Evil – Can anyone be so characterised?

evil
Ratko Mladic

Ratko Mladic was the key player and commander of the Bosnian Serb forces that tried to eliminate Muslims from large parts of Bosnia. His forces were responsible for much social evil, massacring eight thousand Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995: the brutal siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995 resulted in the death of 10,000 people. His capture and trial for war crimes reminds us of the torture, mass rape, arson and genocide that formed part of this ‘ethnic cleansing’.

How does one explain these evil crimes against humanity? How could someone like Mladic fundamentally go against human values, and be outside of what civilisation universally sees as acceptable behaviour?

Can a person be evil?

When someone, like Mladic, or one of his followers, harms another person, should they be considered as evil? Or are they so out of harmony with themselves, they should be seen as sick or ill rather than wicked? This may be so. But even if no individual person is evil, this does not mean that some human behaviour cannot be properly considered evil. According to this second view evil is part of the process of individual choice rather than the quality of the person doing the choosing.

Is evil a useful term?

Some people ask whether the social context in which harm to human beings is done, calls into question the idea that such acts can be universally considered as evil. For them, standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom, or prejudice and that the very word ‘evil’ is an outmoded concept no longer fit for purpose.

However, others point out that what counts as evil is all to do with the individual intent, independent of culture. Arguably, those who are willing to go against moral codes will justify their actions if it suits them to do so, whether they be those ship captains and plantation owners who engaged in the slave trade, the Nazis who found mass extermination of the Jews acceptable, or the leadership of the United States Union Army’s massacre of “savage” Native American Indians.

Is evil an illusion?

The results of evil intent are real enough whether they be seen in times of war, suffering of victims of serious crime, or simply those on the end of spiteful gossip. But should we understand evil as a powerful identity that causes suffering in the world? Or is it just a man-made idea that has no reality? Should we ditch the idea of Satan as just old hat?

In one sense perhaps we should. Ever since Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church has defined evil as the absence of good. Just as cold is defined as the lack of warmth, and darkness the deprivation of light, so evil is defined in terms of good. To understand evil one thus needs to understand what is meant by good. For evil is its opposite. To appreciate cruelty one first needs to experience tender care. To comprehend malice one needs to know love. To understand a state of ignorance one needs to fathom a state of knowledge.

Where does evil come from?

Likewise for Swedenborg, evil is the inversion of good. He reckons disorder is the inversion of order, and falsity the inversion of truth. Evil is a quality of life which has no independent origin, but is a distortion of the one Divine life.

Using his psychic vision, he describes a way of life of human spirits in a hidden spirit realm, who choose hatred over love, and crime over justice. One is not normally conscious of their influence but if one continually allows their presence into one’s heart and mind, they are said to then prompt and urge cruelty, sexual violence, and self-ascendancy without any concern for human suffering. We don’t know if people like Mladic will join them in his after-life. But allowing himself to be constantly swayed by their impulses and thoughts, he can become crazed with evil, caught up in a crowd baying for blood. The madness feels overpowering and the individual is swept along apparently helpless to fight against the current.

Actually, Swedenborg says this seeming overwhelming power of evil is an illusion. For there is also a divine sphere of justice and humane concern which is available to us all. This good balances the evil flow. And so we have the freedom to inwardly turn in which direction we wish. But without turning towards what is good we would all be vulnerable to the inflow of cruelty and malice.

Many of us human beings sometimes choose to turn our back on the one Source of happiness and opening ourselves to evil impulses. This is when we put self above all else. That is when what we want determines all our actions together with the fear, pride and greed that accompanies self-love. Just look in at the criminal courts of justice and see what trouble can then be reeked; never mind the international court in the Hague where crimes against humanity are tried. Perhaps the Serb nationalists who still support Mladic will then realise the full extent of the evil their hero has really caused.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

What’s so bad about a bit of self-pride?

Self-prideA bit of self-pride seems part of the positive trait of self-esteem.

Possible danger of self-pride

Yet we speak of pride before a fall. The story of Icarus is about a young man’s attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned. In flying too high he is often seen as possessing overconfident arrogance. The proverb ‘Pride goes before a fall’ seems apt, implying suffering for those too cocky for their own good.

On the other hand, sounding superior and important are favoured traits in today’s tough competitive economic climate.  Even if you are not in business, you need to market your work skills in order to keep your own job or get another one.

