We live our lives in the immediate and the concrete. One thing after another. That’s where our awareness most readily settles.
Even the newspapers, though looking at a bigger picture than our personal lives, are snapshots more concrete and close to our accustomed scale of life than what is presented in the history books. Of course, more people read the newspaper than the history books. And of the history books, it is the biographies — the pictures presented at the scale that we know from our own lives — that get the biggest readership. Certainly not the “theories of history,” which attempt to describe the overall principles that govern the movements of societies and civilizations through time.
It would be convenient if all the understanding we need could be obtained by looking only at the numerous and various concrete phenomena we perceive and experience. It would be convenient because that’s what we are best able to see, and most inclined to attend to. Putting the pieces together into a larger picture comes less naturally, and poses an intellectual challenge.
But our world is not made up of discrete, disconnected pieces. And it cannot be understood on those terms.
Just as the DNA of a single individual can tell a story about whole peoples. Just as the recent finding from a 29,000 year-old bone from a boy in northeastern Asia reveals that European peoples mixed their genes with Asiatic peoples long before previously thought, so too do the various immediate things that we see contain within them clues about larger patterns and forces at work in the human world.
The level of the concrete is real. But so are the forces and patterns that move through the system in which the concrete is embedded, and shape the structure and movement of the concrete.
The Persistence of Culture
The whole of the living system operates through the transmission of patterns. For all living things, DNA provides a blueprint of which the organism is an expression. Evolution shows that change takes place over time, but perhaps more remarkable is the extent to which the pattern is preserved in the transmission. Humans still have rudimentary tails, and the skeleton of the whale still shows the metacarpals of terrestrial mammals, retaining in vestigial form the template from which our hands also are constructed.
For one of earth’s species – the human — a second layer of patterns has been added to the first: the patterns of culture.
Again, cultures evolve, but perhaps more remarkable is the extent to which cultures maintain their pre-existing patterns. Generations of individuals come and go, each socialized into the culture in a manner that allows (or compels) the individual to function within the cultural system. The enculturation process also fashions the humans within that system to be agents of the perpetuation of the established cultural pattern.
Here’s a dramatic, albeit relatively trivial, illustration of this perpetuation process:
In the north of New Mexico, it was discovered in our times that there were people who still lit candles every Friday evening at sundown, but had no idea why they did it. But their parents had done it. It turns out, of course, that these people are the descendants of Jews from Spain through Mexico who were compelled to conceal their Jewish observance and to maintain the pretense of being Christian. Now, centuries later, their descendants –good Catholics by now, I would guess– are still lighting candles on Friday evenings.
More important examples of the transmission of a cultural pattern can be found in the discernible limits encountered in the efforts of revolutionaries to reject the old ways, to make a clean break, to create the altogether new.
It has been observed that the rulers that emerged out of the Russian Revolution — Stalin in particular — functioned in many ways like the Czars of the old regime they had overthrown. The Chinese revolution, led by Mao Tse-Teng attempted to extirpate, root and branch, much of Chinese tradition. But analysts of Communist China back during the reign of Mao noted how profoundly Confucian, in many ways, was his way of ruling. And now, with the Maoist system in many ways being unmade by his heirs, the classical Confucian works are best sellers in China.
Here’s another example from the cultural history of China:
For many centuries, China was the dominant civilization in the area of the world in which it operated. This experience of power and status generated in the Chinese culture –in the minds of its people—sense of Chinese civilization as the Center of the World, the Middle Kingdom, superior to all other cultures. What is amazing, in terms of the persistence of culture, is how that feeling survived in China even through many generations of disintegration, and humiliation, and subordination to foreign powers. The idea remained intact, ready to reassert itself.
This is not to deny change. But only to emphasize the strength of a phenomenon I call, “the persistence of culture.” Culture can persist like this because patterns, though “abstracted” from “the immediate and concrete” right before our eyes, are powerful forces that shape our world.
The power of patterns is important for understanding just about everything in the living world, and in the human world specifically. But — as my earlier definition of “evil” suggests (something “coherent” that operates “through time” and works at “spreading a pattern”) — an understanding of the vital reality of patterns will be especially central to understanding the nature of the forces of good and evil in the human world.
Wholeness and Brokenness as Important Categories of Patterns
Patterns have to do with structure. In particular, we’re interested in the patterns that form the structure of civilized human life. Forces are the mechanisms by which these structures get formed and transmitted through time.
For example, as a person of Jewish ancestry, I embody the cultural pattern that places a high value on the life of the mind. It’s quite easy for me to see how my socialization in my family of origin – socialization being an important force for the transmission of patterns – imparted that value to me. And of course, my parents were themselves molded by similar forces whose course through the generations, and emergence from the historical process, could be traced.
Our destination here is to be able to perceive and understand the reality of “the battle between good and evil” as a central part of the human saga. Good and evil I am presenting as forces: what differentiates them is the nature of the patterns that they impart to the human world. One of the ways of looking at the battle between these two forces operating in the human system is to conceive of the patterns that they transmit in terms of the concepts of “wholeness” and “brokenness.”
Good and evil are opposites because the nature of the patterns they impart are opposites.
Let’s start with the idea of “wholeness.” “Wholeness” can be defined, for starters, in terms of things fitting together well. It’s about interconnectedness with things being rightly ordered.
This kind of right ordering is at the core of what life on earth has been creating. From the level to the cell up through healthy ecosystems all the way up to the entire biosphere, the project of life on earth has been fashioning order of indescribable intricacy from the level of atoms and molecules up to the global flows of matter and energy.
The connection between “wholeness” and “goodness” follows almost mathematically. If wholeness involves the kind of right ordering that’s at the heart of what the evolution of life tends to create, and if life being selected over death generates the basis for the experience of needs being fulfilled as of positive value (and their frustration being of negative value), and if such experience is at the foundation of the reality of values, it is clear how wholeness is intimately connected with the idea of “the good.” Patterns of wholeness are life-serving.
Brokenness, by contrast, is the opposite. Brokenness involves the absence or destruction of those patterns or structures that serve life and the fulfillment of living creatures.
Wholeness vs. Brokenness is one of the ways of talking about the same set of realities as life-serving vs. life-degrading, or good vs. evil. (With something as subtle and complex as “the battle between good and evil” it is useful to look at the same thing across various dimensions.) It is through the movement and transmission of certain kinds of patterns that we can discern the reality of a force of good or evil.
Two components of “wholeness” in the systems of life can be called “synergy” and “viability.”
1) Synergy. The evolution of life appears to have operated in a completely opportunistic fashion, without there being a plan or purposefulness in its unfolding. Where there’s a niche that can be occupied by a predator, or a parasite, or pathogen, the evolutionary process is likely opportunistically to fill it.
Nonetheless the tendency of evolution is to create synergistic patterns of interaction among the elements of a living system. In a synergistic interaction, each part functions in a way that enhances the welfare of the other parts as well as its own. Even the relationship between predator and prey – emerging opportunistically out of the reality that one creature’s meat can be another creature – evolves over time to serve not only the predator, but the prey as well.
[eliminating predators hurts the system, e.g. of “Lopped Off: Removal of top predators trickles through the food web,” Science News, 11/5/11, pp. 26-29]
What works, survives. What doesn’t work, gets weeded out. Hence even the antagonistic relationships tend, over time, to operate within a larger context in which the system as a whole can be perpetuated.
2) Viability. A system has the second component of wholeness – “viability” —- to the extent to which it is able to maintain, without diminution, whatever it is upon which the system’s continued existence depends. A viable system does not eat itself out of house and home, does not foul its own nest, does not contain unsustainable practices.
The tendency of life to foster systemic wholeness – whether that system be a cell or the biosphere – is inseparable from the evolutionary preference (through the selective process) for life over death.
It’s no innovation of mine to connect an idea of “wholeness” to the nature of the systems toward which life strives. The word “health” is etymologically rooted in the idea of “wholeness.” A body can be healthy, or whole, and so can an ecosystem, even up to the global system of life. Life consists of an elaborate order –wholeness—and in medicine many of those things that cause a breakdown of health are called “disorders.”
