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The Simplicity of Evil
I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
Part of what it means that the world is in bondage to decay is that everything, if not actively resisted, trends downwards. Marriages, laws, nations, bananas, teeth — all would prefer to disintegrate rather than stay together. And as with all curses, it’s also a closed system, meaning that apart from outside intervention we can’t hope to free ourselves.1
This is an unpopular take in the face of today’s, some might say forced, optimism. We hear various accounts of people giving sandwiches to the poor, rehabilitating abused cocker-spaniels, and cutting their six-pack rings so they don’t spend their afterlives strangling cuttlefish. “See?” they say, “Faith in humanity restored!” But all any of this proves is that people are sporadically capable of benevolent deeds, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, being that we’re made in the image of a benevolent God.
The question we should be asking is — do we, unsupervised, over any period of time, consistently love God and our neighbour as ourselves? Do we live lives of selflessness, preferring the needs of others before our own? Is it “our food and drink” to do the will of God from the heart, as Jesus did? Even the most magnanimous, if they’re honest, will confess that reality rarely lives up to the ideal.
But instead of doing the reasonable thing, which would be to submit our misguided optimism to the united testimony of history and revelation, we run the other way. We give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. And why shouldn’t we? After all, we have —THE SCIENCE. What other nation in history has found a way to combine the grease-fighting powers of both liquid and powder detergent into one dishwashing pod?
Still, there comes a point where evil becomes so rank and rotten that it can no longer be denied — as was the case when 3D ultrasounds met abortions. But even here, we have another trick up our sleeves.
Evil? It’s Complicated
Take what should be a basic question: “Is grass green?” Assuming you know what the terms grass and green are, the only possible answer is “Yes.”
Or is it?
Is what we call grass what our ancestors knew as grass? What if rocks, or rivers, or sheep used to be called grass? Even if it could be proven, how do we know grass’s intentions are pure? Perhaps it was introduced as part of a colonial scheme to invade and overwhelm native indigenous crops? And what about green? What a pointless and arbitrary term! Why should we be beholden to the privileged Saxon oppressor who assigned a certain pigment with the term?
Okay now I’m scaring myself. But you see how a simple question, by means of pseudo-plausible arguments, can become hopelessly unanswerable? Not only is this rhetoric dishonest and discombobulating, it can be used to justify all manner of evil. Consider some recent examples.
How about, “What is a woman?”
“The gender constellation framework embraces all of the complexities of a person, recognizing that most people’s gender expression, sex, and gender identity do not fit into normative stereotypes or boxes, and different people emphasize different traits when thinking about gender.”
How about, “Hamas' deliberate and indiscriminate targeting of civilians is a war crime and should be universally condemned as such.”
“Since early Saturday morning, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have valiantly confronted the imperial apparatus that has constricted their livelihoods for the past seventy-five years . . . There exists only a colonizer and colonized, an oppressed and an oppressor. To resist is to survive . . .”2
You see how easy it is to make evil sound complicated?
One might assume the presence of such keen moral bankruptcy would mean the exclusion of all moral reductionisms. Not so. Remember, this isn't just about complicating things for its own sake — it's doing whatever you have to in order to evade moral certainty. If hopelessly complicating things won't work, then reducing conflicts into mob-determined binary models surely will. Pro-Drag Storytime = Good, Anti-Drag Storytime = Bad. Ukraine = Good, Russia = Bad. Pro-Choice = Good, Pro-Life = Bad.
It isn’t about submitting our ethics to the straight rule of transcendence. It is, as Alex mentioned recently, a matter of tribal ethics. Are you on the “right” side (mine)? Or the “wrong” side (yours)?
Half-Baked Evil in the Church
A similar thing was happening in Paul’s day. Smooth-talking pundits, led not by truth but by their own lusts, were trying to slide into the Roman church and deceive “the naïve” — which, don’t fool yourself, could be any one of us. In this toxic air, Paul’s encouragement was that they be “wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”
A better word than “innocent” here might be unmixed, or simple. In other words, don’t let yourself by tricked into believing evil is nuanced. Don’t listen to those who try to euphemize or complicate it. People who do this aren’t trying to steer you towards truth but attempting to justify their own lusts — hopefully pulling you into the muddy bog as well. Instead, we must do what Scripture does: call evil for what it is. Abortion isn’t pro-choice, it’s killing children. Homosexuality isn’t an alternate lifestyle, it’s sodomy. It’s not medically-assisted dying, it’s first-degree murder. It isn’t harmless pornography, it’s infidelity. It isn’t minding your own business, it’s self-preoccupation. It’s not worry, it’s unbelief.
Sinners complicate sin for the same reasons runners put bandaids on their blistered ankles. It numbs the pain. It helps them feel like nothing is wrong. But life and peace don’t come from feeling better about sin. They come through exposing and confessing it. This is how Christians, churches, families, and communities grow stronger. When everyone just runs around reassuring each other that sin isn’t the problem, things go from bad to worse, which we’re currently seeing play out in real time.
Goodness, on the other hand, is worth our full preoccupation. The great lie of Satan is that evil is more interesting than good. That’s the spice that so compels the young man towards adultery in Proverbs 7. Sure the immoral woman is hot — but she’s also forbidden. It’s why Hollywood spends so much time making the villain more interesting than the hero, or infusing the hero with villainous traits. It’s why grotesque horror and transgressive fiction are so popular. It’s why Eve ate the fruit. We want that which is closed to us. It’s not because we’re sexy and mysterious. It’s because, apart from a regenerating work, we love that which is ugly and will ultimately destroy us.
The truth is, it’s the other way around. It’s evil that is sallow and parasitic — a mere crack in the soil, as Lewis described it in The Great Divorce. It’s goodness that deserves the full reach of wisdom. It’s goodness that will enrich and enlarge those who pursue her. It’s why Paul describes the riches of Christ as “unsearchable.”
In a time where “Everyone does what is right in their own eyes,” we shouldn’t be surprised when so many are trying to domesticate and excuse evil. May Christians continue to shine out as awkward, but necessary lights wherever the shadows of sin are found.
Join the Fringe!
At least, this was the case with your classic fairy tale curses. Snow White, for example, can only be revived with a prince’s kiss. Only by finding true love can the beast be changed back into a prince. In modern fairy tales, the power to lift one’s curse often lies within the protagonist (Frozen, Moana, Onward, etc.), after some winding road of self-discovery. We enjoy these movies because we’ve been shaped by a vain culture, but they would have been incomprehensible to the previous generation.
The page has since been deleted, but you can probably pan out an equal measure of nonsense here. I am not trying to oversimplify the complexity of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Loss of life on both sides of this decades-long conflict has been devastating. Having said this, I would be remiss to avoid the obvious dissonance at work in the progressive mind. Under Muslim occupation, Swarthmore College would last about seventeen seconds before being reduced to a smoking crater. Islam is not interested in freedom of religion, as demonstrated by the treatment of non-muslims in Muslim-majority nations. It is not a peaceable religion — Islam literally means submission. In Behind The Veil: Unmasking Islam, Abd El Schafi notes, “Undoubtedly, the concept of an offensive war to spread the faith is a genuine Islamic concept; it is known as a Holy War for the sake of God. We . . see what Muslim scholars have explicitly determined . . . that this is the essence of Islam. They also indicate that if sufficient military power is available to Islamic countries, they ought to attack all other countries in order to force them to embrace Islam. Muhammed, as well as all the Caliphs who succeeded him, called for holy wars. All scholars and lawyers acknowledge that.” Abd El Schafi, Behind The Veil: Unmasking Islam (No Publisher Cited,1996), p. 31.