Repost: Who to Blame for Evil Deeds?

“It’s them! It’s the boss, the American government, the religious fundamentalists, the atheists, the…” Whatever bad thing happened, it is ‘their’ fault, whoever they are. But perhaps it isn’t so simple, nor so easy to squeeze out of responsibility. This is an article originally posted March 28, 2014, that addresses this.

“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.

I first heard this quote, from The Gulag Archipelago, paraphrased by Dr. Andy Bannister in a lecture titled “Does Religion Poison Everything?” (borrowing from Christopher Hitchen’s line, “Religion poisons everything”). Bannister said that ‘religion,’ in the quote, could just as well be replaced by ‘money,’ since money causes crime, poverty and resentment. Or ‘politics’, since politics causes bloodshed, strife and war. He said that whatever humans ‘lay ahold of,’ they poison–sort of a reverse Midas touch. That applies to politics, money, government, science–and religion.

But all of those things can–and are–used for good as well. The dividing line runs through our hearts.

I recently repeated Solzhenitsyn’s words to someone who was bemoaning the prevelence of technology–smartphones in particular. I think she was thinking of the ubiquitous iPhone, and the ‘smartphone slouch’ that goes with it, and how people use their phones as an excuse to not talk to each other. It’s a valid complaint, if misdirected. My iPhone (on which I am writing this blog post) is the single most powerful business tool I own, but it is one of my greatest time-wasters, and a gateway to all kinds of destruction. It all depends how I use it.

Another example. I grew up around guns. My family is a hunting, fishing and trapping family. All my life, I’ve been comfortable with guns because I’ve seen them since I was little, was taught how to shoot and how to handle guns safely. My Dad and his gun were what put meat on our table, and they continue to do so. But other people have used guns to kill and cause all manner of human suffering. It depends on the use. The line of good and evil runs through each of our hearts.

We would like to say that it is religion, or politics, or money, or sex, or guns, or just ‘those people’ that wreak havoc in our lives and in this world. If we could only eliminate the gun, the smartphone, the religion, the poison would go as well.

If only it were that easy. Solzhenitsyn, who as a survivor of the Soviet Gulag knew true evil, realized that the horrors he had known could not be eradicated by destroying a certain group of people because evil was in every heart.

The poison isn’t the object, the poison isn’t ‘those people’. The poison is in us, and everywhere we go, there we are.

Malcolm Muggeridge said: “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”

But perhaps it is easier to blame it on the smartphone, or the religion.

3 thoughts on “Repost: Who to Blame for Evil Deeds?

  1. To Geralyn

    Yes you are correct. The evil is within us. But if that is the case how can we as individuals turn to the good life. If I am not mistaken, Baudelaire observed how man repeatedly gives way to the flesh rather than nourish the soul, which I feel was something of an existential observation he had made, a kind of non-moral morality, if that makes any sense. A kind of ‘the door is open but wipe your feet first’ morality, rather than ‘you wicked so-and-so, get back to where you came from’ morality.

    While I do think that there is the issue of personal responsibility, I do also think that religion, politics, etc., is unavoidable. We have to put the meat on the table, be it for Thanksgiving, Easter, or at the end of any other day. Amen. And I feel that the working man and woman, desperately try and understand what is going on, often to little or no avail, and even at times blaming themselves for something which is entirely not of their doing, like in a bad movie about a vampire or something which they end of thinking they are. Or even loosing it entirely and going ballistic (drugs, pornography, self-harm, etc.)

    But speaking as a chronic atheist, I do think that if for example, we had an education system where children could develop and learn to love each other and the world, we would be almost home and dry. And work where people would leap out of bed in the middle of winter, so excited to meet their colleagues and get on with some remarkably interesting project, etc.

    So I’m am a little wary of thinking about the evil in me. Nonetheless I do take your point as true in a sense. Many of us need guidance, and it was good to read your post.

    1. Hello Stuart, thanks for your thoughtful answer.
      I agree that people can be taught to love. concentration camp survivor and author Corrie Ten Boom talked about how if her Nazi guards could be taught to hate, they could also be taught to love. Certainly a young child has an even better chance. But this is no guarantee–after all, there would be no perfect teacher. It is my belief that we can improve ourselves, and be ‘good’ to a point, but we can never truly eradicate the potential for evil. There are things in my life that, no matter how hard I will myself to stop, I can’t stop. I’m like a tree that has grown crooked. As a Christian, I believe that it is only by the regenerative work of God in my heart, that I have hope of overcoming evil.

  2. You ask the right question. You may be interested in my book ORDINARY PEOPLE AND EXTRAORDINARY EVIL — where I show that it’s not monsters we need to worry about, but ordinary people, like you and me; I show ordinary folks can take part in monstrous activities, and do so with joy.

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