Disorder – or brokenness—can come into the system of life from outside the realm of life, i.e. those workings of the cosmos that preceded life and still lie beyond its control.
For example, a massive object streaming from the cold, lifeless realms of outer space might slam into our planet, precipitating a degree of brokenness in the well-ordered system that renders the dinosaurs and much else extinct 65 million years ago. Or two continents floating on the earth’s outer surface might drift into contact –at the isthmus of Panama – bringing together two previously-separated communities of animal life, creating a kind of interaction not harnessed to any evolved order that, again, renders many species extinct.
The system of life on earth controls neither asteroids nor the movement of continents. It has one more weakness: it lacks foresight. It has no plan.
Humankind has demonstrated, over the past ten thousand years, how that can open the door to the subversion of wholeness.
In the previous chapter, I described value as emergent in the cosmos. So also is wholeness. But emergence also has brought forth a species whose intelligence and consequent creative capabilities allowed it to break out of that order that biological evolution crafted on this planet over three and a half billion years.
Evolution apparently has no foresight, and so its tendency to create wholeness provides no protection against something new emerging out of the system that introduces a destabilizing discontinuity and disharmony with the system out of which it emerged.
We will see shortly how, with the rise of civilization, the human escape from the niche in which we evolved biologically unleashed a devastating force of brokenness into the world. (We will also see how this catastrophic development — traumatic for humankind, and injurious to the wholeness of earth’s living systems — could neither have been anticipated nor avoided by the humans swept up in this emergent discontinuity.)
We will see how it was inevitable, and not a function of human nature, that a new set of systemic forces would arise with nightmarish implications.
But wholeness, though under siege, has hardly left the picture. Indeed, partially in response to the challenge to our species that arose from our being uniquely unmoored from the biological order from which we emerged, we human beings have striven recreate the wholeness we inadvertently subverted.
We’ve done that, over the millennia, by enshrining as positive values a number of forms of wholeness. People have sought to inspire the systems of humankind in civilization, and their human members, despite the newly empowered force of brokenness, to be life-serving and life-enhancing, and therefore good.
Here are some of those forms, or dimensions, of wholeness civilized cultures have raised up as important values:
•Morality —the paths of righteousness and justice—is about adhering to those principles that order the human system into an optimal kind of whole. (“Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” is a recipe for wholeness in the human system.)
•Beauty —whether that of the rose, or of a Bach fugue—is a form of wholeness in that beauty lies in giving perfection and wholeness of form to the substance of our world. Whether in music or art or landscape or, more figuratively, a constellation of human relationships, what we declare beautiful represents an ideal of things properly ordered.
•Love —whether between lovers or friends or for all humanity—connects with wholeness in the way that the bond of love knits people together in a life-enhancing way. When Jesus encourages us to love our neighbors, and even our enemies, and when the Buddha commends loving kindness and compassion, they are seeking to bolster an important part of Wholeness in the world.
•Integrity —whether of the moral sort of walking one’s talk, or of the sort that’s about being true to oneself—is about a person’s being all of a piece,” whole. A person with integrity is good for his word. A person with integrity will have her beliefs follow the evidence and not stack the deck to arrive at preconceived conclusions.
•Truth —including valid understanding, in which belief is aligned with reality; and insight, which is about seeing connections, creating greater wholeness in our awareness by disclosing to us some new dimensions of the complex interweaving by which our world is knit together; and truth-telling or honesty, in which what is said is aligned with actual belief.
The dimensions of brokenness are readily understood to be the opposite of those:
•Where justice is a form of wholeness, injustice is brokenness. Some of these forms of brokenness: stealing from the poor to enrich the rich; the attitude of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable”;
•Where wholeness tends to be beautiful, brokenness is ugly.
•While love knits the human world together in life-serving ways, hatred is destructive of life and its fulfillment. (I’ve wanted to ask the Christian, Republican-voting people of my area: “When was the last time that your leaders have encouraged you to love anything or anyone—other than in the context of wanting you to hate and fight against something else?”)
•Honesty and integrity make the world more whole, while the spirit of the lie and the lack of integration of the human being are important tools for spreading the pattern of brokenness in the world.
In an essay that grew out of one of the most spiritually profound periods of my life (in 2004), I proposed on the basis of my own experience that the greatest fulfillment in human life grows out of our alignment with Wholeness in one or another of its dimensions. In the framework being developed here, that would make sense. If we have been molded by the selection for life over death, if Wholeness represents the pattern that serves life, if we sentient creatures have been crafted to experience fulfillment from those things that have been life-serving in our ancestral background, it would seem to follow that we would find fulfillment to the extent to which we can align ourselves with the pattern of Wholeness.
But if that’s the case, if we have a natural propensity to seek Wholeness as the best route to our happiness, why then is the world of humankind so rife with brokenness?
In the Grip of Forces Beyond Our Control
Looking at the world around us, and at human history, simply in the one-thing-after-another mode, we readily come to the conclusion that we as creatures are deeply flawed. Seeing things only at the concrete level, we will assume that history reveals human nature writ large. How could it be otherwise, we will ask on the basis of our reductionistic assumptions? If people aren’t responsible for what James Joyce called “the nightmare” from which we are trying to awaken, who could be?
But it really doesn’t follow. Not if we step back to see the concrete in the context of the larger picture of the forces and patterns at work. The human world cannot be understood just in terms of the actors, but must include the systemic forces within which human beings have been compelled to interact.
The key is that systems can have a logic of their own, not derived from the elements that make them up. And about 10,000 years ago, a problematic system was brought into existence – as an inadvertent by-product of a major human breakthrough — unprecedented in the history of life on earth— and the dynamics of that system have shaped (or warped) the destiny of our species ever since.
Let me show you, by describing the dynamic that our ancestors unwittingly unleashed, how it is that the record of history is not human nature writ large, but something much more broken.
Although the task of seeing thing whole requires intellectual effort, the reward will be both greater insight into the challenges that we –Americans, humankind—face, and greater basis for hoping that we can meet those challenges. If that were true, would that not be worth the effort?
How Brokenness Emerged in the Human System: The Parable of the Tribes
For three and a half billion years, life evolved in such a way that each creature followed its own inborn law, but that law had been shaped by a process whose tendency was to create a certain kind of Wholeness. From the single cell to the planetary biosphere, the process of chance combined with natural selection crafted systems that work for the perpetuation of life.
In particular, the interactions of the elements of the system get structured to serve the survival of all the elements. When the wolf kills the lamb, the death of the lamb is not an injury to lambkind. It is part of the pattern of survival not only for wolves but for the sheep as well.
At the micro level, the order of nature is indeed “red in tooth and claw.” The opportunism of evolution creates a level of conflict– e.g. between predator and prey, parasite and host. But at the macro level, in the system that life crafted, even that “red in tooth and claw” gets made part of an overarching wholeness.
Then came the unprecedented breakthrough. That breakthrough was not the emergence of human intelligence, and not the emergence of the cultural animal that intelligence made possible, for these had developed long before without greatly altering the basic structure of human life and the species place in the ecological order. The portentous breakthrough — the real point of discontinuity — occurred when human cultural development crossed the threshold into “civilization,” by which I mean the break out from hunting and gathering into the domestication of plants and animals.
That step marked a decisive break in the history of life on earth because it made human societies the first living entities whose size and structure and modus operandi were not given in their biologically evolved blueprint. Human beings became the first creatures to invent their own way of life.
Here we come upon a profoundly tragic irony. The ability to invent its own way of life appears to grant the creative creature a new kind of freedom. And at one level it has. But at another, more fundamental level, that freedom gets turned into a new kind of bondage, a new kind of necessity creating a new kind of pain and brokenness.
The problem arises because what is “freedom” if we look at only one such society gets transmuted into a new kind of compulsion when we look at the multiplicity of such societies emerging together. (And intersocietal interaction was a factor from the outset: in all the locations in which civilization first emerged, these new kinds of societies sprung up in clusters.)
The problem here is one of disorder. What is going to regulate the interactions among this new kind of living entities, these civilized societies?
Life, whose specialty has been the creation of order, has stumbled into a dangerously anarchic situation. It is anarchic because there’s no biologically evolved order to regulate their interaction, as there is with the rest of life’s system. Nor is there any possibility any human-created order to regulate them– not when these societies first emerge, and even in our times this problem has not been solved.
