Evil is real. There are plenty of things to be embarrassed about as I observe my own life, but somewhere towards the top of the list is remembering the years when I insisted that “there’s no such thing as evil, only the absence of good.”
Denying evil is naïve. But, oh that it were only naïve. It’s worse than that. It’s dangerous. Denying evil makes evil more likely. Admitting evil makes it significantly less likely.
A defining attribute of evil is its subtlety. Evil is smooth, warm, charming, affirming and velvety. It emerges in small, subtle steps that, individually, are not easy to recognize. Then, when the individual steps begin to add up, it’s not obvious that the steps are connected and connecting. It’s like a termite infestation: by the time you recognize the symptoms as pathology, your house might well be on its way to falling down. One tiny bite at a time.
The next defining attribute is that evil is exponential. It has a momentum. It accelerates. Normally, 1 + 2 = 3. But in the mathematics of evil, 1+2 = 3 = 18 = 53 = 906, etc. Then, boom. You’re off to the races. Now evil has a life of its own.
Here’s story you’ll see in the news every once in a while:
16 year-old boy. Honor roll. Athlete. Great values. No drugs or alcohol. Respectful of others. His parents want to go away for the weekend, and decide that the young man is old enough to house-sit. The rules: You can have your buddy John over, but no one else is allowed in the house. The boy understands and agrees.
But, Saturday night, there’s a knock on the door. See, the boy has mentioned his status as house-sitter at school. Word travels. Phil and Jordan are at the door, and they ask to come in. “I’m not allowed,” says the boy. AndPhil and Jordan ask some version of the serpent’s questions: “What harm could there be?” and “Who’s gonna know?”
And the boy invites them in. And he has no idea what he has just set in motion. He has no motive or desire for evil. In a collision of ego and naivete, he decided to negotiate a boundary because, of course, what could possibly be the difference between 4 people playing Guitar Hero instead of 2.
Turns out Phil brought vodka. And that he called Rebecca and Olivia and Cathy, who knock on the door a few moments later. And they call more friends. And those friends call friends.
And the parents return to find the house torn apart. Toilet smashed. Holes randomly punched in walls. Cigarette burns everywhere. Broken windows and lamps and dishes. And the boy isn’t lying when he says in a dazed, helpless voice: “I don’t know how this happened.” He means exactly that.
That’s how evil works. By the time you recognize it as evil, it’s often too late. Evil requires our consent and our participation, but the subtle part is that we often are unaware of how we’ve given our consent, or even THAT we are participating.
Which is why we need help. Why it’s dangerous to journey alone. Why it’s so important to be dynamically related to healthy communities of friends, family, and, for some people, religious ways of life.
Throughout the history of humankind, all significant cultures have identified people who have particular gifts in “testing the spirits,” individuals whose calling it is to “name things.” The shaman, the medicine man, the priest, the prophet – they come by many names, in many forms, and wielding the symbols particular to their time and place and religion. But whether they shake beads or toss holy water, their job was the same: to help us distinguish light as light, and darkness as darkness. Truth as truth, and lies as lies.
Is there someone in your life that fits this description? See their face in your mind, and give thanks.
Because evil hunts as a pack of wolves. It jostles and worries the herd until an individual panics, and veers away alone. From that moment, it’s over. The battle is lost. It’s only a matter of time.
(Steven Kalas is a Nevada author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)