Page 3, 22nd December 1989

22nd December 1989
Page 3
Page 3, 22nd December 1989 — A perception of evil amid the symbols of hope

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A perception of evil amid the symbols of hope

THIS year a series of totally unrelated events forced itself on my attention.

A dear friend of ours called to tell us that her daughter, a woman of 40, had been followed to her house, brutally beaten unknown assailant.

Custodians of infant children in a fashionable day-care centre near my home were arrested for sexual abuse of their tiny charges.

Three teenagers and two young adults kidnapped, raped and murdered a young after a day's work.

There was a report of a new clinic set up to rehabilitate the victims of professional torture, which is taught and practised in the armed services and the intelligence cadres of so-called civilised countries — my own among them.

Every day the headlines screamed new revelations of violence, of bribery, corruption and criminal affiliations among our police and politicians.

Even the financial pages were full of the plots and counterplots, the sieges and betrayals of our business leaders, who were fighting like robber barons for new fiefdoms. There was something obscene in the spectacle of their naked greed. There was something terrifying in the breakdown of

the fiduciary relationship between the people and their elected representatives, the people and the public servants whom they paid to protect their fundamental rights. There was stark horror in the total amorality of criminal children, and a worse one still in those who pimped and pandered them in our city streets.

The more 1 thought about these things, the more I became haunted by the naked reality, the dark, repetitive mystery of evil in the world. We had learned nothing from the Holocausts, from the genocide in Kampuchea, the long bloody agonies of war in the Middle East.

Why is it so? Why do we rational creatures act so perversely, so destructively? What begets this monstrosity? What keeps it alive and reproducing itself?

These are no new questions. They are woven into the most ancient cosmologies, the most diverse philosophies. For the Greeks, the origin of evil was in matter itself. For the gnostics and Manichees, evil was present from the beginning, a malignant principle rooted in matter and darkness, waging eternal war with a principle of good, rooted in the spirit and in light.

Either notion raises an even greater ugliness in the human mind: that the source of evil is

the Creator Himself — that what we call God is a cruel absurdist, presiding over a chaos of his own making. Plotinus, greatest of the neo-Platonist philosophers, proposed an answer to the terrifying riddle. Evil, he said, was not a principle, nor was it selfexistent. It was simply the absence of good, a collapse of light into solid blackness, like the dark holes in the galaxies.

But, profound as the idea was and still remains, it cannot cushion the shock of the experience of evil by the human person, the sheer, inescapable, destructive, totally indifferent power of it. This is the real terror of modern tortute. It is designed by intelligent beings to achieve the total degradation of a human person, the annihilation of dignity and will, by an exercise of cruelty based upon supreme indifference and illusory omnipotence.

In like manner, the invasion of one's person or one's family by criminal violence, rape, violent assault, murder, creates a trauma so profound that the scars may never disappear. The notion of irreversible evil has driven many to suicide.

So in the faith of Israel there appeared another concept of evil, one less intolerable, more fruitful in hope than the speculations of philosophers. It was the concept of sin, a deliberate and knowing breach of the relationship between creature and Creator. From this breach, called original or primal sin, all evil issued, like the plagues from Pandora's box. The sin was prompted by a tempter, the Serpent, the Evil One, but committed by primal man and primal woman, free agents made in the likeness of their Creator.

Punishment followed. Paradise was lost. Mankind was exiled into a hostile wilderness from which it could only be rescued by penitence on the part of the creature, by the grace and favour of a redemptive act by the Creator. The way to the lost Paradise was opened again, but it was a road haunted and beset always by the adversary, the Evil One, Satan with his legions of damned spirits who had chosen rather to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

But, even in the Biblical narratives, the old dualist notion reasserted itself, evil was again personified in the Demon. The origin and nature of evil were described in other metaphors but it remained, as it remains still, an unsolved mystery.

I hold my infant grandchild in my arms and I experience a wonderful, tender joy at the physical perfection and the fragile dependent innocence of this tiny creature. Yet I know that the genetic imprints she has inherited from me and from others will determine her health or her illness in later life. I see her now, surrounded and supported by love on all sides; yet I know that a day will come when she will step outside the charmed circle and assert her right to be a free woman and make her own choices about her own destiny. • She will be vulnerable then: to the random malice of the world, to her own passions, to all the wonderful, perilous illusions of youth. She will be tempted like all of us to despair when those illusions shatter under the impact of cruel reality.

