A Framework For Understanding Good & Evil — Clarity In The Chaos
Imagine the good in you was not of your own convictions but rather the context you were raised and now currently live.
Imagine participating in evil, because you felt trapped and believed you had no other option but to comply? Perhaps you did something terrible to protect, provide, or escape and now there is no going back.
Imagine that you were an active and passionate participant in that evil while believing it to be good.
Imagine becoming so corrupted by evil, you became fully evil yourself. Imagine desiring this outcome.
This article is part 2 of my Redeeming Society series for navigating the complex and intertwined social issues in our country and world.
In part one, I encouraged you to look in the mirror, embrace the complete and complex story (of both the good and the bad) of our individual and collective history, and to take ownership of seeking and applying truth in your life (while also appreciating our own fallibility). We also explored the interwoven Dark Knight films and how Batman's reprehensible actions in the films (justified by the greater good it would produce) came back to haunt him and others in the final film. Ultimately, he faced his fears (that led to his own corruption) and made the leap of faith. And, we can make that same leap too.
In this article, we're going to explore good, evil, and the wavering middle majority. This is a framework we can use to understand humanity's tendencies towards good and evil in our recurring spiral of destruction (and redemption) across human history.
In finishing this essay and getting further clarity on the topic, I've also concluded how over my head I am with sorting out these complex topics. While my understanding and communication abilities are limited in conveying these ideas, I'm still boldly and humbly traversing them systematically to get a better handle. I want to more effectively think and act through the expected and enduring cascading crises (all part of what I’m seeming as a mid-life identity crisis type moment for our country).
If you have feedback to make this better, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
A Cycle of Self Destruction
In the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament in the Christian Bible) we learn that humanity has risen and fallen since the beginning of time (as we do with other historical references). Story after story, situation after situation, humanity proves that left to our own, our selfishness, hubris, and subsequent corruption consistently leads to our demise.
It was so bad in the flood story of Noah (also found in ancient flood stories around the world), that God lamented about the widespread corruption across humanity to the point that it could not be redeemed. Unfortunately after rebooting from the only good family remaining, the cycle of self-destruction didn’t stop at that moment and continued throughout the history of mankind in different ways and to different degrees.
A Transformational Moment In Time
As the human timeline progressed, there was an intersection between the forces of humanity and those of the divine that would change the future of civilization locally and globally, and from that moment to today.
At this moment, the seemingly good guys were bad and the seemingly bad guys were good. Before this monumental tipping point for civilization, was a quiet and critically important scene with Jesus of Nazareth, in the garden of Gethsemane.
“‘Father, remove this cup (burden) from me. But please, not what I want. What do you want?’
At once an angel from heaven was at his side, strengthening him. He prayed on all the harder. Sweat, wrung from him like drops of blood, poured off his face.”
The cost of what was to come with Christ's crucifixion, not just in terms of the human suffering, but also being forsaken by God and Jesus' closest friends weighed heavily. He was going to face evil (and humanity’s sin) head-on so all humans could receive the life they don’t deserve. And, as much as Jesus wished for this heavy burden to be removed, he moved forward on what was necessary to live out his loving nature and redeem mankind from its evil.
It’s in this redemptive act and his living example that provides a window into our path forward. But first, we must recognize the evil we are dealing with before we can fully face it.
Seeing The Underlying Problem More Clearly
Years ago I spoke with a gas station business consultant. He proceeded to inform me that theft was a common problem with the staff. Dealing with the problem meant intentionally recognizing three groups of people and how to respond to each.
20% of people, no matter what the circumstances, would never steal even if they knew they would get away with it. Their conviction was to NEVER steal. They were good (at least when it came to not stealing).
There was another group of 20% that would seek out opportunities to steal even if the system was set up to catch them - and they would get caught. Their conviction was to take from others. They were evil (in at least this aspect of their being).
In the middle was the remaining 60% that would not be inclined one way or another. If the system was set up well, the middle group would not steal. If it was set up poorly and opportunities to steal (while getting away with it) became available, the middle group would steal (just look at how many of us have stolen free music, TV, movies, and games online while easily justifying it).
