Evil deeds, evil people? Musings and questions on evil and terror
Monday, 3 October 2016
| Doug Hynd
Our former Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, now relocated to the backbench, has displayed over recent years a willingness to make sweeping, no-holds-barred statements on current political issues. Given his background in training for the priesthood, we should be alert to the possibility of nascent theological influences on, and implications of, his statements. This will help us move beyond the clichés and superficiality of much contemporary political discourse.
I certainly have found that picking my way through some of Mr Abbot’s statements has enabled me to identify significant issues subsequently passed over in the media’s hurry to report on the immediate reactions to these statements - and in their frequent lack of an ear for theological and philosophical discourse. Indeed, I would argue that probing the language of public debate is an important task for Christians, not least because both the Word, witnessed to from Genesis to John, and our words, as the Epistle of James reminds us, profoundly matter.
One of the former Prime Minister’s observations that caught my attention was his assertion that those Australians who went to Syria to fight for ISIS were ‘evil people’, and that we, as a political community, would be consequently well rid of them. Now that the direct military threat in Iraq and Syria has receded substantially, perhaps it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the issues raised by this comment.
On this account, people who went overseas to fight with ISIS demonstrated by that action that they were essentially evil, presumably because it implied willingness to commit acts of violence, murder, rape and abuse - acts that we can rightly characterise as evil. Yet evil on this account is, it seems, primarily located in their moral character or nature, revealed in their political and religious alignment, and not in acts of violence that have actually been committed. Only people who were in some ontological and radical sense evil, he is suggesting, would go to fight with ISIS. Their travel plans reveal that they were people with whom we as Australians, who were not evil, rightly did not wish to have any further connection. The subsequent government legislation to deprive such people of Australian citizenship suggests that this is a fair interpretation of his comments.
Evil is a big word to use. In even gesturing towards the question of evil, I recognise that I am in danger of getting into deep philosophical waters, in which figures as notable as Kant and Augustine have struggled to stay afloat. What does it mean to say that people are ‘evil’? Have they by their actions placed themselves outside the scope of the human community? The implication of such a judgment would seem to be that we owe them no further duty of care, respect or justice. On this account they are deeply ‘other’, divided from the rest of humanity in some fundamental way.
In responding to this assessment, I will restrict myself to some theological issues that have practical implications for our discipleship in a world in which violence is at the heart of much political conflict. Categorising people as being radically evil in their character is problematic on theological grounds. Such a judgment suggests that we have a group of people who are beyond the possibility of repentance, redemption or forgiveness, and has about it an ultimacy that can belong to God alone. On these grounds, we should resist the use of a language that suggests that we can make such an ultimate moral judgment about others. The act of traveling overseas, involving disobedience to the state, has never been a criterion that Christians could feel comfortable in relying on to make sweeping moral assessments.
A judgment of a specific human being as intrinsically evil implies a normative assessment of both moral behavior and of what it is to be a human being in community. Seeking justice against the perpetrator of violence is an appropriate task for the state and has been gradually underpinned by processes that recognise the risks of judging wrongly. We should limit such judgments to specific activities that are publicly tested in an open judicial process that acknowledges its own limits and possible fallibility. To look to the state to make ultimate judgments about the moral character of its citizens is to move it out of its limited and provisional character. The difficulty of drawing the line between the evil act and the evil person is difficult, as any consideration of personal moral responsibility in the context of the Holocaust makes clear. Much evil was done in Germany and elsewhere by people who did not consider themselves evil but saw themselves as simply doing their duty.
For the state to claim the determination of evil as a category of absolute judgment regarding one of its citizens, and to place them beyond human community, effectively creates a situation in which the state claims the status of the sacred - that which cannot be challenged.
Against such a claim, the Christian stance can only be one of critical witness to the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, and the refusal to make an absolute judgment about whether or not a person has moved beyond such a possibility. The church has a long scriptural tradition to draw on here, starting with its reflection on the story of Cain and Abel, where God affirms Cain’s place within a community, protected from revenge. We have to consider, too, the stance of Jesus who was willing to accept the unjust judgment of the state, but on the cross proclaimed to the revolutionary, perhaps even to the terrorist, the forgiveness of God.
To make sweeping declarations of evil against people and groups points the finger back at ourselves, implicating us in broader systems of harm in which evil is done as a result both of our actions and of our failure to act, and where evil cannot be pinned down to an individual person. Our implication in bureaucratic and economic processes may contribute to doing great harm and evil to vulnerable groups, for instance in the areas of trade, war and climate change, not to mention the treatment by the Australian Government of asylum seekers.
In reflecting on these issues, I am continually drawn back to the observation of Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago - a profound reflection on, and narration from, a context of great evil:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)
Here, Solzhenitsyn takes seriously his own implication in the evil around him, even though he was clearly a victim of the Soviet system. He acknowledges the reality that we are in fact sinners deeply connected and shaped by our common inheritance and involvement in the structures of society.
Doug Hynd is a retired public servant who has spent the last five years researching the impact of government contracting on church-related social welfare agencies.
This is a revised and updated version of a similar article published in Engage.Mail in August 2015 at http://www.ethos.org.au/online-resources/Engage-Mail/evil-deeds-and-evil-people-some-theological-reflections.