“At home I am a nice guy: but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.” (Muhammad Ali)

And it is said that it can become counter-productive to be modest because you may not be taken seriously.

So is it really true that you will be like Icarus and suffer in some way as a result of being full of yourself and your ability? What’s so bad about a bit of self-pride?

Noticing the sacred in others rather than self-pride in oneself

In his book Essential Spirituality, Roger Walsh writes about noticing the sacred in other people.

He tells a story about an old woman sitting by the roadside outside her town who was approached by a traveller who asked “What kinds of people live in this town?”

“What were the people like in your home town?” queried the old woman.

“Oh, they were terrible!” fumed the traveller. “Liars, cheats, incompetents, you couldn’t trust any of them. I was glad to leave.”

“You’ll find the people in this town just the same.” Responded the old woman.

Not long afterwards, she was approached by a second traveller who also questioned her about the people in the town.

“”What were the people like in your home town?” she asked.

“Oh, they were wonderful!” exclaimed the traveller. “Fine, honest, hard-working, it was a privilege to be with them. I was so sorry to leave.”

“You’ll find the people in this town just the same. “responded the old woman.

So, how you see others and what you say about them reveals more about yourself than about them. You don’t want to seem to be a know-it-all full of self-pride who fails to notice the value in others. Few people want to appear big-headed about their own abilities at the cost of the abilities of others. Moreover, seeing what is valuable about others helps you be honest with yourself about your own limitations even when this is uncomfortable.

Seeing the sacred in life itself

Spiritually-minded people acknowledge a source of deeper energy and wisdom beyond their own mind. They ask how can one not feel humbled by the wonders of the universe, or when seeing the power of altruistic love manifest in the most extreme circumstances. We are so often exposed to the scientific view, of an evolution without purpose and a universe as a meaningless machine, that no transcendent sacred force — whatever we want to call it — is allowed to exist.

But then we are pulled up short by tantalizing glimpses, of a mysterious quality within nature — perhaps triggered by a beautiful sunset, the wisdom of birds and animals, or the vastness of space — glimpses that offer a truly awe-inspiring experience of something beyond oneself.   At such moments the mundane world is transfigured.

Such experiences, can lead to acknowledging a higher good and truth that exists beyond your own ability, and which is the source of inspiration for human effort. In this way of thinking, the focus is not on the strengths of humanity but on the strengths of the Divine presence within the human soul and accepting one’s dependence on this presence for finding tolerance, patience, and other virtue. Not, as do some Christians, in sanctimoniously promoting themselves as Godly and thus betraying a self-pride in being better than others. Instead, by genuinely bowing down to an origin of all that is good, the individual does not feel empty but full.

“Jesus is the God whom we can approach without pride and before whom we can humble ourselves without despair.” (Blaise Pascal)

Neither need one indulge in self-abasement as do some believers but rather celebrate one’s ability to be uplifted and share the spiritual power available: not in denying the inner strength in oneself but rather in recognising that it is received from a higher Divine source. A bit of self-pride might not be an appropriate attitude for those with this kind of true humility.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

NEW BEGINNINGS

NEW BEGINNINGS
A Sermon by Rev. Brian W. Keith
Preached in Glenview, Illinois September 7, 1986

Life can seem terribly dreary. Familiar patterns are repeated over and over again. Ruts appear. Dishes keep getting dirty. Bills keep coming. The house always needs something done to it. And as we grow older, our bodies signal the rapid passing of time. Energy levels decline. Aches and pains come from nowhere. From being unthinkable, one’s own death is seen as a real possibility.

Emotionally we can feel trapped by what has gone before. Previous actions, mistakes, and evils close in on our minds. We can be haunted by what has happened. The depressing patterns of petty frustrations and useless arguments scar and desensitize us. We can become numbed wandering through the day trying not to feel anything.

Ezekiel had a vision addressed to such a lifeless and hopeless frame of mind. He saw a valley full of dried out bones. As he prophesied, the bones came together, flesh was put upon them, and breath entered them. From dry bones came a great army. And the Lord said to Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, `Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ` … Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves'” (37:11-13).

Our bones are dry. Our hope is lost. How pitiful! And how false! Life is repetitive and dreary only if we choose to look at it that way. For all around us there is a renewal of life. New beginnings are taking place constantly.

Consider the natural world. Plants and animals are constantly reproducing, much more than this world could support. Every day the sun comes up anew. Each new year is ushered in with festivity. Even in the fall when the leaves turn and life seems to drain away, there is the promise of rebirth. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24).

