Drawing the Line

We act as though there were a clear line between the wicked witches and the wonderful wizards -- the evil people and the virtuous people. Maybe the moral judgment is itself the source of evil. Any attempt to draw a line, to separate the good people from the wicked people – with ourselves, naturally, on the good side – is a kind of delusion. To perpetuate that delusion, we become capable of perpetrating the very things that we are inclined to call evil when other people do them. Whether the emphasis is on our own wonderfulness or on other peoples’ relative wickedness, the delusion is making that separation.

Nothing is as wicked as the conviction that we aren’t wicked. The Nazis were convinced they were the pure and the good. From that certainty followed the holocaust. The U.S., encouraged by its role in defeating Nazi evil to imagine itself as virtuous beyond question, proceeded, right about the time I was first watching "The Wizard of Oz" on a color TV, to commit the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said:
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
It is the beginning of wisdom, and perhaps the end of it as well, to recognize that there is no evil out there in the world that isn’t also inside us. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. Destroying evil – no matter how well-founded our judgment of evil is – destroys a part of ourselves. It is driven by the urge to separate, to divide. In that very separation and division we recapitulate the evil we hope to avoid.

Embrace the demons, bring them into wholeness, and they lose the context that lets them make such mischief. There’s nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight. Nothing confuses them more than our embrace.

If we seek a liberal theology of theodicy – the problem of evil – then an understanding of sociopathy, however accurate and compelling, is incomplete. We must also name the tendency to unmindfulness to which all flesh (and spirit) is heir – the tendency to draw lines, to separate, to forget that the line between good and evil, between wonderful and wicked, indeed cuts through every heart.

Scott Peck's book on evil, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (1983), illustrates the line-drawing tendency of those Peck calls "evil." The the opposite of "evil," says Peck, is "mental health," defined as:
“an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”
Mental (and spiritual) health is a commitment to cutting off the roots of delusion. The reality to which to be dedicated, the truth to keep ever before us, is that we are interconnected. The "evil" (as Peck calls them) obscure from themselves, in one way or another, a clear view of reality. We all do that, to some extent.

As I read the case studies that Scott Peck presented, I noticed that the people he called "evil" were low on two connected and overlapping measures of relating to other people. They lacked, one, sincere gratitude, and, two, any clear sense of personal responsibility. When things went well, the patients Peck described seemed to believe they did it all themselves. When things went awry, it was always someone else’s fault. It seems they saw themselves as Wonderful Wizards and others as potential or actual Wicked Witches. They drew lines of separation rather than of interconnection and shared needs.

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This is Part 2 of 4 of "Wicked."
Next: Part 3: "Moral Judgment and Some Lessons of Evolution"
Previous: Part 1: "Wonderful Wizards and Wicked Witches"

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