Liberal religious people across America are taking another look at the idea of evil in recent times. Watching the sheer scale of the toxic mixture of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, Islamophobia, and hatred for LGBTQ people that our American democracy has unleashed—from the White House to the Justice Department to Congress to state capitals to the streets—the optimistic conclusions of liberal religious traditions like my own about human worth and dignity are sorely challenged.
As Linda Kinne pointed out in Beacon’s last issue, many of us have been inclined to say that all humans are born innocent and good. We’ve challenged ancient doctrines of inherited or innate sinfulness and located the causes of human suffering firmly in human hands. Psychology, neuroscience, and liberal theology agree that no one is born evil and that hatred, fear, and bigotry are learned from and reinforced by our experiences, our families, and the cultural environment in which we’re raised.
Looking at the act of terrorism that took Heather Heyer’s life in Charlottesville, though, and seeing the terrifyingly empty eyes of the shouting mob that marched for white supremacy and terror that weekend, it’s much harder to make the case for innate human goodness.
Yet there are risks in deciding that some people are simply evil. The first is that we may come to the conclusion that the way to eliminate evil is to neutralize, incarcerate, kill, or (one day) genetically modify the evil people. That path leads to more terror, not less, as imperfect human beings who are sure we “know it when we see it” pass verdicts on what we think is the inner reality of other people. The second risk is that it protects us from the recognition that the true source of evil lies, not in selected individuals, but in all of us.
Rather than saying that all people are born good, or that some may be born evil, I believe it’s more accurate to say that every person is born with the capacity to do good or evil. As philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed out in her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, the majority of people who committed atrocities in the Holocaust “were neither perverted nor sadistic…they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” The distorted faces of the thugs of Charlottesville were not the faces of backwoods survivalists or immature thrill seekers who delight in being bad; they were the faces of lawyers, insurance agents, teachers, auto salespeople, executives, college students, garage owners—“normal” people, just like us.
This is a cosmic struggle between good and evil, but it is not a battle between the good people and the evil people for the soul of America. It is a battle within the soul of America between the good and evil woven into the culture, history, and institutions we share.
The evil of white supremacy finds its most virulent public face in those who march, wave torches, and commit violence under its Confederate, Nazi, and “white nationalist” flags. Their terrible words and actions demand public, open, and widespread rejection and active resistance. Because violence is part of their beliefs, it may not be possible or appropriate for that resistance to be exclusively and always peaceful. Lives are at stake.
But white supremacy is an integral part of our national fabric. It was woven into American institutions by white men whose wealth, power, and very presence on this land were built on the destruction of black and brown bodies. We all live with that legacy. Some of us benefit from it, and some are oppressed by it, but all of us are harmed by it. It was built in right alongside the democratic values we love—values that have gradually drawn us toward more equality, more inclusion, more diversity. Our legacy of justice, equity, and freedom may one day redeem our terrible legacy of intentional and systemically reinforced inequality, but we have a long way to travel on that journey.
So let us resist with all our beings those who openly proclaim hatred and bigotry, and the political demagogues and opportunists who give them aid and comfort. They are real, they are serious, and they will not go away if we pretend otherwise. But let us not fall into the easy and comfortable belief that the evil in them is foreign to us. Let us return from the moments of crisis committed to the much harder, slower, long-term work of building communities and a nation and a world in which the ancient legacies of oppression no longer hold us all in thrall.
The Rev. David Morris is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks. This article represents his personal beliefs.