Consider also some events in the life cycle. A child leaves home for school. A person leaves school for a job. Single life is given up for marriage. Children grow up and establish their own homes. Retirement comes. Each of these changes involves loss and gain a new beginning. Even death itself is growth. The Heavenly Doctrines show that when a person awakens in the other world, “at this point his life begins” (AC 186), and his entrance into his eternal heavenly home “marks a new beginning” in his life (AC 1273).

Even as natural life has changes new beginnings so spiritually there can be a constant renewal of life. Above our consciousness the Lord is gently guiding our thoughts and feelings. While we are unaware of it, He is inspiring new ways of looking at life, stimulating new feelings of warmth and concern (see AC 6645e). The Lord is working with our spirits so that we are renewed every moment of every day. The fact is, there are new beginnings in our lives all the time. The Lord is raising up our apparently dry bones, putting flesh upon them, and breathing life into them.

We can choose to feel trapped by the past or dulled by routines. Or we can look at what is happening as the opportunity for one of the many new beginnings in life. For the Lord does not control what happens to us. Yes, His Providence is overseeing all that happens, but that does not mean He is causing specific events to occur good or bad. In one sense He is not concerned for what happens; rather He is concerned with how we respond, for that determines what good He can then bring about. Retirement, for example, is not important, but how a person then uses his or her time is. The response can be gloomy, for the loss of co-workers, status, or income; or it can be of renewal more time for friends, family, church work, or others. A newness of life can be born in any situation any time, anywhere.

Our participation in renewal is critical. The Lord never forces us to grow. He never forces us to change our minds or actions. While He is always working, urging and pressing to influence us in heavenly ways, He will not change our outlook if we do not want Him to. We can remain in the trenches. We can look upon life as a deterioration of our physical and mental abilities. We can see the dark side of every event, pessimistically awaiting the next cruel blow of fate. We can cry about dry bones and hopelessness. But those dry bones can have flesh on them, breath in them.

Regardless of what has occurred in the past, new beginnings are possible if we are willing. They do not start outside of ourselves. They start with our thoughts and intentions (see AC 1317). We have the freedom to think about life in any way we wish. We can think negatively or positively. We can desire, intend, anything we wish. We can want what is good. We can want what is evil. We are not trapped by previous choices or patterns of behavior. We are trapped only by our fears and refusals to think and try.

Our attitude makes all the difference in how we view the world and how easy we make it for the Lord to renew us. From a negative, doubting viewpoint we see the world and ourselves through a warped lens. We reject or give up on the ideals the Lord has shown us in His Word. But if we attempt to trust in what He has said, if we will be positive, affirmative to Him, then wonders can be worked (see AC 3913:5). “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, `Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).

Our basic assumptions can never be proven. And if we assume, have faith, that the Lord speaks to us in His Word, and our lives will be improved if we listen, then a new beginning can occur. For regeneration is the new creation of life spiritual life. It begins when a person affirms the truth and intends to live according to it. This is the start of regeneration. It does not occur at any set time in life, nor does it happen only once. Each and every time we positively turn our minds to the Lord’s way, a new beginning occurs.

Such beginnings are like seedlings. They are planted in the soil of our lives. With watering, with light and warmth, they take root. As they grow, as we walk in the Lord’s way, the earth of our life is made more secure. The interlocking root systems stop the erosion of false ideas, evil desires. The more that take root the better, for the roots hinder the washing away of good by selfishness.

But for seedlings to grow strong they need weathering. The storms and bitter cold which could harm the trees actually serve to strengthen them. So in regeneration. Each new beginning of spiritual life will be challenged. Where honesty is growing, the harsh wind of theft will blow and try to destroy it. Where compassion is developing, cold disregard for others and apathy will also be present.

Spiritual struggles ensue. These raging storms are painful, as the new beginnings of spiritual life are threatened and buffeted. Yet, as we endure, as we resist the forces of hell, a greater strength is acquired. More spiritual life grows perhaps a clearer idea of His ways, a deeper appreciation of our need for the Lord’s presence, or a greater intensity of affection for His good (see AC 2272). Whatever is gained, our spirits are growing flesh upon dry bones, breath giving life. As the Lord promised: “I will bring the blind by a way they did not know; I will lead them in paths they have not known. I will make darkness light before them, and crooked places straight” (Isaiah 42:16).

