Before/while reading, you may elect to enjoy this piece of New Zealand music from the nineties.
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One argument that I’ve experienced against Christianity has never really sunk in for me. Even in my pre-Christian years I think I would have contented myself with other issues such as whether or not God really exists, the scientific folly of miracles, why there is suffering and why this suffering needs to be extended into eternity with the likes of hell. The last one still holds true for me today. But what really never stuck was the critique of Christianity, the Church, Christians, etc, which focussed on the evils of individuals and groups within Christianity. If God is so good, then why are his followers not so? If McDonalds is so tasty (…), why did this fool undersalt my freakin’ chips? If Inception is such a well-worth-your-while movie, why can I buy it in Indonesia for 20c?
Such inconsistencies indicate a disconnect between the source and its dependent. The later two examples illustrate that the source is in part not responsible for the mistakes (even evils) of its representatives: How can McDonalds take responsibility for every action performed by the mass of individuals it hires? It may take some precautions in the hiring process but what help is that going to do for human caprice?
To say then that God is responsible for the Crusades and witch burnings, etc¹, misses this administrational aspect: People chose to do evil and endorse it with whatever was in vogue at the time.
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Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
Marcus Aurelius, the favourable Roman emperor often to which this quote is attributed nonetheless engaged in war and territorial expansion throughout his lifetime. Nietzshe was wildly sexist. Darwin’s theory of evolution had a powerful influence on Social Darwinism, the practical approach to evolution that helped justify events such as the Holocaust.
Marcus was loved by the people but in a large way failed to see those beyond his lands as people. In the case of Nietzshe, his sexism² can be separated from the positive legacy of his ideas, or even, quite willingly, from the person himself, as his sexism was a result of the intellectual climate he existed in. And Darwin was a good dude but something went horribly wrong in translation. Surely we can blame him for not preventing the evil-minded from reading his writings and using it to justify their eugenics (Note the etymology of this word, ‘eu’, good + ‘genics’, genes).
In the same way is there not a reasonable 21st Century approach to Christianity apart from its historical evils, or is not God distinguishable from the many evils of his followers? If you as an atheist are not responsible for the persecution of Christians under atheistic soviet communism, because that’s not the type of atheism you adhere to, then why is this Christian responsible for the subjugation of women in the history of Christianity, if that is not a Christianity they adhere to?
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When I was in India late last year I managed to watch a documentary on National Geographic about how a woman and her husband had been kidnapped in the Philippines and taken into the jungle for a year as hostages under violently harsh conditions. The most revelatory and humbling part of the documentary was when she identified a part of herself in the actions of her persecutors. She admitted that she could not feel true disgust for what they were doing as she herself contained the same propensity to do such evil. Their evil was to her, a captive deprived of food, water, sleep, outside contact, etc, a mirror for her own selfishness. John Bunyan, the writer of the landmark novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, three hundred years ago denounced the persecutions by and the hypocrisy of the Church of his time, which had executed or locked away many dissident voices, also wrote Grace abounding to the chief of sinners in which, as the title suggests, he saw himself as most sinful person alive and undeserving of the grace shown to him.
Evil is not so much something that is found in differing doses among certain individuals and the dark nooks and crannies of our Neanderthal history, but something that we all have capacity for. If I know that so many people in the world are starving then why am I not living on bread and butter, two or three t-shirts max, fasting twice a week, and giving the rest of my time and money to the alleviation of poverty? If I was a villager at Salem when they had the witch trials, who says I would have spoken against the killings and not condoned them? Or, even if I did speak against them, who says I would have actually done something about them, rather than acknowledging how unfortunate it was for them to actually happen, especially considering I didn’t agree with them? Not I. I am a good person by virtue of my birth. The same argument can be seen in the fact that those who are physically or sexually abused in their youth are more likely to recreate these offences in their adulthood. The evil of individuals has a lot to do with where and when they grow up and who they do that with.
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Far from allowing us to separate ourselves from historical evils of the Church and other Christians, this view of evil actually compels us to take them on as our own. Darcy Clay’s Jesus I was evil gives us the chance to see ourselves in Church history and say, “Jesus, that was me; Jesus, I was evil”³. The break from evil does not consist in distancing yourself from fundamentalists and a naive past Christianity, but from embracing them as your own so that you can see them more clearly in your present life and speak and act more clearly against them in the life of the Church and society. The evil person is a product of their environment; the enemy of evil overcomes their environment.
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¹Clearly, the longest etc you’ve seen in some time
²For example, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a little old woman jokes with Zarathustra, “Are you visiting women? Do not forget your whip?” It’s possible I need a ‘wilder’ example. Also here it is important to note Nietzshe’s misinterpretation by Nazis and consequential use as justification for their crimes.
³Of course, we need to allow for the poetic flexibility of Darcy’s lyrics and the expression thereof here. It’s more likely that instead of addressing Jesus he is using his name as an intensifier to indicate the extent of his evil. What is more, Darcy justifies his current self in contrast to his earlier, evil self, “Now I help old ladies cross the street…”, etc. This, coupled with the mocking, almost boastful, tone of the outro, means a lot of imagination is required in applying Darcy’s song to my point. On the other hand, these lyrical and musical features may also indicate the true extent of the ignorance of our own evil.