I can spare her none of this. I cannot even prepare her for it. Evil, you see, is not explainable. It is not even understandable. It is what the writers of the Dutch Catechism called "the great absurdity, the great irrelevancy".

Tt is absurd, in the sense that ldisease is absurd — a tumour in the brain that can turn a genius into a vegetable, a chemical imbalance that can turn the gentlest of creatures into a raving maniac. It is irrelevant in the sense that, like the Black Death in the Middle Ages or AIDS in our time, it conforms to no logic that we can grasp or rely upon.

Yet the metaphor is apt. Evil is contagious. It lies dormant in all of us like the anthrax bacillus in the soil, but when it breaks out of its capsule, t becomes a wild-fire infection. Violence begets violence. Daily exposure to cruelty or pornography desensitises the human person to the pain of others, to guilt, to the grossest indecencies.

Seduce or brutalise a child and you create a casualty or a criminal. Bribe a servant of the State and you will soon hear the deathwatch beetles chewing away at the roof-trees of society. The disease of evil is pandemic; it spares no individual, no society, because all are predisposed to it.

It is this predisposition which is the root of the mystery. I cannot blame a Satan, a Lucifer, a Mephistopheles, for the evils which I have committed, the consequences of which have infected other people's lives. 1 know, as certainly as I know anything, that the roots are in myself, buried deeper than I care to delve, in the caverns so dark that I fear to explore them. I know that, given the circumstances and the provocation, I could commit any crime in the calendar.

The fact that I have not run through them all is due in part to what an elderly uncle of mine would have called "circumstantial salvation", which he explained by saying that the reason he had never committed adultery was because he had been lucky enough never to meet a woman who pleased him more than his wife!

But just as 1 am conscious of a capacity for evil in myself, I am equally conscious of its opposite: a capacity for good and an ability to distinguish it. I aspire to it, though I do not always attain it. I recognise that the attainment is often beyond my strength, unless I am supported and aided by others. So, even in purely natural terms, I find myself open to the Christian concept of "grace": the gift, the aid which enables me to accomplish that which is beyond my single strength.

I am equally open to the belief in Divine forgiveness as an absolute necessity in the pursuit of good. I am the father of a family, the patriarch of an extending one. I know that the family cannot hold together — more, that it will utterly destroy itself — unless its members learn to forgive each other their small and their large delinquencies. They have to learn, too, from their earliest years to forgive themselves as a necessary prelude to forgiving others. They have to be taught to perceive in the mirror the Godimage, behind the often distorted and self-hating human I believe in free will. I believe that I am capable of making a choice between good and evil. I know, however, that neither I nor anyone else is wholly free. Our liberty is abridged in a thousand ways, by physical and psychic dispositions, by ignorance, by fear, by economic pressure, by lack or simple overload of information. So our perception of evil as absolute must never cloud our perception of guilt as a relative matter.

Murder is a deed most foul and most final. I stand firm in that conviction. Face me with the murderer, I may wish to slay him with my own hands but I must, on the contrary, protect him until he is brought to fair judgement by his peers, If I abdicate this standing ground, then I open the way to vendetta, a death for every death, down the generations.

There are many in our society who advocate solutions almost as draconian. A crime, they say, is an irreversible act. The contagion of the evil continues to spread. The punishment must be condign and merciless, a permanent deterrent. On the other hand, they commit to a more dangerous proposition, that the criminal himself is an irreversible being.

No-one will deny that there are some such — individuals so moulded, set and fixed into a pattern of evil that there is no human hope of change. To these, the old formulary of the hanging judge seems to apply: and may God have mercy on your soul."

But what of the others, the still reformable, the genuine casualties of a society that has too little care or compassion for its own children and watches them thrown on the trash-heap without a tremor of compunction? Should we not ask ourselves whether we are not the evil-doers and they the ultimate victims because we have denied them their true birthright: the experience of love and a parental instruction in the difference between good and evil?

But I have not yet addressed myself to the question which triggered all these reflections. Is there a Devil, a Dark Angel, a Satan, a true spiritual Prince of Darkness, who, to use the Biblical phrase, "goeth about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour"?

Let me be open and say that he would be a bold scribe indeed who would gainsay the existence of a figure who looms so large and so majestic in Biblical utterance and in the mythologies of Europe. All the Christian churches have ceremonies of exorcism for the driving out of evil spirits, and the most ancient sacramental rite of Baptism, by which one enters the Christian assembly, contains a specific renunciation of "Satan and all his works".