The Lord leads us through all the many byways of life, through the valleys up to the peaks. He would have each day be a new beginning for us, not in a dramatic sense, for we are not meant to have radical changes often. The new birth, or regeneration, is not a series of sudden changes in direction. Yes, it can begin with that when a person first realizes the importance of spiritual values, when a person experiences the grief of repentance. But rebirth is an evolving process. It is made up of many small beginnings.

The small beginnings of regeneration are a series of purifications the regular washing away of evils in the spirit, of saying, “No, I won’t do that because it is wrong.” And as the Heavenly Doctrines note, ” … such purification ought to go on all the time and so always to be taking place as if from a new beginning” (AC 2044).

“As if from a new beginning.” In one sense, each time we resist an evil, each time we intend on doing something good, it is a new beginning. Something new has started in our lives. But in another sense, every positive step is a continuation of what was begun before. It is a resurfacing of the seeds planted years before from parents, from teachers, from whatever good we had willingly done. The Lord keeps working with the good He has established in everyone’s life. While it may not be seen for a time, it is carefully preserved, awaiting the occasion to be seen again. Hellish choices and life styles shut it up, but it is still there. The Lord is very patient, always leading us so that the good we have might be protected, develop, and eventually blossom in the fruit of an angelic life.

What this means is that life is never pointless. While we will certainly go through times when we feel our life is dry or our lot hopeless, the Lord can put flesh on our bones, breath in our lungs. All our patterns which seem so fixed and limiting, all the painful baggage we carry from the past, need not defeat us. For every day the Lord is providing us with new beginnings small, almost imperceptible opportunities to renew our lives. If we are not utterly downcast, if we have not given up if we will be open and affirmative to what He has said then new life may grow. Seedlings are planted which, though they may not bear visible fruit until the next life, will give us strength, will renew our spirits. And the prophecy of Isaiah will come true for us: “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not be faint” (40:31). Amen.

Lessons: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 3:1-8; NJHD 173-182 (portions)

New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 173-182 (portions)

173. He who does not receive spiritual life, that is, who is not begotten anew by the Lord, cannot come into heaven, which the Lord teaches in John: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except anyone be begotten again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3).

174. A person is not born of his parents into spiritual life, but into natural life. Spiritual life consists in loving God above all things, and in loving his neighbor as himself, and this according to the precepts of faith, which the Lord has taught in the Word. But natural life consists in loving ourselves and the world more than the neighbor, yea, more than God Himself.

175. Everyone is born of his parents into the evils of the love of self and of the world.

176. [So] everyone continually inclines to, and lapses into, what he derives from heredity: hence he confirms with himself that evil, and also superadds more from himself. These evils are altogether contrary to spiritual life; they destroy it; wherefore, unless a person receives new life, which is spiritual life, from the Lord, thus unless he is conceived anew, is born anew, is educated anew, that is, is created anew, he is damned; for he wills nothing else, and thence thinks nothing else but what is of self and the world, in like manner as they do in hell.

179. Everyone has an internal man and an external man; the internal is what is called the spiritual man, and the external is what is called the natural man, and each is to be regenerated so that one may be regenerated. With one who is not regenerated, the external or natural rules, and the internal serves; but with one who is regenerated, the internal or spiritual rules, and the external serves. Whence it is manifest that the order of life is inverted with one from his birth, namely, that serves which ought to rule, and that rules which ought to serve. In order that a person may be saved, this order must be inverted; and this inversion can by no means exist except by regeneration from the Lord.

180. What it is for the internal man to rule and the external to serve, and vice versa, may be illustrated by this: If a person places all his good in pleasure, in gain, and in pride, and has delight in hatred and revenge, and inwardly in himself seeks for reasons which confirm them, then the external man rules and the internal serves. But when a person perceives good and delight in thinking and willing well, sincerely and justly, and in outwardly speaking and doing in like manner, then the internal man rules and the external serves.

181. The internal man is first regenerated by the Lord, and afterwards the external, and the latter by means of the former. For the internal man is regenerated by thinking those things which are of faith and charity, but the external by a life according to them. This is meant by the words of the Lord: “Unless anyone be begotten of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). “Water,” in the spiritual sense, is the truth of faith, and “the spirit” is a life according to it.

182. The person who is regenerated is, as to his internal, in heaven, and is an angel there with the angels, among whom he also comes after death; he is then able to live the life of heaven, to love the Lord, to love the neighbor, to understand truth, to relish good, and to perceive the happiness thence derived.