With a good system in place, you could have 80% success abolishing theft (but remember, a large amount of that goodness was the system, not the conviction of the people in it).
Since there was no way to completely prevent the theft from the 20% seeking opportunities to steal, the strategy was to filter them out before they ever got hired, and should any of them slip through the cracks, the goal is to remove them as quickly as possible (even though they’d cause issues on the way out).
While these percentages may not be exact across all populations for every problem, it does provide a helpful structure that allows us to overlay it on the current complex social tensions that are front and center.
If we can agree on a framework that in America there is a small strongly principled group of both virtuous people, those who would do evil, and also a large wavering majority caught between and clunkily moving towards them both, we can look at humanity's issues through that lens to provide better clarity on how to wisely see and respond effectively. Denial of any of these aspects will make the problem impossible to solve.
One last point to make before diving into good and evil is that there is a difference between the good-and-evil conflict and healthy conflict found commonly in our lives. Just because someone disagrees or opposes us doesn’t mean they are evil (which is part of why free speech is so important).
Tension is often a powerful force for change, especially in highly challenging contexts. But, when we fail to address this tension, it can be difficult or impossible to contain the violence and destruction that comes through extended periods of neglected societal problems that affect individual people.
Good and Evil
The ancient human origin story shared by Jews sheds humbling insight on our human efforts to define good and evil — Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
From that point forward humans have regularly decided what is and is not good and evil. And we've done so since the beginning of time often by "redefining our good decisions as bad ones" (as we learn in the following video about Khata, the word sin in Hebrew).
As the video explores, the Hebrew word for Sin is Khata (Hamartia in Greek), which means a failure to hit the goal.
And for there to be objective transcendent moral laws and duties (as opposed to subjective changing ones), there must also be a giver of these things, of the goal we are to strive towards.
The video continues. "Every human is an image of God, a sacred being who represents the creator and deserving of respect. Sin is a failure to love God and others and not treating them with the honor they deserve. Sin against people is a sin against God. And sin is more than doing bad things, it describes how we easily deceive ourselves and spin illusions to redefine our bad decisions as good ones."
“...when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” - Jesus of Nazareth
Good is when someone treats every person as if they were God Himself — with honor and respect, even when we think they don't deserve it (inspiring the unique premise ideal of the American justice system). Good would not pursue what they want if it would harm, dehumanize, or exploit a person unfairly.
"Once you identify a problem, don't tolerate it." - Ray Dalio
A virtuous person would also stand up to anyone that would threaten and act in a way that would dishonor a person. Good ought to reflect the nature of God in thought, intentions, and action.
Jordan Peterson shares the following as a practical and focused way of looking at the good. “The highest good is good for you, your family, and for the world — now, next week, and long into the future.”
"Our tendency towards self-deception runs deep, rooted in our own desires and selfish urges, acting for our own benefit, at the expense of others." - Tim Mackie, Ph.D., The Bible Project
When we miss the mark of God and dehumanize people, we are sinning and acting evil. Evil is when someone would take what they want with disregard for a person’s inherent value (willing to directly or indirectly harm or murder someone) regardless of whether the law allows or prohibits the action (although not limited to this). If your actions dehumanize others, you're a participant in evil (which is all of us at some point no matter how much we resist the idea).
Agents of confusion, avoidance, abandonment, and destruction (at the cost of people) are often agents of evil. This could be a tyrant who would murder someone (or for a more sinister person, getting someone else to do it for them) with indifference to their human dignity and the subsequent consequences. Or it could be an agent of chaos who would cause harm or destruction without care for the dignity of people and the act's consequences.
After Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowing good and evil, it is their son that acts out on this evil with the murder of his brother. Angry at his brother Cane, Abel murders him. He assaults God by destroying his brother.
Jesus elevates this evil not just to our actions, but to our thoughts. If a man lusts after a woman, he commits adultery. If a man hates his brother, they have committed murder in their heart.
