The Moral Imagination of Evil
"Everyone did what was right in their own eyes," writes the author of Judges in chapter seventeen.
We still do, of course.
A pet peeve of mine among my liberal friends is their uncritical assumption that those who disagree with them politically either don't care or actively wish harm toward others. "Let's find some politicians who actually give a damn," they'll say.
Conservatives -- aside from a very small handful who are equally matched across the aisle -- are not psychopaths. Everyone is motivated by some blend of values which they perceive to be moral, and to which they more or less strive to adhere behaviorally. Everyone cares about something and someone. And they believe that which they care for is good. You may just not understand how their mind works. MAGA is a deeply ethical claim to those who claim it, regardless if we agree.
Judgementalism flows both ways. If we assume ill-intent and dismiss the other, we have failed them of our empathy and the always valid quest for understanding. I'm reminded of wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:
If you grow a tree and it does not grow well, you do not blame the tree....Blaming has no effect at all. Never blame, never try to persuade using reason and arguments. They never lead to any positive effect. That is my experience. No argument, no reasoning, no blame, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change. (Being Peace, 111)
These may be words we who are for shalom and against oppression cannot fully accept. Trees, after all, do not have our capacities of choice. And situations do not always change. So be it. However, seeking to understand is not condoning or acquiescing. Nor is affirming positive intent offering a valid excuse for harmful impact. Seeking to understand is simply where love lies. It also tends to be more effective. It make a human out of you and me.
Six years ago, I began fading away from work that involved homelessness. The reasons were partially circumstantial -- it was a matter of where I could and couldn't get a job at the time. But, honestly, the larger factor was attrition. I simply couldn't stand to work so far down the stream of injustice among people so irretractibly disdained.
In a week where I'm engaged with Colorado Springs politics, I feel the urge to pull away again. This month another law criminalizing homelessness went into effect; this time banning camping within 100 feet of a waterway in that town. Shelter beds were promised. And so inadequate services were bargained for human rights.
Homelessness is a political choice. I heard this phrase for the first time from a retired priest. It unnerved me. It still does. It's a claim that unravels the moral presumptions we hang over our mirrors to obscure an honest reflection.
This is what I am learning: evil is typically someone's genuine attempt at the good.
Evil is beating a starving child for crying of hunger when you have food in your hand. Apart from mental illness, only ideology can lead a person to do such a thing. There are systems of morality that convince sane people that this is right.
The criminalization of homelessness is evil. It is blaming and punishing the victim of a brokenness we have the ability to fix. (We could easily talk about any number of other policies doing violence to those with their backs against the wall.)
A disturbingly wide swath of the (influential, i.e. land owning) voting population would rather homeless people die than have their property values lowered, taxes raised, or perceive that their bodies are threatened. They would not claim this. But their actions and votes prove its truth. I sound ridiculous and irrational, radical and too angry when I write a sentence like that. I didn't used to believe it. Today I do.
The question is: why?
What ideological pathways are burned into the neurons of American minds such that we can will such evil and still perceive ourselves to be good?
Some have charted those trails from Plato, to Constantinian alignments with Empire, to Doctrines of Discovery, the advent of colonial-modernity, the rise of the white racial hierarchy, capitalism and the commodification of everything, atomizing individualism, puritanical values with protestant work ethics and nationalist sensibilities. The roads wind through a whole host of subtler theological missteps from original sin to supercessionism, doomsday eschatologies and fratricidal atonements theories.
The combined force of well-reasoned convictions from civilizations across millennia prey on the underbellies of our anxious imagination, surfacing as common sense that does the ethical calculating for "us" and the violence for "them."
In her book Resisting Structural Evil, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda writes about "unmasking evil that parades as good." She explains that,
For people or social sectors who are invested consciously or unconsciously in preserving 'the way things are,' moral vision is socialized or culturally constructed to affirm 'the way things are' as good, as 'the way things ought to be.' Or if 'the way things are' is not perceived as good, it is accepted as the way things simply must be." (85)
Moe-Lobeda uses the language of sight and blindness. Our socially constructed imaginations constrain and reconfigure our vision such that we perceive the world in a certain light, gain laser focus on particular factors that match our biases, and put up blinders to those realities of the world that don't fit or that, if they forced their way into the frame, would through the order we perceive into chaos.
