Face of Evil

But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?

― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

I wrote this in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, the latest in a series of domestic terrorist attacks and mass shootings made all the more memorable in this case because it occurred on my birthday. Two homegrown jihadists allegedly detonated pressure-cooker bombs filled with black powder and shrapnel near the race’s finish line in Copley Square, killing three spectators and wounding more than 260, many of whom had their legs blown off. The brothers who are said to have committed this act were also accused of killing a policeman after fleeing the scene. The baby-faced surviving brother hardly looked like a hardened terrorist. But then, what exactly is the face of evil supposed to look like?

The problem with evil – at least from a theological perspective – is that there is really no place for it in God’s creation. God, in effect, painted himself into a corner by creating a perfect world, which theoretically left no room for evil to germinate. The apparent existence of evil in spite of this has left the Lord with a lot of explaining to do – or rather, it has left theologians with a lot of explaining to do on his behalf. God himself has remained stubbornly silent on the subject, which has given rise to all sorts of mischief in its own right.

St. Augustine’s solution to the problem of evil was the doctrine of original sin, which absolved God of responsibility for bringing evil into the world by pinning the blame on the creatures he created in his own image. Adam and Eve sinned by eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which they were expressly told not to do. This, however, glosses over the fact that someone put the tree there to tempt them. And what exactly did this knowledge of good and evil consist of, if there was no evil in the world to start with? No matter, the original sinners chose to disobey God of their own free will – another tenet of Augustine’s theodicy (the branch of philosophy dealing with the problem of evil). According to Augustine, there was no evil to start with; evil entered the world through this act of turning away from God.

But what exactly is it that entered the world through humankind’s disobedience? According to Augustine, nothing much. Evil is not the opposite of good; it is a nullity, the absence or privation of good (in Latin, privatio boni), much as darkness is the absence of light. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, took this idea a step further by proclaiming that evil was an illusion, an error in thought, along with sin, sickness and death.)   “If God, or good, is real,” she wrote, “then evil, the unlikeness of God, is unreal.”

I have some family history that bears on this notion. My grandmother, who suffered from congestive heart failure, embraced Christian Science when told she had only six months to live. She lived another 11 years, but not without putting my mother in mortal peril by refusing to seek medical treatment for her when she contracted meningitis as a young child. My mother survived, but the experience marked her for life. Not for nothing did Mark Twain once describe someone as being “as nervous as a Christian Scientist with appendicitis.”

As it happens, theologians are not alone in trying to solve the problem of evil by declaring that evil isn’t real. Neuroscience has determined that evil is “an illusory moral concept,” and free will is little more than self-delusion. We behave as we do because we are hard-wired to do so, not because we have any real choice in the matter. There is no moral agency involved. We are saved or damned by our brain circuitry. Or as the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett put it, “I’m a robot, and you’re a robot.”

Notwithstanding all these efforts to explain it away, evil doesn’t appear to have gone anywhere. If anything, it operates more openly and on a larger scale than ever, if the depredations of the past century are any indication. “Evil is -- psychologically speaking -- terribly real,” wrote the depth psychologist Carl Jung. “It is a fatal mistake to diminish its power and reality even merely metaphysically…. Evil verily does not decrease by being hushed up as a non-reality or as mere negligence of man.”

The effort to absolve God of responsibility for bringing evil into the world has had the effect of driving it into the shadows – a process that is replicated whenever we seek to disown the evil that resides within ourselves. According to Jung, the parts of ourselves we may not care to acknowledge are buried in the unconscious, where they form a “shadow self.” Thereafter, they see the light of day only when they are externalized through projection onto others. Satan, disowned by God, falls from heaven and becomes his shadow self. Similarly, the darker elements of the collective unconscious emerge in the form of what sociologist Stanley Cohen has described as “folk devils” – those who represent “otherness” in a particular society: Jews, gypsies, immigrants, racial minorities and those who hold unpopular religious or political views.

What then is the true face of evil? Surely not the face of Christ that graced the cover of the Sunday bulletin at the church service I attended last Sunday. The image was a contemporary icon in the Byzantine tradition by British artist Aiden Hart. Although I had never seen it before, the icon appeared hauntingly familiar. I realized why when I got home and saw almost the same face staring back at me on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. There was the same long dark hair, the same large almond eyes, straight nose, rosebud mouth and whispy beard. The icon on the church bulletin bore an uncanny resemblance to Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the accused Boston Marathon bomber – enough like him to be his older brother; indeed, more like him in appearance than Tsarnaev’s actual older brother, who was gunned down in a firefight with police several days after the Boston Marathon bombings.

My point here is not that Christ is a terrorist but that his dark Mediterranean features conform to the stereotype of the terrorist implanted in the collective psyche of Americans traumatized by the 9/11 attacks and by all that has come after. If anything, the icon appeared more sinister than the young Tsarnaev, who looked more like a poet than someone capable of killing and maiming hundreds of innocent people. What is truly disturbing about evil is that it has no face – or at least none that is readily identifiable as such. In that respect, it is just like you and me. Of all the faces in the world, the one face we cannot see – at least not directly – is our own. We may see its reflection everywhere, but if, like Narcissus, we mistake the reflection for something else, we are on a fool’s errand. So it is with evil. We must not look outside ourselves but look within. As the old radio serial put it: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!

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