We have all done terrible things, so we ought to be grateful our surrounding systems have contained the evil inside us all (for our benefit and the benefit of others). For those of us who have experienced this restraint first hand, we're eternally grateful.
“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable fact at the same time that it is the most intellectually resisted.” - Malcolm Muggeridge
In my own journey facing my corruption, it was the revelation that parts of me were evil, and the fact that evil was spreading to all of me was terrifying (just like it would be to discover one has cancer). It was also the peace of God that came from the reassurance that despite being an enemy of God, he pursued, saved, and restored me (through Jesus). All I had to do then and must do going forward is not resist his pursuit of me.
“For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!“ - Paul the Apostle
A monumental example of a self-righteous hero is the story of Saul of Taurus. He was the most religious, rule-following radical Jew of his time. He was doing the mission of God, or so he thought. When he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, it was clear that he was not conducting the work of God but rather he was an enemy of God.
“Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?" - Jesus of Nazareth
When we were enemies of God he loved us and we're to do the same with our enemies.
What About War or...?
If you're like me, you may be wondering about war and other examples (like self-defense) where life and death clash. I don't have a comprehensive answer, but I've got a few helpful insights.
There is an inspiring documentary, Dawn Wall, about some rock climbers that were kidnapped by terrorists during one of their international free climbs. To escape their capture and get away safely, it required they push one of the terrorists off the cliff to kill him. While it was done for good reason, the act traumatized the person who did it for the remainder of their life. It was not done lightly and the cost was tremendous.
And like that example, the act of killing people to stop a great evil in World War Two was one that came at great cost to our countrymen, those in enemy armies, and the enduring generations to follow (even though the decision was made because of the present horror of this regime and the potential tyrannical future of the world).
Whether we kill someone for a higher moral reason or not, we should be crushed if life was ended and that we contributed to the act. The dark alternative to this deep mourning is the hardening of our hearts where we become more callous to the honor and dignity of human life.
There's no easy answer to complex problems intertwined with evil. Like dealing with cancer to save a human life, the act often requires severe measures that can harm the person (or group) along the way (even though the intent is to heal them). Not acting on cancer ensures the destruction of the whole — so a measured difficult decision is often necessary.
Making this type of decision is a heavy burden to carry. In certain cases, good and evil can be indistinguishable on the surface, and it's in this confusion that evil thrives.
We better be sure when making these decisions that we’re not cancer destroying the healthy parts and are instead part of the cure to the problem now and ongoing.
The Wavering Middle Majority
In addition to the preceding pieces of the framework (good and evil), we now shift our focus towards the undecided parts of us and society — the wavering middle majority. Throughout history, it’s often this group that tips the scale one way or another.
The wavering majority are those that would not take a strong stand against evil (for fear of the consequences) or a strong stand with good (because of the actual and potential costs). It could also be the parts of us that would not take stand for good or against evil in different parts of our own life (because of what it costs us or the desires that pull us).
The middle group would not intentionally seek out to murder someone or do some form of evil, but if they get enticed (or trapped) by the personal benefit they could easily end up doing an evil act. They are more influenced by the system that surrounds them (then they are by their personal convictions) and could fall into either group in the wrong circumstances (Perhaps harming or exploiting if they were part of a system that allowed or encouraged it).
For example, the crowds that followed Jesus wavered in their loyalty to him following when it served them and leaving when it didn't. In fact, it was the twelve close disciples that abandoned Jesus when it mattered most. Peter passionately argued that he'd be there even to the brutal end. Shortly after, he not only abandoned Jesus when handed over to the religious leaders for prosecution, he denied even knowing him.
In a good system, most people are good. In an evil system, most people are evil. The wavering majority changes the game through their participation or their absence. In the example of the crowd above during the final judgment of Jesus’ fate, it is the angry crowd who chooses to let a murderous man, Barabbas, go free while endorsing the execution of an innocent man, Jesus.
It was over three hundred years before the execution of Jesus that the Greek philosopher, Plato, would anticipate this type of moment.
