Friday, February 04, 2005

"Little Eichmanns" - Part III

This next section of this essay, while not exactly difficult to write, gives me a certain amount of pause. Hitherto the reader may have assumed that I am writing, so to speak, while wearing the gown of a PhD. In this section it becomes impossible to do anything but acknowledge that the main current which informs my thought flows not from academe but rather from my beliefs as a Christian. This is, if I’m not mistaken, a bit of a transgression in our line of work. But so what? If Ward Churchill invites us to think of the World Trade Center victims as "little Eichmanns"--as evil--then we had better deal squarely with the question of evil.

Although a modest literature exists on the subject of human evil, nearly all of it is closely informed by a major faith tradition—if not Christianity then Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism. Since I am best acquainted with the Christian faith system I will base my discussion of good and evil on that. Given that decision, People of the Lie is an especially useful vehicle, for its author, M. Scott Peck, is likewise working from within a Christian worldview.

I first encountered People of the Lie in 1986, a few months after taking my MA in War Studies from Kings College London. A pastor friend of mine asked me to examine a chapter, toward the end of the book, which dealt with the My Lai massacre. I found it intriguing enough that I started from the beginning and read the entire book. The book's basic purpose, Scott Peck explains, is to sketch a few tentative strokes toward a psychological picture of human evil.

It is a reflection of the enormous mystery of the subject that we do not have a generally accepted definition of evil. Yet in our hearts I think we all have some understanding of its nature. For the moment I can do no better than to heed my son, who, with the characteristic vision of eight-year-olds, explained simply, "Why, Daddy, evil is 'live' spelled backward." Evil is in opposition to life. It is that which opposes the life force. It has, in short, to do with killing. Specifically, it has to do with murder--namely unnecessary killing, killing that is not required for biological survival. . . .

When I say that evil has to do with killing. I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is also that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life--particularly human life--such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may 'break' a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head. Erich Fromm was acutely sensitive to this fact when he broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others--to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line. Distinguishing it from a 'biophiliac' person, one who appreciates and fosters the variety of life forms and the uniqueness of the individual, he demonstrated a 'necrophiliac character type,' whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.

Evil, then, for the moment, is that force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.

I want to spend some time telling you more about Peck's ideas concerning evil, but before I do that it is worth noting that in orthodox Christianity people are understood to be not good or evil but rather to contain a mixture of both. The evil is their essential fallen nature and belongs to them. Strictly speaking, the good is not part of their essential nature but is rather the indwelling of the divine. Still, even if not organically part of one’s nature, that goodness flows through a person and gives, until the moment of death, what might be called an everlasting yea to life.

Stephen Vincent Benet captures some of this everlasting yea in John Brown's Body, his epic poem about the Civil War. In one section he has Lincoln awaiting the outcome of the battle of Antietam and, while waiting, reflecting on the course of his life to that moment. Actually it is more prayer than reflection, for Benet most of the time has Lincoln addressing God. Toward the end of the section, Lincoln learns that a victory of sorts has been gained but that Lee's army will likely escape:

And the war still goes on--and still no end
Even after this Antietam--not for years--

I cannot read it but I will go on,
Old dog, old dog, but settled to the scent
And with fresh breath from this breathing space,
Almighty God.
At best we never seem
To know You wholly, but there's something left,
A strange, last courage.
We can fail and fail,
But, deep against the failure, something wars.

We perceive that "strange, last courage" most fully when we also perceive our own fallen nature. But recognizing and accepting that fallen nature is neither easy nor pleasant. We kid ourselves as a matter of course. We like to think of ourselves as basically okay--sure, we have a few flaws, but on the whole we are good people.

Unfortunately goodness, within the Christian faith tradition, is unattainable. We are perpetually, in Jonathan Edwards' famous phrase, suspended "over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire." God is, in a sense, horrified by us, but he nevertheless loves us and by grace keeps us, from moment to moment, from tumbling into the pit. So long as we live, we may choose to accept that love and grace, or we may choose to reject it: the classic gift of free will that God bestows on each of us. We may face resolutely away from God, but God never turns from us--"if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself"--and so long as we are alive some part of us remains connected to the goodness of God's creation. Upon death, if we have chosen to reject God, he honors that choice. The result is permanent separation from God, which corresponds to hell.

What might wonder why anyone aware of this choice would reject God. Why not accept the "fire insurance," as Pascal's wager is known within evangelical circles? The answer is that accepting God is in some respects very painful, involving as it does a continuous turning away from our old natures, the struggle to abandon bad habits, often enough a cycle of back-sliding, failure, and recommitment. This requires the ability to see and live with the knowledge of one's sinfulness--a knowledge that, paradoxically, becomes greater the more consistently we turn our lives to God.

In The Problem of Pain , Christian author C. S. Lewis illustrates this point by suggesting at one point that all times are eternally present to God. Consequently a sin committed in the "distant" past is not really distant at all:

Is it not at least possible that along some one line of His multi-dimensional eternity He sees you forever in the nursery pulling the wings off a fly, forever toadying, lying, lusting as a schoolboy, forever in that moment of cowardice or insolence as a subaltern. . . . Perhaps in that eternal moment St. Peter--he will forgive me if I am wrong--forever denies his Master. If so, it would indeed be true that the joys of Heaven are for most of us, in our present condition, an 'acquired taste'--and certain ways of life may render the taste impossible of acquisition.

Peck--to return to People of the Lie--encountered people in his clinical practice who lacked the ability acknowledge problems in themselves, or to reframe it in C. S. Lewis's terms, to acquire a taste for heaven. If most of us prefer to think of ourselves as good, most of us also are willing to acknowledge that we are not perfect, that we make significant mistakes, that we hurt others and need forgiveness. "People of the Lie," as Peck terms those who are evil, cannot do this. It is too painful. For them, the need to avoid this pain all but overwhelms the "everlasting yea" of the divine. Their lives are instead oppressed by an everlasting nay.

Continue to Part IV.

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