The result of this new kind of anarchy is what Hobbes described as the inevitable consequence of anarchy: a struggle for power, a war of all against tall.
That struggle for power would be traumatic (and “broken”) enough, but the tragedy is compounded by an additional consequence of the breakthrough into civilization: open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation. No longer constrained by the limits of the hunting/gathering band structure that traced back to before we were human, these new societies could develop new forms in political organization, in technology, in the mentality of its people, etc.
A struggle for power combined with this open-ended process of cultural innovation then generates a new kind of selective process. When some societies are successful in the intersocietal competition, while others are eliminated, it is not just specific societies that triumph but certain ways of organizing human socio-cultural life. Other cultural possibilities get eliminated. Not by human choice, but by the over-arching system.
These possibilities are not necessarily those that are best for people. What survives and spreads are the ways of power. They are, by definition, whatever it takes to succeed in the intersocietal struggle for power.
Over the centuries and millennia, the selection for the ways of power will determine which of the wide range of possibilities for civilized societies will be chosen by the system to shape the human future: the war-like may eliminate the pacifistic; the ambitious, the content; the iron-makers those with copper or no metallurgy at all, and the horsemen over the unmounted; those with effective central control over those with more casual power structures and local autonomy.
The narrowing of cultural possibilities for human beings is more dramatic than one might first imagine, because the ways of power spread in the system like a contaminant.
All it takes is one society bent on predation and expansion at the expense of its neighbors, and the ways of power will spread throughout the system. Here’s how a describe, in my book The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, how power acts as a contaminant in the system that emerged with civilization:
Imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace, and that one is ambitious for expansion and conquest? What can happen to the others when confronted by an ambitious and potent neighbor? Perhaps one tribe is attacked and defeated, its people destroyed and its lands seized for the use of the victors. Another is defeated, but this one is not exterminated; rather, it is subjugated and transformed to serve the conqueror. A third seeking to avoid such disaster flees from the area into some inaccessible (and undesirable) place, and its former homeland becomes part of the growing empire of the power-seeking tribe. Let us suppose that others observing these developments decide to defend themselves in order to preserve themselves and their autonomy. But the irony is that successful defense against a power-maximizing aggressor requires a society to become more like the society that threatens it. Power can be stopped only by power, and if the threatening society has discovered ways to magnify its power through innovations in organization or technology (or whatever), the defensive society will have to transform itself into something more like its foe in order to resist the external force.
I have just outlined four possible outcomes for the threatened tribes: destruction, absorption and transformation, withdrawal, and imitation. In every one of these outcomes the ways of power are spread throughout the system. This is the parable of the tribes.
This selection for power is inevitable, an outgrowth of the inevitably unregulated interactions among these new living entities, civilized society.
This is why the course of social evolution, from hunting-gathering bands all the way up to the emergence of empires, traced profoundly similar paths in all the places on earth where civilization first emerged in its pristine form (in the valleys of the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus, and the Yangtze in the Old World, and in MesoAmerica and Peru in the New World).
The breakthrough to civilization — which appeared to be a grant of freedom to choose among countless cultural possibilities — inevitably channels humankind and its societies in a particular, unchosen direction.
The face of civilization as it moves through history is thus more fundamentally a reflection of the dynamics of the system than of the nature of the creature caught up in an inescapable selection for the ways of power.
Any creature whose creativity enabled it to cross that threshold into creating a whole new way of living off its planet would have found itself inadvertently plunging into the same kind of social evolutionary process, ruled by power.
And any creature, caught up in such social evolutionary forces, would inevitably show a face in its history far uglier –crazier, more broken, more wounded — than its natural being. Wounded first by the inevitable struggle for power, and wounded second by having to adapt to societies shaped by the demands of power, often indifferent to the needs of the human creature.
This logic explains the human tragedy. But it also provides an important ray of hope.
Would it not be a source of great hope to know that the nightmare of our history is not an indictment of human nature? That the ugliness and brutality that feature so prominently in the story of our kind can be explained without reference to what by nature we are and are capable of?
The Transmission of the Patterns of Brokenness
The brokenness starts, then, in the intersocietal system. That’s because it was inevitable that these new life forms – civilized societies – would form a fragmented system, with no order to insure wholeness to its functioning. The inevitable anarchy of the intersocietal system – an anarchy that our species has only begun to overcome in modern times – mandated that a destructive pattern of the Hobbsean war of all against all, of might makes right, would be the lot of the human creature, not because of its inherent nature but because of the nature of the system into which it had inadvertently brought into being.
The brokenness that begins at the level of the system of interacting societies transmits itself from level to level. First, it transmits itself directly, through the selection for power, to brokenness in the structuring of the societies. Built for the maximization of power, the societies that can survive the struggle for power have tended, over very long stretches of history, to gravitate toward conquest and exploitation.
Human beings get broken both 1) by the often cruel and bloody process by which the selective process occurs, and 2) by the process of being socialized to fit into the kinds of societies that prevail in the struggle for power.
1) Wherever one looks on this planet, we find peoples who are the heirs – if not the direct victims — to wars, tyrannies, oppression, and torment. Intersocietal anarchy –arising from the beginnings of civilization and remaining barely checked even into our times – has condemning the human members of civilized societies to a series of traumatic experiences.
Trauma represents brokenness in that the traumatic experience is one that is so painful and disruptive that the traumatized creature cannot integrate it into its overall psychic structure. The whole of humankind, one might say, suffers, in some sense, from PTSD.
The more people are traumatized by the rule of power, the more intolerable will be the experience of weakness, and the more likely will the traumatized be to worship power. The more people experience the world as a hostile place that treats them as though they matter little, the more inclined will they be to assert their importance and specialness.
In such ways, the free play of power in the intersocietal system generates the brokenness of people trying to deny the intolerable pain of their traumatic experience. In such ways, the people who have been wounded by the pattern of brokenness tend to be inclined themselves to reinforce that pattern by their conduct in the world.
2) The second powerful source of brokenness arising out of this social evolutionary process is the wounding that takes place because of the mismatch between the needs of human nature and the demands of societies shaped by the demands of power.
It is in the nature of being cultural creatures that we internalize the demands of our societies so we can fit in and play our roles. What would be most whole for people would be to live in societies that have been structured with the priority of meeting human needs. Then our socialization would involve internalizing demands that accord well with the human grain.
But when intersocietal anarchy fosters a selective process that shapes societies according to the demands of power, those societies in turn make demands on their members that will be at odds –in ways large and small – with the inborn nature of those human creatures.
For every living creature before civilization, there was a fundamental right: follow the dictates of your inborn nature. That has been a good strategy for meeting the demands of a creature’s environment: the inborn nature has been shaped according to what has served its kind in the past.
That correspondence, after all, is how biological evolution inscribes each creature’s nature.
Because what’s worked well in the past is likely to continue to be a good strategy for survival, each creature has been free to do what comes naturally.
But the civilized creature loses that right: it is condemned to be torn between the nature it’s born with, and the demands of the society it must adapt to.
Wholeness within the human being entails harmony among the elements of the psyche. But when the surrounding order imposes too harsh and punitive a morality —when the culture wages war against the creature—such harmony becomes impossible.
Yet again, those who have been broken by the forces imposed by the systems in which they are embedded are readied to channel that brokenness back into the world—into their own societies, and often back into the larger world.
Here are a couple of examples.
The broken regime of racial persecution in the American South —- as Lillian Smith showed in her classic Killers of the Dream -— built upon the broken psyche of white Southerners brought up with harsh moral strictures that prevented the harmonious integration of natural sexual impulses. The forbidden impulses were then projected out to be rediscovered —and punished—in the darker race.
In Nazi Germany —- as Alice Miller showed in For Your Own Good —the broken regime of ethnic annihilation built upon the psychic brokenness created by generations of child-rearing practices that legitimated the systematic brutal treatment of children. What was driven underground in the child emerged with a fury against inferior peoples” to be destroyed in the name of the noble Fatherland.
