was and is evil. Yes, even a broken bitter man, a somewhat pathetic figure whose life was destroyed can still be a servant of evil. Why? Because he's an enemy of Christ, a perverter of the Gospel, promoter of a false kingdom, a kingdom of lies and death masquerading as Zion. He's still at it too. I see him around passing out his false tract and working with area churches as they put on 'hero' banquets for enlisting high school graduates.

He's a servant of Belial masquerading as an Angel of light and in some ways more evil than even someone like McNamara. Unlike McNamara he traffics in souls.

I hate his words and deeds but the wonder of our calling is this...

We are to love our enemies and though I believe his son was killed while engaging in an evil deed, I am to feel compassion for this distraught father. And I do. I see a broken father and I can't imagine what it's like to lose a son.

He's an enemy but I don't seek his destruction. I pray for him and hope that someday the bitter seed I planted might bear fruit.

Let us not misunderstand the nature of evil. Embracing a simplistic even childish view of it will lead us to misunderstand the reality of this world and such childish thinking will likely to lead to equally immature responses and actions.