Should we ever call someone evil? What are we saying when we call someone evil? These are some of the questions Miroslav Volf addresses in his essays “Evil and Evildoers” and “Demons or Evildoers” in his book Against the Tide:love in a time of petty dreams and persisting enmities.
Volf notes that some (moral expressivists) believe that moral judgments should be expressions of our feelings.We ought to state what we feel about another person’s acts and what our response to them will be. In this view, people are good and “evil” actions are a result of the impact of genetics and outside influences. It is, of course, true that our actions are influenced and shaped by biology and culture and society and the family we grow up in, and our school and neighborhood. Never the less as a moral realist, ( one who believes we can speak about good and evil as real things, not just in terms of our feelings) Volf writes “…there is not greater insult to a human being than to reduce her to a set of influences. Our condemnation of her deed notwithstanding, we respect an evildoer by calling her evil because we are treating her as a responsible being.” (page 23, Against the Tide)
Volf is encouraging us to, in a sense, reclaim the category and language of evil and good.
In popular culture to call someone “evil” is to label them as something other than human. The common sentiment is that human beings are basically good. Bad actions have societal and biological causes. “Evil” is not part of our definition of human. We demonize evildoing, we consider evildoers somehow other than human and that allows us to ostracize, punish and destroy.
We must recognized that evil, as well as good, are part of who all of us are. All of us are created and called good by the good creator God and yet all of us are fallen and capable of evil. Some of us are capable of more evil than others of us. But as Volf notes, The fact that some are more evil does not make us more “good”. The line between good and evil runs through every human heart (Alexander Solzhenitsyn) For Christians to say that someone is evil means Christians must act in a particular way.
Volf reminds us that “To call someone evil is not to place her beyond the pale of God’s redemption. Similarly, to call her evil is not to exempt ourselves from the obligation to love her. If our enemies are hungry, we should feed them; if they are thirsty, we should give them something to drink. Instead of being overcome by evil, we should overcome evil with good.” (page 25)
“To love you as an evildoer, I must see your evil as a human evil, rooted in your possibilities as a human being. In a strange way, it is a good thing to be able to call someone evil– provided that person is evil and that the one doing the calling is committed to loving the evildoer.” (page 28)
This week, I will be wondering who have I knowingly or unknowingly named as evil and demonized? Who do I need to remember is a beloved child of God? How do I begin to love them?
You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48.