In each case, the pattern of brokenness gets spread from the culture to the individual and then back again. The harsh culture, making war against the natural needs and will of the growing human, spreads its pattern of division by preventing the human creature from reconciling —or even acknowledging—the elements within it.
And such a broken psyche -— with its conscious identification with a harsh morality and its estrangement from the natural creature —needs to find enemies” against whom to enact its inner conflicts and divisions.
Hence, the societies deformed by the demands by societies shaped by the intersocietal war of all against all can create in their members the need for war. (Recall that pattern of the “sick and broken spirit” that now degrades America: “They make a fight over everything.”) Those whose inner life involves a conflict so irreconcilable that it is kept below consciousness will feel least uncomfortable in a world beset by external conflict. Better to fight some outside “devil” than face the unfaceable war within.
Hence the role, in the destructive force, of the lie. Those who do evil often do it in the name of righteousness. At its core, the lie of false righteousness is a lie to oneself—a basic split between a person’s real inner experience, which is rejected for being intolerably painful, and the false representation of that experience, which is fabricated as an escape from that pain.
Brokenness begets brokenness.
There’s no denying the element of truth in James Joyce’s describing history as “a nightmare” from which he was trying to awaken: making war on other peoples; massacring our enemies, even in the Bible every man woman and child of the city: enslaving people; torture; wading through blood to get to power; burning thousands of witches; gladiators fighting to the death in the arena; crucifixions as far as the eye could see along the road; Auschwitz.
But there is no reason to suppose that this nightmare constitutes an indictment of what we humans are by nature. We should have compassion for ourselves, and our kind: because of our intelligence and creativity, we’ve been compelled to deal with an impossible challenge.
Impossible, that is, until such time as we’re able to understand, and to address, the destructive forces that have condemned us to be broken creatures, made into channels of the same destructive forces that have deformed us.
Part of what it means to be a cultural animal is that its nature includes the great flexibility required to be able to absorb whatever our culture teaches, the ability to be shaped to fit into a huge range of cultural possibilities. To speak English or Mandarin or Navaho. Revere nature or rape it. To be autonomous or eager to follow a Fuehrer.
If a selective process is operating in the system of such creatures’ culture — as I am arguing has been the case since the very beginnings of the human break from the niche in which it evolved biologically – then what that creature will show in the world can be very skewed from the clear expression of the main currents of its nature.
Any creature, in the inevitably anarchic nature of its first emergence into civilization, would have some of its worst potentialities magnified into necessities as its culture evolved.
The Profoundly Hopeful Implications
This again highlights the importance of seeing beyond the immediate and the concrete.
If we look at humanity in terms of the specific embodiments — the particular individuals, societies, events — visible in history, we conclude that the evils of the world are entrenched in our very being. Our religious tradition represents this conclusion in the doctrine of original sin. But it has many other expressions as well. One encounters it in Freud’s idea of a “death instinct,” as if evolution would have fashioned creatures as eager to destroy as to engender what the selective process, which shaped our nature, consistently favors. One encounters it in countless ways throughout our civilization, even in casual conversation: the idea that we are deeply flawed, inherently destructive and perverse creatures.
But the concrete level does not reveal all the important driving forces. The parable of the tribes identifies a social evolutionary process that has driven the shaping of civilized human societies in directions mandated by the system which our ancestors inadvertently brought into existence. The domination of these evolving societies by the ways of power was inevitable, and not a function of the creatures trapped in this nightmarish situation. All that this warping of our social evolution by power required was that human beings be 1) creative, 2) have a will to survive, and 3) have the malleability inherent in being cultural animals.
Given those elements –to underscore what was said above — any creature that stepped across the threshold to escape its biologically evolved niche and invent its way of life would have traversed much the same course, would have been damaged in much the same way, and would show in the pages of its history much the same propensity to function as channels of the brokenness that had been imprinted upon their being.
Our species stumbled into an impossible situation, and has been struggling for millennia — injured as we have been — to cope with it. The deformation of the face of humanity by the reign of power was inescapable, and rather than torment ourselves still further with guilt and shame over our “original sin,” we should regard ourselves, and our predicament, with compassion.
This does not prove that human nature is necessarily just what we’d like it to be. What we are by nature is not something we can easily judge. But what is clear is that what history shows is hardly a clear window on what we are by nature.
And therein lies a profoundly hopeful message. It means that we are certainly better creatures than we believe ourselves to be. We are certainly capable, by nature, of creating on this planet a civilization far more whole than anything we have yet seen, and probably than anything we even allow ourselves to imagine.
(I see good reason to believe that we are, by nature, built to find our deepest fulfillment through Wholeness– perceiving it, experiencing it, embodying it. My articulation of that idea, and the presentation of the experience and evidence that has led me to it, is found in “Pathways to the Experience of Deep Meaning.”)
But to accomplish this, we need to learn how to heal our civilization and ourselves. And for that to happen, we need to understand the nature of the destructive forces that, after 10,000 years, are still powerfully shaping — damaging — both the larger human systems and the human psyche. Including, most urgently, that destructive force that’s arisen, with such damaging effects, in the world’s most powerful, and its leading, nation: the United States.
The Water and the Wave
Consider humanity at the concrete level as so many drops of water making up a sea. If we look at the water drop by drop, what we see is that over time each one rises and falls. If we step back and look at the larger picture, we see something quite different: we see waves moving across the surface of the sea.
It is the wave that makes each bit of water rise and fall. And the movement we observe across the surface, with the rolling wave, does not involve the water flowing, as in a river’s current. In the direction of the waves’ motion, the water is essential stationary. Only the wave moves.
But isn’t the sea made up only of the water? Isn’t the wave made of water. Yes, at the level of the concrete stuff. But the wave is a different level of reality. It is a force that operates, affecting the water, but existing on a different plane.
So it is with the operations of the patterns and forces in the human system over time. We can look at the actions of specific individuals, or specific generations, or specific societies– and those movements will make sense within their own framework. But to understand truly the reasons for those movements, we need to look at the waves moving through the system of concrete actors, moving them and shaping the overall drama being enacted.
So when I say, in my definition of evil, that I am talking about a force (or pattern, or spirit) that moves through the human system — and when I do not talk about “evil” in terms of evil people — I am talking about the wave, and about how it moves the water but is not the same as the water.
Patterns Moving Through Time
The motion of the waves across the sea, in the above metaphor, can be regarded as the movement of a cultural/social system through time. And it is by looking at the recurrence of patterns across stretches of time that one can perceive the important reality of the cultural forces of wholeness and brokenness, good and evil, as shapers of our world.
Sometimes one can see virtually identical patterns being recapitulated in a cultural system in different eras.
It was my perception of such a pattern, during the presidential election campaign of 2004, that first led me to think in these terms. Here’s how I described it in my 2005 essay, “The Concept of Evil: Why It is Intellectually Valid and Politically and Spiritually Important”:
When I saw, for example, how that manipulative genius, Karl Rove, effected his seduction of many traditionalist Americans, I recognized an old pattern—one used a century before to seduce poor whites in the Jim Crow South.
In the Jim Crow South, and now again in Karl Rove’s America, the leaders inflame passions around peripheral issues to distract their supporters from what the leaders are really doing with their power. A century ago, the hot-button distraction was racial purity. Now, the leaders whip people up about issues of moral purity. In both cases, unjust leaders use deception to exacerbate divisions useful to magnifying their own power and wealth.
Dark patterns lurk in the system, like some dormant virus, ready to erupt when the culture’s immune system weakens.
In the years since, the ways in which the force that’s arisen in our times on the political right recapitulates the patterns of the force that drove the South during the battles –first political, ultimately military — over slavery have stood out ever more clearly.
I’ve elaborated on this visible re-emergence of the same apparent spirit driving the American right today as animated the march of the American South toward Civil War in a series of articles, published on various sites on the web, in 2013. The title of the series was “The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back.”
There were two political reasons for my deciding to emphasize this parallel by developing that series. One was that, as a somewhat marginal figure attempting to be an effective combatant in a battle I know must be fought and won, I figured that the defensive Southern pride that figured so importantly in triggering the Civil War, and that remains alive and (un)well, is one of the more sensitive spots in the American body politic, and that launching my assault through that entry way gave as good a chance as I was likely to get to get a response that would admit my message into the wider discussion.