“The just man, then, as we have pictured him, will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned, his eyes will be put out, and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified, and learn at last that in the world as it is we should want not to be, but to seem, just.”
It is the wavering majority that is most prone to be trapped or influenced by evil in ways that would drive them to think, intend, and act in ways they may never have thought themselves capable of doing — in retrospect, they are left with regret.
The Three Primary Pieces of This Good and Evil Framework
In reality, we’re all a part of all three (Good, Evil, and the wavering middle) aspects in different parts of our lives and our being (and different seasons of life). Perhaps we skew one way on the spectrum overall, but as much as this problem is an external one for our society and world, it’s also an internal one inside each and every one of us. We are often skeptical of the evil around us but we are overly naive of the evil inside us.
“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means... refusing to let the world corrupt you.” James, the brother of Jesus
The main difference between people is whether we feed evil or good, whether we starve one or the other, and whether we stop wavering or not.
But no matter how much we feed the good and starve the evil, it is always possible for the evil to come back. Corruption is inevitable and repeatable. Ongoing vigilance against evil in ourselves and society is an essential mission of every generation. Unfortunately, prosperous good societies have a way of diminishing our felt need for something outside ourselves to redeem us.
As Christians, we believe we cannot stop this evil from fully corrupting us and that we need Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to be healed and restored from this corruption. As we’re healed, we’re to carry forward this healing to others.
How The Wavering Middle Can Tip The Scale In Good’s Fight Against Evil
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." - Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail
The wavering majority on the sidelines oscillate between the complex sides of the argument (warring both inside themselves, their group, and with other groups). Which side will this wavering majority choose and which will they advocate FOR (and against). Unfortunately, sorting out the complexities is rather difficult, if not impossible.
And instead of the good forces of all groups joining together against evil in solidarity, mixed coalitions of good and evil fight against other mixed groups of good and evil. People often end up taking sides across the wrong superficial lines — as opposed to the lines of those who value all people and those who see some or all people as less than human.
Can we all just agree that the extreme left and extreme right are BOTH a legitimate threat?— ZUBY: (@ZubyMusic) June 11, 2020
Regular people need to stop making excuses for the radicals on 'their side'.
Contain and challenge the crazies. Don't give them a pass because it may seem temporarily expedient.
Both good sides need to purge the evil from their respective groups and work together to prevent future infiltration while also pushing it out quickly when it gets in, much like treating cancer in the human body.
“Not being reconciled to the fact of sin — not recognizing it and refusing to deal with it — produces all the disasters of life.” - Oswald Chambers, Mu Utmost For His Highest
This desired impact will require we take personal responsibility for the pursuit of truth in our life, and to "test everything and hold onto what is good..." as the Apostle Paul directs us. We must appreciate the system we’re within (standing on the shoulders of giants) while also self-authoring so we can do what is right and good when the system is bent towards evil.
Imagine the next time you face that moment of decision, you choose what's good — even when the system and lack of clarity make it challenging — because it is in your nature to do so.
The Extreme Sides of The Spectrum
With these three framework pieces (good, evil, and wavering middle), we can look at how they unfold in the extremes to further flesh out our understanding.
Let’s explore both a completely corrupt society and when good is fully permeated in civilization.
A Completely Corrupt Society
"Evil is the conscious desire to produce suffering where suffering is not necessary. Evil is the desire to exploit the vulnerability of other people." - Jordan Peterson
Unfortunately, we can look across history and see examples of countries with pervasive amounts of corruption, some completely corrupt. A society of complete corruption destroys all inside of it and corrupts each generation that is born into it (as well as those overtaken by them).
One of the signs of this self-destruction unfolding in its severe stages is the killing of the innocent (like we saw with the crucifixion of innocent Jesus). With corrupt societies, this can be manifested in the recruiting of children for evil (child soldiers) and the literal killing and sacrificing of children. The sacrifice of others was often used as a method for alleviating a person or society’s own pain and difficulty — they’d sacrifice their children to the gods to end or prevent their own suffering (like a famine or illness).