The clipping above from the "Pulitzer Prize Winning" (and, so, publicly sanctioned as valid, trustworthy interpreter of reality) Gazette offers an dark image of how evil moralities teach us to see the world: homeless people are a "horde" on the move. Homeless people, the most powerless members of our society, are cast as a marauding band of barbarian foreigners bent on violence. Be afraid. They are coming for you. We must defend ourselves to protect all that we have which is good.
This is the visionary language of colonizers described by Fratz Fannon:
[The colonial imagination] reaches its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the colonized subject. In plain talk, he is reduced to the state of an animal....Allusion is made to the slithery movements of the yellow race, the odors from the 'native' quarters, to the hordes, the stink, the swarming, the seething, and the gesticulations....This explosive population growth, those hysterical masses, those blank faces, those shapeless, obese bodies....General de Gaulle speaks of "yellow multitudes," and Monsieur Mauriac of the black, brown, and yellow hordes that will soon invade our shores. (Wretched of the Earth, 7-8; emphasis mine).
Here lie the depths of imagination bred without an effort to understand.
Moe-Lobeda points to the theory of hegemony developed by Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci:
Gramsci used "hegemony" to denote the social control exercised by dominant sectors through ideological means. Neither State nor military domination is required to elicit the general population's consent to the overall direction imposed on life by dominant sectors or culture. Rather, consent is garnered through worldview, values, and ideas, even where that societal direction is exploitative or oppressive to the very people who consent to it...A hegemonic culture, notes Cornell West, is "a culture successful in persuading people to consent to their oppression and exploitation."....Hegemony is, in West's words, "the set of formal ideas and beliefs and informal modes of behaviors, habits, manners, sensibilities, and outlooks that support and sanction the existing order...[it] constitutes a sense of reality...beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives." (86-87)
Moe-Lobeda goes on to list eight ingredients that contribute to the construction of "moral oblivion" or the power of hegemony to transform evil into visions of the good -- particularly for white American Christian culture:
- #1 - Privatized morality and the blinder of charity
- #2 - Blessings veiling stolen goods
- #3 - Denial, guilt, grief
- #4 - Despair or hopelessness and....perceived powerlessness
- #5 - Unconscious conformity
- #6 - Corporate investment in maintaining public moral oblivion
- #7 - Uncritical belief in 'growth' as good
- #8 - Moral oblivion in practice (the above are reinforced by doing them)
A good list (better when she unpacks them; read the book).
And, as she underlines, we could contribute many more.
When another draconian policy is passed by people pursuing an evil they perceive to be good, I find myself tempted toward hopelessness. How can we ever create lasting, meaningful change, real shalom, in such a climate? I mourn with Jeremiah at the descent into darkness chosen and re-chosen by my people, and the absurdity of our conviction that we're moving toward the light. The justice we seek is not possible without a radical transformation of vision. We cannot change laws when the dominant culture is convinced those laws are good and moral. Nor can we effectively change hearts and minds when we fail to take the time to understand the logic within which such evil makes good sense. Set at such an angle, saying that the scale of our dilemma is daunting would be a dramatic understatement. But it has been done before, I try to remind myself.
As Christians, we are meant to be those who offer the gift of the Damascus Road. The light of Jesus stationed among the oppressed is a revelation of reality so disjunctively shocking to our senses that it will drive many of us trapped in the illusions of hegemonic vision into blindness. But the blindness is only a temporary disorientation. It is followed by the kind reorientation of Ananias. We cannot only deconstruct. We must help our fellow wanderers see with new eyes so that they can go back out into the world bearing and building the good news. To go with this vision is not safe. It certainly was not for Saul, who spends half the book of Acts incarcerated. But the critical imagination of incarceration may be exactly the vision we need for true liberation.