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Every heart inclined to both good, evil


7:00 A.M. EST February 1, 2011

A web-only illustration from MaryLB / iStockphoto.
A web-only illustration from MaryLB / iStockphoto.

Whenever a tragedy like the recent shootings in Tucson, Ariz., occurs, commentators are tempted to play the “evil” card. Either the specific act or the person who performed the deed is defined as evil.

It’s probably human nature for us to place any act of violence or destruction in a category. Doing so helps us feel that we can comprehend how something like this could happen. That person is “evil,” therefore different from us, and this act is “evil,” therefore something we would never do. We feel a little better about our worldview and ourselves.

Often we move from calling a specific action or person “evil” to describing entire groups of people that way. Countries or groups we see as our enemies get the label “evil” attached to them, and we make up derogatory names to call them. Once we rob them of their humanity, we are justified in harming them. Once again, we have framed the world so that we feel better about our group and ourselves, because, of course, we are not like them. They are evil.

While such reactions may be comforting, they do not represent an adequate understanding of the nature of human beings or the nature of evil. John Wesley examined the issue of good and evil, and provided us with some assistance. Wesley’s General Rules have become popular in recent years. Bishop Reuben Job and others have described them as “Three Simple Rules.”

The first of those was abridged to read, “Do no harm,” but Wesley added to that “by avoiding evil of every kind.” For Wesley, evil was something to be avoided, if we are intent on doing no harm to others and ourselves. Wesley identified “evil” not as a person, group or deed but suggested that it is the capacity we all have to do harm.

The Rev. Michael Williams preaches at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., where he serves as senior pastor. A UMNS photo courtesy of Michael Williams.
The Rev. Michael Williams preaches at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., where he serves as senior pastor. A UMNS photo courtesy of Michael Williams.
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The second of Mr. Wesley’s rules involved “doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all.” Here again good, like evil, is a capacity that all human beings share. Both good and evil are inclinations of every human heart. We are to follow the inclination to do good to all and harm to none.

The line between good and evil does not fall between people or groups but rather right down the middle of the human heart. For Wesley, the possibility of doing good or harm resulted from the free will God gives us to choose to follow one inclination over another. In truth, much evil is not dramatic.

In 1963, Hannah Arendt published a book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The subtitle is “The Banality of Evil.” Her warning is that, too often, following the evil inclination of the human heart is so commonplace that we don’t even see our participation in it as doing harm. Eichmann - a Nazi who was hanged for his role in the Holocaust - was an administrator in an office, a loyal worker who did as he was instructed to do.

Even today, someone signs a document, and half a world away people are killed. Someone lets a regulation slide, and the building that was supposed to withstand an earthquake or flood doesn’t. Food that was supposed to be safe makes those who eat it sick, or the pension that was supposed to be there isn’t. We purchase a particular shirt or pair of shoes, and children sold into slavery continue to work in unsafe conditions in factories on the other side of the globe.

It may have been our commonplace participation in evil that moved Jesus to warn his followers to take the log out of their own eye before attempting to remove the speck from their neighbor’s eye. Before we start attaching the word “evil” to others, we might want to take a good, hard look at ourselves.

*Williams is senior pastor of West End United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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