The word “evil” has become trivialized, particularly in this election season. Just like the words racist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, it is casually thrown around like a ragdoll: who gets to play with it next? When one person doesn’t like other people, or dislikes their positions, he or she just calls them evil.
In researching the origins of evil, I found religious definitions and secular definitions. One religious definition is as follows:
Evil is what is morally wrong, sinful, or wicked. Evil is the result of bad actions stemming from a bad character. Biblically, evil is anything that contradicts the holy nature of God. Evil behavior can be thought of as falling into two categories: evil committed against other people (murder, theft, adultery) and evil committed against God (unbelief, idolatry, blasphemy).
In Judaism, one aspect of evil is called the “evil inclination”:
The yetzer ra is more difficult to define, because there are many different ideas about it. It is not a desire to do evil in the way we normally think of it in Western society: a desire to cause senseless harm. Rather, it is usually conceived as the selfish nature, the desire to satisfy personal needs (food, shelter, sex, etc.) without regard for the moral consequences of fulfilling those desires. . .
The yetzer ra is generally seen as something internal to a person, not as an external force acting on a person. The idea that “the devil made me do it” is not in line with the majority of thought in Judaism. Although it has been said that Satan and the yetzer ra are one and the same, this is more often understood as meaning that Satan is merely a personification of our own selfish desires, rather than that our selfish desires are caused by some external force.
In contrast, a secular source explains evil in this way:
In human beings, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are fluid. People can be a combination of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ qualities. Some people who behave cruelly and brutally can be rehabilitated and eventually display ‘good’ qualities such as empathy and kindness. And rather than being intrinsic, most cruel or brutal behaviour is due to environmental factors, such as an abusive childhood, or social learning from a family or peers.
In an article in the New Yorker, evil was addressed in this way regarding the mass shootings in Aurora, CO:
In the hours after the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, last week, one word cut through the partisan responses to the massacre, and that word was “evil.” “Such evil is senseless, beyond reason,” President Obama said. Mitt Romney spoke of the lives “shattered in a few moments—a few moments of evil.” John Boehner described the killer’s act as “evil we cannot comprehend.”
What does it mean, in the twenty-first century, to call a person like James Holmes “evil”? In centuries past, “evil” was used to describe all manner of ills, from natural disasters to the impulse to do wrong. Today it’s used mostly to emphasize the gravity of a crime, trading on the term’s aura of religious finality. The meaning of “evil” has become increasingly unsettled even as it has narrowed, yet the word has proven to be an unshakable unit in our moral lexicon.
I think that the trivializing and thoughtless use of the word “evil” is dangerous. It makes us reticent in the face of irresponsibility and danger. To suggest in a morally relativistic manner that everyone has the potential for evil misses the point—so what? What counts are the people who behave in immoral and destructive ways. We need to identify them and their behaviors. We need to hold them accountable. As difficult as evil may be to define, we are called to face it, condemn it and hold the perpetrators accountable.
So here are my questions:
- What actions rise to the level of being called “evil?”
- Is evil driven by an inside force or an outside force?
- What concerns do you have about the misrepresentations of evil?