In modern society, there are the obvious parallels when it comes to aborting the unborn (a population so vulnerable, they have no control over their own fate). For most of us, our sacrifice of children is more subtle. We sacrifice our children to neglect, our work, to pursue romantic relationships, and because we’re distracted by the chase of happiness or meaning.
It’s why the complex allusion found in the stopped sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham to the necessary sacrifice of God’s own son for the redemption of mankind is so powerful and relatable. We’re the ones who must make the sacrifice but yet it’s often us who are forcing the sacrifice upon others.
When we contrast the most vulnerable of humans, children, we discover the following words of Jesus’ brother James (partially mentioned above) to be so deep and important to the health and success of our society.
“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” - James, the brother of Jesus
The fate of our society rests on this gap-filling mission happening (with the implication that there are also healthy nuclear families as the societal normal). Where we fail in it, we’ll soon see the failure’s consequences permeated in our society.
A Good Alternative — A Radically Redemptive Society
Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good." Paul, the Apostle
Imagine a prosperous society for all and one that was self-healing whenever it was injured.
Imagine that individually and systematically this society provided justice and liberty for all, and uplifted people through the process to make this happen.
Imagine a society where every aspect worked together in unity on the most important things we value while also gracefully disagreeing as we sort out the best path towards the end goal. What if we showed generosity towards each other while also taking responsibility and ownership for filling the gaps (including ones we didn’t directly create)?
Imagine when evil in people is surfaced, this radically redemptive society would not destroy or dehumanize those people (or parts of them) but rather would heal and reintegrate them into the community.
Perhaps there would be individuals that could never be redeemed, but our society would never give up on them (while safely protecting others from them in the process) until their eventual and natural death. We'd also aggressively understand how they got to this point and deliberately prevent it for everyone going forward.
"A new commandment I give you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
When I think of a radically redemptive society, I think of the church (a movement not a building or an event) started by the life, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus. We’re to bring heaven on earth and the church (the collective of Jesus followers) is our vehicle (that transcends falling and rising empires).
There are seasons where the church has been radically redemptive in phenomenal ways. Unfortunately, there have also been times where the church gets caught up in the power structures of the state and in doing so gets corrupted, participating in the evil of the time.
Fortunately, the self-healing nature of the church across generations, despite its failures and successes, continues this mission forward.
The fate of our individual and collective destiny is interwoven with the mission to bring heaven on earth, so the most people possible can experience their loving Heavenly Father through His loving children.
What if our country played a part in this effort too?
Cultivating The Good & Extinguishing The Evil — Which Direction Is Society Moving? What About Your Group? What About You?
When we look across history for our country, are things getting better or worse? Are the gaps getting smaller or larger? Holistically? In specific areas of society? In the group? In your life?
The initial set foundation and destination will determine the trajectory of our progression across the good and evil spectrum but it will be the course correction along the way which will ensure we reach that destination.
It’s not just about the results we produce but the costs we endure to generate those results. If you are part of a group that liberates another group that may look like you’ve done good work, but if you’ve liberated them by oppressing another, you’ve been deceived in your own heroic journey.
It’s no easy matter to sort these complex topics out, but humbly leaning into them and doing the work to seek out the truth instead of throwing our arms up in the air saying an answer is not possible is vital. This act of truth-seeking determines who we are and the story we tell with our life.
So as we wrap up, how do we know that we or others are not a part of or contributing to the side of evil and instead are part of the good?
The following words of Jesus provide some additional help and concluding insights.
“You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.“ - Jesus of Nazareth
Where in our society is the fruit being produced? Where is it failing to produce fruit?
Perhaps the answers to these questions will give us further direction on where to focus our energy on making our society better.
But before we fix society in these matters, let’s make sure we live out this fruit production in our own life and community.
For sustainable success, we'll need a connection between who we are inside (character) and external fruit from how we live in the community. This starting point will equip us to most effectively transform our society.
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