What is Evil?

Two things have happened in my orbit this week that have intertwined in my mind in a serendipitous way. The first is a book I have been reading by Richard Harwood (Stepping Forward) in which he recounts the work he did with the leaders and community members of Newtown, CT (victims of the Sandy Hook terrorist attack) and their journey in deciding what to do with the school where the attack took place. The other is the ongoing saga of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who has ruined countless lives with his lies about that attack. He said it never happened, and people believed him. This led me to ask the question: what is evil?

The word gets bandied about a lot; all of the hot-button topics we argue about can lead some people to use evil as a label for those they disagree with. Is the perpetrator of a massacre evil or mentally ill? Is someone who has an abortion because they don’t believe a fetus is a person evil? What about being gay; are you born that way (not evil), or do you choose your sexual orientation (evil)? (I believe it is the former). Is Putin evil? Was King Herod evil when he ordered his soldiers to kill all children under 2 in the territory, or was he just protecting his turf from the newborn king? Much of society has shied away from the word, feeling its judgment and fearing that their own actions might be judged in the same way. Is evil a force? Is there a physical devil? Evil isn’t easily defined. But I think it is real.

I don’t think that people who have extreme views are necessarily evil. I might judge them (wrongly or rightly) as misinformed or ignorant or not very intelligent, but evil is an entirely different category. After years of watching and listening to the extreme rhetoric of Alex Jones, I have come to believe that he does and says evil things. I don’t know if he is truly evil inside; that’s above my pay grade. My conclusion isn’t just based on his behavior and the terrible consequences that innocent people have suffered; part of my thought process is that I have asked myself why he has done these terrible things. If terrible things happen because of one’s ideology, are the people who believe in that ideology evil? I’m not sure. As for Alex Jones (who says he is a Christian, by the way), I have not found any reason for his behavior other than he has made a personal decision to destroy people’s lives with lies, bullying, and threats. That behavior seems to me to be evil.

The prophet Amos (5:14-15) told the people to choose good, not evil. Why? So they will live, and God will continue to be with them. So that justice can be established at the gate. Good and evil are choices, and Alex Jones has chosen evil. Sure, he may have done all of this for the money (so much for that), but there are lots of things we can do to make a living. Choosing evil as the road to success is still evil, and God does not, I think, approve. I have known people who behave in evil ways, and, thankfully, they have been few of them. Still – God’s call to choose good and abstain from evil remains for all of us, and those choices have ripple effects. We are all given the freedom to choose. We all need to do so wisely.

Prayer – Help us to choose well, God of freedom and consequences, so that the impact of our choices may bring goodness and light into the world. Amen.

Today’s art is “Between Good and Evil” by Alizadeh.