The other is the one that applies here: seeing how what we face now represents a force that’s been moving, more or less intact, through the generations is helpful for understanding what it is that we are up against — a destructive force — and understanding what we are up against is essential for being able to fight it effectively and send it back away from the helm of our nation and into the recesses of our culture.
In addition, there is the less immediately political, but hardly less important, reason: it illustrates something important about the way the human world works.
It will be in the next section of the book, when some of the main ideas of the first two chapters are fleshed out, that the ideas of “The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back” will be explored in greater depth. Among the important parallels discernible both in the South in the lead up to the Civil War and in the Republican Party of our times, are these:
•An obsession with domination (cf later in the book)
•A refusal to accept being in a subordinate role (cf later in the book)
•A belief system permeated by contradictions
Illustration: The slaveholder class, in the decades prior to the Civil War, believed at the same time that 1) the slaves were very happy with their lot, under the benevolent rule of their owners, and 2) it was necessary to set up an elaborate system, buttressed by federal law, to prevent the slaves from escaping to freedom; they also both 1) expressed confidence that the slaves loved them, and 2) were filled with fear that they and their families would of their throats slit by their slaves while they slept in their beds. [Note: Fatal Self-Deception, by Genovese.]
•A refusal to respect as legitimate outcomes arrived at by agreed-upon constitutional processes, and a lack of regard for the values of democracy
•Manipulation and exploitation (as in the Karl Rove example, above) of the many to serve the interests of a powerful few
•The passionate and headlong adoption of strategies that lead to the self-destruction of the very systems the actors declare they are seeking to strengthen
A really deep look at the political culture of the South starting, say, with the annexation of Texas through the firing on Fort Sumpter and at the political culture of the American right from the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich up through this writing (early 2014) shows not just superficial, but deep continuity of patterns.
The kinship, in other words, is not limited to such obvious repetitions as the talk of nullification and of secession, or the waving of Confederate flags, that have been part of the right’s response to the rise of Barack Obama to the presidency. The true signs re-emergence of the old spirit that brought us to Civil War in the middle of the 19th century, and is now wreaking havoc in the 21st lie in deep attitudes, emotional habits, ways of thinking, uses of power, etc., which pretty well define how a political force operates and what its effects are on the nation.
(Note: I am not saying that all of what has arisen on the right in our times is a continuation of the old spirit of the South in its fight to preserve slavery. There are other components emerging out of American civilization in the present force as well.
Nor am I saying that this destructive spirit represents all of what animates the American South. There are also, in Lincoln’s phrase, “the better angels of [their] nature.” [Note from Cash, Mind of the South, about Southern culture’s finer qualities.]
Nonetheless, this dark spirit has risen to dominance at these two eras of American history, and in our times that spirit is a major component of what animates the American right.)
The Fable of the Magnet
Some might agree that the political forces of these different eras have interesting similarities, but reject the idea that the later one is, in any meaningful sense, the same thing as the earlier one. Patterns and forces are (mere) abstractions, this argument might go, and it would be an error to regard this present force as a “re-emergence” of an actual “entity” that is said to have “driven” events a century and a half ago.
I will postpone until the next section of this book the confrontation with the issue of the reality of these abstractions. For now, I’ll just indicate my belief that these abstract forces are as real as the concrete actors and events we see upon the pages of history. Just as the waves on the ocean are real, and not only the molecules of water.
To further provide a means of envisioning how both levels of the human system can be real, as well as how the one can drive the other, let me introduce another metaphor, this one being not mine but Oscar Wilde’s. It is Wilde’s “Fable of the Magnet”:
Once upon a time there was a magnet, and in its close neighbourhood lived some steel filings. One day two or three little filings felt a sudden desire to go and visit the magnet, and they began to talk of what a pleasant thing it would be to do. Other filings nearby overheard their conversation, and they, too, became infected with the same desire. Still others joined them, till at last all the filings began to discuss the matter, and more and more their vague desire grew into an impulse. ‘Why not go to-day’ said some of them; but others were of opinion that it would be better to wait till to-morrow. Meanwhile, without their having noticed it, they had been involuntarily moving nearer to the magnet, which lay there quite still, apparently taking no heed of them. And so they went on discussing, all the time insensibly drawing nearer to their neighbor; and the more they talked, the more they felt the impulse growing stronger, till the more impatient ones declared that they would go that day, whatever the rest did. Some were heard to say that it was their duty to visit the magnet, and that they ought to have gone long ago. And, while they talked, they moved always nearer and nearer, without realizing that they had moved. Then, at last, the impatient ones prevailed, and, with one irresistible impulse, the whole body cried out, ‘There’s no use waiting. We will go today. We will go now. We will go at once.’ And then in one unanimous mass they swept along, and in another moment were clinging fast to the magnet on every side. Then the magnet smiled—for the steel filings had no doubt at all but that they were paying that visit of their own free will.
Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner: A Brief Digression
The fable of the magnet helps bring into focus the question of how we are to regard the “iron filings” – those human individuals – who are drawn by the “magnetic field” under whose influence they have fallen to abet the advance of evil in our world.
This has always been an important spiritual question for us humans. But it seems especially important to address with an audience from Liberal America where, for both sound reasons and faulty, there is a deep concern about blaming or demonizing our fellow humans.
The old Christian idea of “hate the sin, love the sinner” seems to me the attitude not only most constructive but also most attuned to the reality of the determinants of human behavior. At the same time, it is widely believed that human behavior should be attributed to something called “free will,” which would suggest that people are in some fundamental way “responsible” for their choices. It has long been my belief that, while people do certainly “make choices,” at the most fundamental level the idea of free will is not only not valid, but actually is logically non-sensical. [See passage … from my Sowings and Reapings]
I do believe in holding people “responsible” for their choices. But the reason I believe in it is that the moral force of a community doing so, if done in the right spirit, serves the cause of Wholeness in the world. People are more likely choose to behave in ways that gain approval and to avoid conduct that will elicit moral condemnation.
But in a world of cause and effect, and with a species whose members have a beginning time before which they do not exist, we are all, at the most fundamental level, the fruit of the world. And for that reason, I resonate to another Christian notion upon beholding another on a bad path, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”
In that spirit, when I speak here of the need to “wage battle“ against and “evil force,” I would like for it to be understood that I am not calling for hatred against the enemy, not seeking revenge or to inflict suffering upon those against whom we must fight—at least any more suffering than is inescapable if the destructive force they are serving is to be turned back. Hate the sin, love the sinner.
At the same time, there is a less fundamental level at which moral choice is genuine, and the cultivation of people who can and will choose the good – and not just be pulled by whatever magnet has the most powerful field wherever they are located – is a cultural task of the greatest importance.
I have known a Holocaust survivor who says, on the basis of his experience, that people can be divided into three groups: there are those who will do the right thing, regardless of the circumstances; there are those who will do evil, regardless of the circumstances; but then there are those – by far, he says, the majority of people – who will do good or evil depending upon the surrounding influences.
In this context we can look at a companion fable for the one about the magnet: it’s a Russian folktale called “The Snake and the Dreams.” In this tale, a king is troubled by a series of dreams, and offers a reward to whoever can interpret their meaning. (Shades of Joseph in the book of Genesis.) Each time, in this series, a man named Ivan, eager for the reward, walks toward the city to try his luck. Each time he encounters a snake on his path. Each time he tells the snake about the dream and the reward, and each time the snake provides a correct interpretation in exchange for Ivan’s promise to share his reward. But each time, albeit in different ways, Ivan betrays the snake. Until the last dream.
All the earlier dreams represented a troubled condition within the kingdom. But the last dream concerns a state of peace and harmony that now characterizes the larger system. After getting his reward for interpreting this last dream, Ivan does return to the snake, giving the snake his promised reward and giving a heartfelt apology for his past mistreatment of the snake. At that point, the snake replies:
Do not feel too badly about what has happened. It was not your fault. the first time, if you remember the King’s dream of the fox, the land was full of deceit, hypocrisy, and treachery. You too were a deceiver, for you went home by another road so as to avoid me. But you were simply one among many, and deceit was in the air.
