Every society since the enlightenment has entertained the notion that a utopia will follow its socio-political progress. Once the shackles of antiquated thinking have been removed, people will be free to progress into new heights of peace and prosperity. America is a unique picture of this ideal; our founders thought that allowing free people to be free would produce a just society. Though they did know, as John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” they believed that the American people were generally good people, and that, as such, they would flourish. More or less, they were right. Though they were acquainted with enlightenment notions of human autonomy (without relying on God), they generally understood that objective morality grounds people, and grounded people produce a stable society. Our society has typically been stable and just (relatively speaking).
Today, our moral bedrock has been a bit rocky. Americans are more divided than ever on what is right and wrong (with the exception being slavery during the civil war). It has become difficult to point to an objective standard, like the Bible, in order to make substantive claims about good and evil. Despite this lack of a moral bedrock, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are in use at rates that are reaching those of the civil war.
In our current cultural moment, systemic racism and LGBTQ+ issues are debated using these terms (‘good’ and ‘evil’) to classify certain approaches. If a person is against the desires of the LGBTQ+ community (like, for example, preventing religious institutions from only hiring people who agree with Biblical sexuality) they are often labeled ‘bigoted’ or even ‘evil.’ Not surprisingly, the more recent debates about racism and systemic oppression of certain groups have followed this trend. To question systemic racism is often attributed to willful ignorance, or plain racism. To discuss the moral character of the oppressed is to be a blame shifter, and therefore, ‘racist’ or ‘evil’. On the other hand, to admit that America’s sins of racism are still to be purged from its midst, is to give into the ‘narrative’, to be ‘gullible’, or to, ironically, be guilty of ‘racism’. Essentially, any dissent from a particular group’s stance on current events all but guarantees that the group being questioned will respond by labeling the questioner as evil, to one degree or another.
Since our moral bedrock has been abandoned for the floating island of personal opinion and political agenda, we are free to label those who dissent from our opinion as ‘evil’. Since we no longer need the Bible to define good and evil, we can define those who have questions about systemic racism, for example, as ‘evil’. Those who disagree are not simply misinformed, or interlocutors, or even ignorant, they are straight up evil. Like Hitler evil.
This harsh labeling is exacerbated by our tendency to lump people into categories (ironically, this is what racists do). Americans tend to see things in black and white. One side must be to the good side, and the other the bad side. We generally don’t have a category for ‘mostly good, but with some issues,’ etc. This is most plainly seen in the President. By the account of a low-performing 3rd grader, the President has some serious foibles. But, his supporters have been known to compare him (or his treatment by his opponents) to Jesus. On the other hand, he does have some redeeming qualities (or, incontrovertibly for Christians, policies). But his opponents find it all but impossible to commend anything he does – even if it is something they would have done! We are generally unable to see people and situations with nuance. Rather, we prefer to paint with broad strokes and present one side as ‘black’ and the other as ‘white.’ Grey isn’t on the palette.
So, to summarize at this point, we have a pliable definitions of good and evil which can be applied essentially wherever we want, and when we apply those monikers, they are done holistically. That is, we can label any position ‘evil’ and when we do so, it is not just the position, but the person who holds it, who is ‘evil’.
Therefore, when Americans consider their own guilt we usually see it in these terms of black and white. One side, or person, must be the guilty one, and the other side is, by extension, the innocent one. The easiest way (if not the only way) to placate a guilty conscience then, is to point the finger. If we can locate guilt in the person who disagrees with us, we think that we are therefore innocent. If they are ‘evil,’ I must be ‘good.’ As our society considers what is going on in the world today, it is with a guilty conscience and a big brush that it paints. The brush is moved furiously in jet-black tones. The darker the picture that emerges at the end of the brush, the lighter the conscience of the painter. If that side is evil, my side must be good. The more I feel guilty, the louder I condemn.
We start out by considering the cultural issues, but the inescapable guilt that we all have for being sinners in the hands of an angry God leads us to vent this guilt as rage for others. There should be, therefore, no surprise at the rage we see in the world today. People feel incredibly guilty and they vent those frustrations upon others who they deem to be the real culprits. In doing this, they psychologically and imaginarily transpose their guilt upon someone else. The social media rage and rioting is just simple catharsis. The guilt for breaking God’s laws feels diminished when one is raging against, what they deem to be, ‘evil.’ This psychological trick makes us think that the guilt we feel must be untrustworthy. We say to ourselves, “How could I be guilty if I’m so mad at this racist? My anger toward the racist must mean I’m innocent.” The guilt then, gets hastily relabeled as ‘empathy,’ or ‘a desire to help.’ We think that the feeling inside us that leads to the rage must be a feeling of care for other human beings. This, however, cannot be true, because caring for human beings cannot be expressed by harming other human beings. If we really had empathy for all human beings, we would pity the person we label as ‘racist’ or ‘ignorant’ and do whatever we could to help him or her out of their ignorance. However, we are almost happy when we get to slap that label on people. This is not empathy.
You might be surprised to hear me say that I think this paradigm is actually fundamentally correct. I do not have a problem in painting all people into either good or bad categories. The problem isn’t with the paradigm, it’s with the application. It is indeed possible to accurately categorize all people into one of these two boxes (i.e. ‘good’ and ‘evil’) and there is a much easier way to do it. We do not need to evaluate a person’s social media platform, their personal history, their voting record, or their stance on a particular issues. Rather, we simply need to inquire whether the person has ever sinned. Once we make that assessment, we can safely place them into the category of ‘evil.’ Of course, every person has sinned and therefore every person should be placed in that category. What about the other category? The usefulness of categories is only seen if there are more than one; they are designed to distinguish one thing from another. In our case, there is someone to put in the category of good—Jesus Christ. He is the only human being who was ever good. We are all not-good.
If we return to the objective standard of the Bible, we will recognize that we are all sinners before God, and the only way to remove the guilt for sin is to trust in the only human who has ever been in the ‘good’ category His whole life. When that guilt has been removed, we will then be free to evaluate current events without assuming, like the world does, that our position is perfect, and the other position is evil. Rather, we will see that we remain sinners and our perspectives are prone to be faulty. This enables us to discuss current events with humility. This will help us to better evaluate opposing opinions and notice the goodness in them, where and when it is present. When we are freed from the desire to paint all opposing opinion as ‘evil,’ we are enabled to locate the good things within those dissenting opinions. Christians, therefore, should be able to engage with those who disagree with them “in gentleness and respect” because they know that the removal of their guilt isn’t dependent upon that conversation.
If you stay up all night thinking about how to win an argument about systemic racism with someone on social media, you’re not concerned with the issue, but with winning the argument. If you were concerned about the issue, you’d be doing something about it, rather than arguing with someone who is not going to help you. You’d be locking arms with those who agree and getting to work on solving the problem. If you’re sitting in a dark room calling someone ‘evil’ on Twitter, you’re just trying to push down the guilt you feel in your own heart. Of course, there is a place for dialogue and debate, but it’s easy to debate for its own sake, and not in order to change things. When we love to slander people, it’s not debate, but sinful catharsis.