A Few Thoughts on Evil

Whenever some tragedy occurs through human agency, such as the Boston Marathon bombings or the fire which killed six of the Philpott children, people are quick to talk about evil. Not only is the deed condemned, and rightly so, but so is the person — even though the person in question may still be awaiting investigation and charging. That raises several questions of a moral nature but our judgement tends to be clouded by the emotion of the moment. We react with horror and sadness, and that same horror and sadness can lead us to say and do things which are not right.

To anyone brought up in the English tradition of ‘innocent until proved guilty’, there is a natural reluctance to presume guilt, or at any rate, to judge the extent of individual guilt, until all the circumstances are known. I  am not of the school which thinks that because someone’s Mummy boxed his ears when he was five, every wrong deed he has done since is not his fault. No, we have moral responsibility precisely because we are human, but in the case of the Boston bombing suspect, it is for the courts rather than the general public to decide (a) whether he is guilty and (b) whether there are any extenuating circumstances. That is important to remember when emotion is running high. Immediately after the young man’s capture, Twitter was awash with accusations and expressions of the desire for vengeance. It was understandable, but I am not sure that it was right.

We both trivialise evil when we use the word without sufficient reflection and potentially do others a grave injustice when we call them, rather than their deeds, evil. I am sure some people will find the distinction I am making between the person and the act incomprehensible or even offensive. I can only say that most of us, judged by our deeds, are a mixture of good and bad. It is because I believe in the reality of evil that I take it seriously and am cautious about saying that anyone is evil in himself/herself. Personally, my reaction to the Boston bombings has been one of prayer — for everyone touched by the tragedy, which necessarily includes Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his family and all of us troubled by this further evidence of the desire to kill and destroy.


4 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Evil”

  1. Thank you, Sr Catherine, for raising this perplexing matter.

    Sometimes, though we are unaware of it, there is an unappealing tendency to emphasise, even gloat over, the sins of others. It distracts us from our own. As Christians, we are instructed not to judge; ultimate judgment is God’s, though we may strive to administer correct justice in this world’s terms. Keeping our own counsel over such matters is a discipline to be learned. We have the greatest and most effective weapon of all against evil, in any case. Prayer.

    I feel sure you have in your mind the twin dangers of our assessment of evil which are equal and opposite: that of being in awe and terror of extremes of ‘badness’, and that of discounting evil because of the final triumph of Christ’s Cross. (There are those who maintain that evil is all in the mind!) We have chosen to be participators in this Victory, but function best, I believe, by dealing prayerfully with what lies directly in our path, rather than ‘looking for trouble’. Asking the Holy Spirit for Discernment, and for instruction at every turn, helps us to make truer distinctions and guides our actions.

    We fail, we fall, but we are offered constant renewal through the Grace of the Eucharist.

  2. Pope Francis has mentioned satan and his works and our cooperation with evil on several occasions recently, reminding us that one of satan’s triumphs has been to convince many people that he does not exist in reality, rather as a fictional character. We must not let our guard down, rather be attentive to motive and purpose in how we speak and act, be aware of which kingdom we are building up!

  3. I do think people are responsible (usually) for their actions and that we can allow ourselves to act in evil ways. If we give in to anger, for example, we can hardly say a violent act that might follow was simply an accident beyond our control. I also feel that glamourising/becomong paranoid about a personified evil can lead to blaming someone else. I am sure that the devil (whatever he is!) was pleased with the bombing and the reation it caused. If we lose control of our behaviour for whatever reason we are allowing evil to get a foothold. Prayer is needed (along with sound guidance) to help us avoid drifting towards the evil that certainly exists in this world. I have always found the C S Lewis Screwtape Letters very helpful when considering blame/excuses and evil or diabolic influences.

  4. It is an important though often forgotten part of our teaching, to love the sinner yet hate the sin. It is easier to hate them both. It is hard to love someone who has caused you pain or distress.
    I too felt compelled to pray for the family of the suspects, and the suspects themselves for they fell victim to false teaching. Jesus himself forgives even those who crucified him.

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