The second time, if you remember, was a time of war, quarrels, and assassination. Cruelty was everywhere. You were only one among many, and your brutality in cutting off my tail was a brutality shared by everyone.
But now that peace hangs over us all, like everyone else you are generous and just, and you share your gifts with me. Go, brother, and may the peace of God remain with you. I have no need of your wealth.
Although I think the snake lets Ivan off too easily (see what I say above about the utility of holding people “responsible” at some important level), the snake’s analysis does seem to me to capture a profound truth about how forces – both for good and for evil – can work in the human system. The conduct of human individuals is what is visible to us, but the wiser perspective sees that their conduct takes place within a field of forces.
When we must fight evil, our battle should be directed as well as possible against the force that is working through people, and as little as possible against the individuals who serve that force as its channels.
“The Spirit of Brokenness”: Visible Cross-Sectionally as Well as Longitudinally
Let us return, now, to the delineation of the ways in which such forces can be perceived at work in the human system.
In the section, “Patterns Moving Through Time,” we considered one of those ways: watching it persist through time while maintaining its pattern through the generations. This was the case with the technique I saw Karl Rove taking “off the shelf” to manipulate voters in 2004. More broadly, the same is true of the idea that “the spirit that drove us to Civil War” has re-emerged in our times to a position of great salience.
Both of these can be regarded as instances of “the persistence of culture.” But this instance has another salient characteristic relevant to our inquiry here into the question of “evil forces”: that they have consistent effects, specifically, that they are destructive.
Not all cultural forces act this way, being united in the consistent character of their effects. But those driven by the “Spirit of Brokenness” do. And this provides a second way to perceive the reality of a coherent (seemingly purposeful) force behind the multiplicity of events: the cross-sectional view, i.e. looking at how the same force produces different, but kindred effects at a given time.
That this “Spirit” that I claim drove us to Civil War, and now is back damaging America in different ways, is destructive seems beyond dispute.
Certainly, there can be little doubt about the destructiveness of the American Civil War. Some may question how fair it is to attribute the overwhelming share of responsibility for that terrible national nightmare to the “spirit” that drove the South in the years leading up to that conflict. (This issue of disproportionate responsibility will be addressed later, when the ideas from that series are presented in greater depth.) But it can hardly be disputed that the wounds that came out of that conflict were deep and serious (and in important ways still unhealed).
Destructiveness is the consistent result also of the spirit that has taken over the American political right in our time. Recall that cluster of patterns with which, in the first chapter here, I characterized the conduct of today’s Republican Party: insatiable in the lust for power and wealth; making a fight over everything; dividing groups of Americans against each other; preying on the vulnerable; pervasive dishonesty in its communications; etc.
At that point in the first chapter, I indicated the importance of the question: What is it that would express itself in all these ways? That question is important because it directs our attention to a level still further toward the force that drives the wave. It leads us to seek the essence that reveals the unity in the apparent multiplicity.
In most of the eras of American politics, and indeed in most human situations, it would not be especially illuminating to examine the forces in terms of good and evil. The constructive and the destructive tend to be so intermingled that little light is shed, and a good deal of mischief might be done, by using such labels to characterize any of the major components of the drama.
But when there arise relatively pure cases, as in America on the right today, then we get to see more clearly, because in relative isolation, the nature of one of the essential forces at work in the human system. In the consistence of the effects, we can glean the essential nature – the brokenness — of the force at work.
It is not coincidence that when America became officially a nation that tortures, it was under an administration that also lied us into a war, widened the gap between rich and poor, trampled on the Constitution, made a mockery of the rule of law, damaged the nation’s reputation among our traditional friends, botched the wars it chose to wage, and left the American economy in shambles.
Brokenness begets brokenness in its many forms.
Nor was it coincidence that the force that drove America into Civil War a century and a half ago was fighting for the right of some human beings to own and exploit other human beings, was willing to cheat and commit fraud to secure its advantage (cf. Bleeding Kansas and the Lecompton constitution), enforced orthodoxy of belief on as much of the country it could, contrary to the Bill of Rights, was unwilling to abide by the outcome of an election process (in 1860) conducted according to a constitutional system that had enabled them to dominate the American power system up to that point, held blatantly contradictory beliefs, was steeped in an extraordinary degree of hypocrisy and self-deception, was unwilling to proceed by legal means to establish their right to leave the Union, and after the war it started was over lied (to itself) about what that war was about,
Likewise, of course, with that quintessential representative of the pure case of evil, the Nazi regime in Germany: it is no coincidence that the regime that gave us the Big Lie also gave us the theory of the Master Race, the largest war in human history, unspeakable brutality in its wielding of power, crowned by the atrocity of the Holocaust, among so much else that degraded or destroyed Wholeness in the human system.
In each case, the various manifestations are not the same thing. Lying is not the same thing as warmongering which is not the same thing as sadism. But they are all expressions of the same spirit: what I’m calling “the spirit of brokenness,” or an evil spirit. (As for why I speak of spirit, that will be addresses below– pp. )
The Destructive Force Visible Behind the Changing Forms of Brokenness
When the same destructive patterns can be seen moving through the system over time, and when different patterns can be seen as sharing a common tendency to promote brokenness, we can infer the existence of a destructive force at work in the system.
There’s one more angle at which to look at the dynamics of the human system in order to discern the workings of destructive forces. This was shown in the earlier section on “,” in which the impetus from the eruption into the human system of the selective process described by the parable of the tribes ramified through the system, transmitting brokenness both from level to level and from one form to another.
In tracing the means by which brokenness became a powerful force in the human system, according to my view (as articulated pp. x-y above), the initial form that the brokenness takes is the lack of any order governing the emergent system of interacting civilized societies. This makes inevitable the brokenness of a struggle for power among the societies enmeshed in this inter societal anarchy.
The selective process generated by that struggle for power, when combined with the open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation consequent to the human breakout from the limitations imposed on the age-old (even pre-human) structures and modus vivendi of hunting-gathering societies, then condemns humankind to live in societies significantly shaped by criteria independent — and often in conflict with — the nature the human creature. The disjunction between the demands upon their members made by societies shaped by power, on the one hand, and the inborn needs of human beings, on the other, represents one of the fundamental ways the pattern of brokenness gets transmuted in the human world over time.
Then there are the kinds of brokenness that wrenching reality engenders within the human being.
Caught in that bind — in which the internalized demands of the society into which one is socialized are in conflict with one’s natural inclinations as a human creature – human beings in these societies transmute the pattern of brokenness into a whole variety of pathologies documented by depth psychology.
The phenomenon of “projection” was mentioned earlier in conjunction with the scapegoating of blacks by whites subjected to a particular kind of upbringing, hostile to natural sexuality, and the scapegoating of Jews by Germans, subject to what Alice Miller called the “poisonous pedagogy” of Germanic culture. But just about any of the neurotic patterns identified by Freud can be understood as forms of brokenness, transmuted from the brokenness of that original dysfunction between societal demands and human needs. These include denial, narcissistic defenses, rationalization, reaction formation, splitting, repression, displacement, etc.
All of these involve some sort of severance of connection: cutting the connection between one’s true inner reality and one’s false beliefs about that reality, or a disconnection between thought and feeling, etc. Brokenness within the human psyche.
One might sum up the picture by saying that as a consequence of the brokenness of inevitable war and its social evolutionary consequences, civilized life has entailed an internalization of war. Perhaps it goes without saying that the forms that this can take are almost endlessly varied and complex.
This internalized war fashions civilized humankind into channels to feed the brokenness back into the system, reinforcing the brokenness of the higher levels. The need for scapegoats, for example — felt by those whose internal conflict is so irreconcilable that there is a need to project the rejected parts of the self onto external targets – feeds brokenness back into the system in the form of exploitation and sadistic punishment, and can buttress also the brokenness of unjust social organization.
[Such aspects of the transmutation of brokenness in the human system might be said to be the main theme of my book Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War.]
It has been said that a hen is an egg’s way of making another egg. I would propose that this observation be altered somewhat to say that both the hen and the egg are a genetic pattern’s way of perpetuating itself. Similarly, a human being can be regarded as a culture’s way of perpetuating the culture.