However, be he symbol or personage, the image of Satan is potent and malefic. He represents the whole gamut of evil and its power to perpetuate itself as an infection in the human race. On the other hand, let it never be forgotten that it was belief in Satan as a personage, and a barbaric view of his presence and powers in human affairs, that led to the vilest excesses of Christendom, the witch-hunts of the 12th to

the 16th century. A single quote

will suffice to make the point.

"Men and women straying from the Catholic faith have abandoned themselves to incubi and succubi (male and female sexual partners) and by their incantations, spells conjurations and other accursed offences, have slain infants yet in their mother's womb, as also the offspring of cattle..." (Bull of Pope Innocent VIII Summis desiderantes affectibus December 1484).

That document was the beginning of inquisitions and massacres that went on in the Old World for nearly three centuries and were continued in the New in the witch trials of Salem.

With all the evil that man is able to devise for himself, a personal Prince of Darkness seems a redundancy! More, it raises the much more vexing question of the eternity and immortality of evil — which to me is a notion utterly contradictory to the "restoration of all things in Christ". Much closer to our own epoch and experience perhaps is the expression "Powers of Darkness".

rr he plural word expresses aggragation, collective action, collective strength; and it is precisely thus that we have seen the most monstrous evils of our time brought to pass: Europe tyrannised and tumbled to ruins by collective philosophers: Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism; the Holocausts committed in a collective conspiracy of silence; the South American dictatorships buttressed by US presidential policies; the drug barons creating their new empires with the new currancy of narcotics — so much more stable than paper and gold, so much more valuable than human lives; the Middle East turned into a battleground over oil and God.

"Darkness" may seem an inapposite word for an epoch in which global communication is instantaneous and continuous. But sinister things are happening. More and more of the organs of communication are falling into fewer hands.

The power to impose a darkness of the intellect and call it light is now an immediate fact. Because it exists, it can and will . be used. Maybe we simple folk will have to do as the old Romans did — keep a gaggle of geese to warn us of the invaders.

In the face of such collective power, such an assembly of illusory wisdom, we individuals often seem ludicrously impotent. Confused, conscious of our own so many shortcomings, we are easily tempted into silence and submission by the big battalions.

The small capital of good which we possess, which we hug to our bosoms like the last talisman of an old faith, seems pitifully inadequate against the new brazen gods whose images adorn the triumphal way.

Nevertheless, this is how the battle of good against evil

always begins: one small voice raised in the crowd, proclaiming that the king has no clothes, that the new gods arc hollow plaster, that the new masters in the land are crooks and charlatans. Until the voice is raised, the tyranny will continue. Once it is heard, courage, like crime, proves contagious and the tattered banners are raised once more against the ancient adversary.

Yet sometimes words fail us because good folk are much less certain of themselves than evil ones. The very fact that we reach out for truth and goodness, search for them painfully and patiently, implies that we do not yet possess them in fullness and certainty or that, possessing them, we do not recognise their full worth.

Do I seem to exaggerate? Let me tell you a true story from my Roman days. One of our neighbours was an elderly German lady with a name well known in modern history and long financial connections in Brazil and Argentina. She was ill and needed company in her black moments. We visited occasionally.

On one of these visit I met one of her sons, a wealthy

industrialist. We talked about the Squadrons of Death, the vigilante killers then operating in Brazil, murdering dissidents and protestors. He assured me quite blandly, not only that he considered them a social necessity, but that he and his business colleagues financed their activities! , I gaped at him in silence, wondering why I felt no anger, no impulse to violence, only a sick, sad disgust. Then we took our leave of his mother and went home. It was at that moment, I think, I learned the hardest lesson of my life. Evil is serene in its enormity. Evil is indifferent to argument or to compassion. It is not merely the absence of good; it is the absence of everything human, the black hole in a collapsed cosmos in which even the face of God is eternally invisible.

From this ultimate damnation there is no recourse. No light can penetrate the dense core of tangible darkness. L'enjer c'est le meant. Hell is nothingness.

For the rest of us, there remains still the pilgrimage, the journey in hope and mutual caring towards the ultimate revelation of eternal Goodness, It is not for nothing that the symbols of that hope are a star still blazing in the heavens and a babe, new-born, sleeping in a manger with dumb and innocent animals for guardians.

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