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The Concept of Evil

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Our present rulers don't want the Geneva Conventions ban on torture to hold them back. Other Americans are struggling to return our country to a willingness to be ruled by law, and to sheer human decency.

Our present government has no interest in restraining greed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change and other degradations of the biosphere. Others in this country are devoting our energies to moving America toward a way of life in harmony with earth's living systems.

The forces now dominating America are moving relentlessly to shift power from the weak and vulnerable to those already mighty, and to transfer wealth from those who have less to those already rich beyond any rational need for more. Many of us are striving to create a country where principles of justice hold sway.

Such struggles have characterized the whole sweep of civilized history. On the one side are forces that care for life and work to create and maintain life-serving structures. On the other side are forces that tear such structures apart.

To understand the interplay among such forces, the religious tradition of our civilization has employed the idea of "the struggle between good and evil."

But that's a concept rejected by many of my sophisticated -and, for the most part, liberal-minded""friends.

For one thing, some do not regard the moral dimension as being truly fundamental to the nature of reality. They've been persuaded by that philosophic current that sees an unbridgeable gap between "is" and "ought"; they believe that moral judgments are just subjective preferences.

But it is particularly the concept of "evil" that they reject. Too primitive a notion, they say""manifesting black-and-white thinking. Too dangerous a notion""fostering demonization and self-righteous self-delusion.

By becoming more tolerant and more aware of psychological complexities, they see themselves as having advanced beyond the terms of our ancient spiritual traditions.

But I've come lately to believe that the concept of evil captures a vital human reality. So vital that its disappearance from the cognitive maps of many modern sophisticated people is a dangerous development""dangerous because when people do not recognize the nature of the forces they are up against, they will be less able to deal with them effectively.

How the concept of 'evil' became more real for me

Much of my adult life has been spent studying the play of destructive forces in the human system. (The word 'evil' even occurs in the subtitle of one of my books.) But it was not until recently that my experience of these destructive forces plumbed me so deeply that the notion of "evil" became a palpable reality.

Part of what opened that door, I believe, was my having had, in the spring of 2004, a spiritual breakthrough regarding the very opposite of evil. This experience gave me a vision of a Wholeness and a deeper sense of reverence for the good, the true, and the beautiful. This experience seems, in retrospect, to have sensitized me to those forces that work to destroy such wonderful forms of good order.

Another part of what opened the door, it seems, was that for the first time it was from inside their domain that I was examining such evil forces. In other words, it is one thing to study the pathologies of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia from the safe remove -in space and time-- of my own comparatively humane America. But it is quite another thing to experience dark forces coming to rule the world around me.

Political underpinnings of a spiritual realization

Although my thrust here goes beyond the level of politics, the best way to bring that realization to life here is to report on those perceptions of our contemporary political drama that brought the concept of evil to life for me.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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