It is a common pattern, for example, that the “initiates” in a social order — whether it be a fraternity, a military organization, a profession, or a whole society — are compelled to suffer abuse from those who are already “members.” By this means, each generation becomes the agent of the perpetuation of a system that is (at least in part ) hostile to the humanity that fleshes out and animates its operations.
All this, in turn, can feed back into the wider world of the international system of the brokenness of power struggles and warfare and conquest and domination, enslavement, or even extermination. To encapsulate or illustrate what is a many-dimensional phenomenon in a single statement: the chronic experience of the young that weakness means suffering abuse generates a craving for power not inherent in human nature and also not compatible with peace in the larger system, in which power is by definition a zero-sum game.
To underscore the point here: we can watch a movement of cause and effect from level to level, and back again; we can watch a great variety of forms of this unhappy pathology of humanity emerge through this ongoing cyclical sequence of cause and effect. But while the forms change from one part of the sequence to the next, one thing remains constant: brokenness.
By the way, the same can be said of the force of Wholeness: there, too, we see many forms, and a system of feedback loops from level to level. Peace and love and nurturance and hope justice and honesty and beauty and fulfillment all feed each other– just as, on the other side, war and hatred and abuse and fear and injustice and deception and ugliness and misery/frustration feed each other.
This consistency of effect at the basic level — brokenness or wholeness — even with a continual transmutation of forms at the next level up (one level less abstracted from the immediate and concrete) is another means by which we can see that Brokenness and Wholeness operate as coherent forces.
The vastness of these patterns working in the human system becomes visible only if we can see the interconnections, the causes and effects operating over time. It’s like the image in some movies where some hunters in a strange land are in a low place in the land looking for animal tracks without success, and then the camera pulls away so that we see our protagonists in a larger context, and can thus see that the depression they are standing in is a giant footprint.
The Intermixture of Wholeness and Brokenness, Good and Evil
It is a truth widely recognized that we are all mixtures of the good and the not-good. That’s true not only for individual human beings, but also for organizations and whole societies. So if we look at the human world at the concrete level, we’re apt to think in terms of “mixtures.”
The idea of mixture can be envisioned with the image of a confluence of rivers: different elements may have been separate before they joined, but then they mix, the way the Mississippi River, by the time it gets to New Orleans, contains the waters of the Missouri and the Ohio, as well as the waters that had flowed down, under the name “Mississippi River,” from the headwaters in Lake Itasca up in Minnesota. The various components of the river are inextricably combined into a single current.
That image seems suitable for understanding some cultural phenomena. The English language, for example, is a part of our culture that mixes together — into what should be seen as a single cultural entity — various strains that have entered it through the centuries: the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons has been combined, more or less seamlessly, with the Romantic/Latinate language brought to England by the Norman invaders.
Even though the history that brings together those components is not invisible — the realities of the Norman have left their imprint in the way the Anglo-Saxon words for domestic life still predominate in English, whereas the Latinate words prevail in the realms of government and religion and abstract thought (the domains taken over by the conquerers)– our language in the present day does seem well comprehended as being like the waters of the Mississippi as they approach the Gulf of Mexico, the waters of the tributaries thoroughly combined into one river.
But once again, when it comes to the interplay of the forces of wholeness vs. those of brokenness, there’s another — I would say deeper — level. And at that level, I’ve come to believe, the forces (for brokenness vs. wholeness) are interpenetrating but not mixed.
The earlier hydraulic image — of the water and the wave — is of some (albeit limited) use here. If you drop a pebble at each of two points in a tank, the waves will ripple out from each. They will meet each other and interact (in terms of addition or subtraction at points of intersection of crests and troughs), so that any given spot may at times show a mixture of influences, but in the larger perspective you can see that the two sets of ripples maintain their individual pattern and move separately.
That’s how it is with the vast interconnected forces that, I argue, can appropriately be understood as “the battle between good and evil.” (What this metaphor does not capture is the element of opposition, of battle, between the two patterns.)
Here’s an illustration:
Taken as a whole, the American performance as a nation in the conduct of World War II and its aftermath was one of the most admirable in our nation’s history. The leadership of FDR (as well as a number of other great men of that era, among whom George Marshall, Harry Hopkins, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower come to mind) provided a valuable channel for the force of wholeness in the world.
But the American handling of the ongoing Nazi Holocaust of the Jews in Europe fell far short of admirable. Why?
A number of factors doubtless contributed to this moral failure, but one of them, it is said, was the anti-Semitism among the relevant personnel in the U.S. State Department.
Now, we could say, with accuracy, that the Roosevelt administration was a mixture of the whole and the broken, of good and evil. But the deeper insight into the workings of these forces is found, I maintain, by stepping back and looking at all the various currents running through American history that fed into that administration. Among these currents, one was the current of anti-Semitic bigotry that coursed through the part(s) of American culture that bred those State Department officials and became part of their cognitive/emotional structure.
The anti-Semitism can be seen as one of the ripples emanating from the force of brokenness, and just by happenstance the impact of that ripple at a particular place on the surface of the water provided an important opportunity for the spirit of brokenness to increase its role in the human world, abetting the destruction of a people.
Patterns lurk in the culture, and come into play however the opportunities in a given circumstance may allow.
Many people interpret the Republicans’ treatment of President Obama as explicable chiefly in terms of a white racist response to the election of America’s first black president. Racism is relevant here, I agree, but I think the Republican effort to delegitimize President Obama should be understood somewhat differently.
The degradation of the Republican Party, which one can trace over at least the past twenty years, has had as one of its features the disappearance of one of the central ethical tenets that make a peaceful, constructive democracy possible: the willingness to abide by the outcome of fair elections, and to accept the legitimacy of one’s opponents holding office when they come to power. As of this writing (January, 2014), the last time the Republicans in Congress have treated a Democratic president as legitimate was in the 1970s.
Since then two Democratic presidents have been elected, and in the first case (the Clinton presidency) there was a continuous effort to find a basis for destroying his presidency (the metamorphosis of the “Whitewater” non-scandal into the Lewinsky sex-scandal and impeachment reveals the determination of the Republicans to find a way to remove Bill Clinton from office). Then came the Obama presidency, and the Republicans making it their top priority to make the president fail, even though the time when he assumed the presidency was one of national crisis, most dramatically because the national and global economies were on the edge of an abyss.
My interpretation of the workings of a destructive force here, then, is like this:
The spirit that drives today’s Republican Party was going to seek to destroy a president from the other party, regardless of who he is and without concern for the good of the nation. The fact that this Democratic president is black did not, therefore, the basic goals of that party and its driving spirit, but only provided an additional, powerful, ready-made weapon in the arsenal of brokenness to –white racism — to fortify that effort.
Like the upper-class American anti-Semitism in the State Department during World War II, the deep and abiding constellation of racist attitudes coursing especially through certain parts of the American body politic provided a means by which destruction could advance its larger purposes.
The racism has been there for centuries, abiding as a form and an ally of brokenness, and when the circumstances presented themselves, the Spirit of Brokenness pulled out of its quiver that arrow to strike a blow to extend the dominion of brokenness in the American body politic.
And by this means, too, people who are in many ways good people — will gladly stop to help you if you’ve gotten stuck in a ditch — have one of their broken places drawn into play and exploited to make those people channels for the workings of evil.
Yes, those people are “mixtures” of the broken and the whole. But the more illuminating way to see the workings of the struggle between the forces of brokenness and wholeness is to see that various manifestations of both brokenness and wholeness get transmitted from generation to generation, from culture to individual and back again, and weigh against each other in any given situation to determine whether more whole or more broken outcomes will prevail.
And this contending of the waves of trough of the separate set of ripples goes on at all levels, from governing the conduct of individuals to shaping the destiny of whole nations and even, at times, the global civilization.
The Battle Between Good and Evil
This argument is working to establish the validity of the idea of “the battle between good and evil.” As I’ve argued PREVIOUSLY, this is not an idea congenial to the worldview of liberal/intellectual America.
One reason for suspicion of this kind of dichotomous thinking is that this way of speaking sounds disturbingly reminiscent of the “we’re good / they’re evil” kind of cleavage that often accompanies the very destructiveness (the psychic brokenness, and ugly history) of which we wish to cure the human system.
