I’ve been thinking about evil. Trying to define it for myself. In March, I described the war in Ukraine as evil, using the word as an adjective to describe the invasion as morally reprehensible.
This weekend I heard the word as a noun in a couple of different contexts. First, in an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster and current chair of the Human Rights Foundation said: “When the Cold War was won back in 1991, we forgot a simple thing, that the evil doesn’t die. It grows back through the cracks of our apathy.”
Second, as part of Grace Church’s Community Conversations series, I heard Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the mass shooters at Columbine High School, and an FBI agent, Mary Ellen O’Toole, both dismiss the term as unhelpful. O’Toole went on to state that evil is a spiritual term, which “doesn’t have any legal or behavioral meaning.”
When evil is used as a noun, the implication is that evil is a real thing, a force, a power that has some agency. Using evil as a noun doesn’t necessarily imply a belief in the divine. For example, one could argue that a sociological phenomenon like a “mob mentality,” in which individuals are willing to commit harmful acts they wouldn’t otherwise, is evil.
When Grace members discussed the Klebold interview, we circled back to the idea of evil as a noun, as reality. On the one hand, believing in evil helps us explain apparent powerlessness in the face of moral atrocities.
Evil helps us explain how “good people” could do horrible things. It also helps us conceptually when we try to do everything right and horrible things still happen. I mean, what if Sue Klebold was the perfect mother and still her son committed mass murder? Or what if, to Kasparov’s point, the West had used force to put down Russia’s invasion of Georgia yet he still invaded Crimea?
The shadow-side of using the term evil as a noun, as a force, is that people believe evil limits their agency, and therefore they can’t be held responsible for their actions or actively resist evil’s power.
The Christian tradition has multiple views about the reality of evil, with some emphasizing evil personified as the devil or Satan (see e.g., 1 Peter 5:8). Others adopt Augustine’s reasoning that since God is good, our existence and the creation itself is good, then evil is the absence of the good (privatio boni).
In this case, evil is real like a hole in your sock is real. But without the sock, there couldn’t be a hole. Other Christians simply don’t focus on evil at all, either because of an intentional humility, not wanting to “occupy oneself with things too great” (Psalm 131), or because it just doesn’t “feel good” to ponder such things.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we petition God to “Deliver us from evil.” What does that mean to you when you say it? I hope you take some time to think about how you conceptualize evil or why you avoid doing so.
I’ve come to believe that evil is a noun, a spiritual force which is — paradoxically — beyond my control and which I have a duty to resist.
If you need a bit more motivation for your thinking, I leave you with this quote from the Jewish philosopher and holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt: “Evil comes from a failure to think.”
The Rev. Joslyn Schaefer is the rector at Grace in the Mountains Episcopal Church in Waynesville.