But the division between good and evil is only rarely very clean at the concrete level. The battle between good and evil is a very real part of the human drama, but it is rare that the specific actors (individuals or collective entities) represent a fairly clear-cut case of a good “Us” against an evil “Them.”
In those somewhat rare instances when there does arise, on one side of a conflict, a more or less “pure case,” then the battle as it occurs on the concrete level can be more or less cloven between the forces of light and those of darkness. When I read, for example, the wartime communications to the world issued by FDR and Churchill, indicating their sense of the stakes in the battle against Nazi Germany in terms resonant with the language of good and evil, I for one don’t wince. Even though I’m cognizant of the defects of the Allied side as well (even without the addition of Uncle Joe), I believe the declarations of those great leaders capture the genuine essence of the battle in which they were engaged.
Those are exceptional cases, however. They are useful for making the nature and workings of good and evil more visible than usual. But most of the time, the age-old “battle between good and evil” goes on in less visible, more subtle, less concrete ways. The good and the evil can be seen in terms not so much of the water, but rather of the waves.
Recall the image in Oscar Wilde’s fable, above, of the magnet and the iron filings. In a cultural system, we might imagine two magnets competing to structure the alignment of the filings, and any of a whole number of events or evolving developments can influence the respective power of the magnets, and their proximity to the filings.
Consider, for example, how within a given human system –such as the American South in the generation preceding the Civil War, and in Germany in the generation prior to World War II — the balance of power between the forces of wholeness and those of brokenness shifted in an adverse direction.
A significant change occurred in the American South from, say, 1830 to 1860. Among the core components of this change was in the attitudes of the region’s governing elite toward its “peculiar institution,” slavery. In the earlier time, the South maintained much of the attitude of Thomas Jefferson toward slavery, who was quite sensitive to the tension between the enslavement of a race of fellow human beings and the idea that “All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Thirty years later, the attitude of a Southern moderate — Alexander Stephens, a U.S. Senator from Georgia about to become the Vice President of the Confederate States of America — reflected the transformation.
Stephens acknowledged that the idea that all men are created equal was the idea on which the United States had been founded, but he declared that idea false. The Confederacy, by contrast, said, Stephens, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” [Note: from McPherson, NYRB]
This of course stands for a whole range of transformations in the set of attitudes, beliefs, and political conduct in the political culture of the South, almost all of them, I would assert, in the direction of greater brokenness.
It should also be said that these transformations were less a matter of wholly new elements entering into the culture than a shift in the power among the various elements. The forces of racism and greed and lust for power were present in the earlier era, and the elements of regard for equality and liberty and a Christian regards for one’s fellow human beings remained part of the Southern cultural system in the later era. But while one set of elements receded in power, the other set of elements became dominant.
It is in such ways that the battle between good and evil unfolds. In a later section of this book, I will attempt to flesh out some of the dynamics — both internal within the South, and in the dynamic between the regions — that strengthened the forces of brokenness within that region’s political culture, and came very close to breaking apart the nation.
One component to preview:
A powerful part of the dynamic involved the role of the concept of honor in the South. “The Civil War is the Duel that the South Felt Necessary to Defend Its Concept of Honor,” is the title of an essay I’ve been meaning to write.
In many of its meanings, and connotations, “Honor” is a fine thing. But there is also a darker side to the idea of “honor,” particularly as it has evolved –in a variety of cultures — in warrior societies. The honor codes of warrior societies developed in a world afflicted by strife and domination, attack and revenge. Such dynamics infuse the issues of superiority/ inferiority with great intensity, and in a world afflicted by such brokenness, the form of “honor” that develops has within it the dark shadow of narcissistic wounds, a prickly and precarious sense of self-worth that is defended in excessive, and therefore destructive ways.
The American South was a warrior society in that way, its culture strongly shaped by the patterns of the warrior ethic that had emerged in Europe and then were perpetuated by the hierarchical society that developed in the American South, strongly shaped by a kind of aristocracy of plantation slaveholders. [NOTE: Wyatt-Brown.] In the South, the code of honor gave expression to a hypersensitivity to insult, an assault on one’s asserted value that demanded vengeance. [Note: Wyatt Brown]
One development in the wider American culture that helped trigger the movement of the South’s political culture toward the dominion of the magnetic power of the Spirit of Brokenness was the emergence in the North — in the 1830s — out of the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening of a growing anti-slavery movement. This movement infused into the American discourse a powerful moral condemnation of slavery, and through it of the slaveholding class in the South.
Some moral/political/psychological cultural systems would encourage in their human members a response to such moral criticism focused on soul-searching and self-betterment. But within the system of “honor” in the Southern warrior society, the criticisms from the abolitionists were experienced as intolerable insults.
In the decades leading to the Civil War, one can clearly see how this sense of insult, and impulse to defend an offended sense of honor, was an important part of the whole shift in the balance of power between forces of wholeness and brokenness that led, as if in a tragic drama, to the brokenness of secession and then war.
The combination of inflated pride on the consciousness level and vulnerability to feelings of inferiority on the unconscious level — a clear manifestation on the psychic level of the pattern of brokenness — gave rise to a political response in the South that greatly magnified the power of the Spirit of Brokenness in the American political system.
(The adverse shift in the battle between good and evil in the Southern system was the product of many factors. Another current of brokenness in the Southern cultural system that was strengthened in this era was what I’m calling a “terror of the subordinate role,” which got stimulated by trends in the American power system toward greater power in the North, with its more rapidly increasing population and productive capacity. More on this in the next section of this work.)
This is another instance of how “Dark patterns lurk in the system, like some dormant virus, ready to erupt…” The place of woundedness in human beings is there, ready to serve as a channel for an evil force to flow through to create still more woundedness in the world.
When Germany, under the Nazis, became the monstrous thing the world then beheld with incredulity, one source of astonishment, was that Germany had been seen as such a “civilized” and “cultured” society. The elements of German culture that the Nazis tapped into, and magnified, were long-standing– e.g. the militarism and the anti-Semitism. Some of these currents of brokenness had contributed to the nightmare of World War I. But nothing foretold the grotesqueness of the evil of the Nazi era, which brought the very worst forces in the German cultural system and gave them unfettered rule.
(More on the generation and transmission of patterns of brokenness in German culture, culminating in the Nazi regime, can be found in “#28 The Coherence of the Force: How “Evil” Transmits Its Pattern of Brokenness in Shape-Shifting Ways”
How is that adverse shift in the battle between good and evil to be understood?
Among the factors that are commonly, and it would seem rightly, adduced are these: 1) the trauma of World War I, in which the Germans had lost millions and killed millions, only to end in defeat; 2) the imposition on Germany, by the victors, of a peace that not only the Germans but soon also a great many in the victorious nations saw as unjust and punitive; and 3) the extraordinary inflationary catastrophe that undercut the foundations of people’s material security.
That such factors can advance the forces of evil demonstrates that trauma, fear, pain, and rage — all being manifestations of brokenness in the human system — also represent openings for the Spirit of Brokenness to advance further in the world.
And what about this latest, American case of the dangerous advance of evil –of a destructive force — against what is whole and good?
Two factors will be explored in the next section of this book.
1) The evolution of American corporate capitalism into a form that virtually mandates that these powerful actors in the American system conduct themselves in a sociopathic fashion, governed by selfishness unrestrained by conscience. [NOTE: cf. The Illusion of Choice, Chapter 11.]
The way this factor has eroded wholeness in America at an ever-faster rate, as the years go by, illustrates with a wholly different set of forces what The Parable of the Tribes showed: how systemic forces can drive human systems to evolve in directions dictated by the system, and not chosen by the humans. The corporate capitalist system has become more and more able to use the human element to achieve its own purposes, while human beings have become less and less able to utilize the system to achieve their purposes.
I will show how this is true, and also propose how we human beings can regain greater control over the system without having to overthrow it.
2) But perhaps still more important has been the erosion of what could be called the “immune system” of the culture, i.e. that set of forces that the body politic relies upon to combat the forces of evil that are always threatening the system, always seeking opportunities to extend their domain. One might think of the current rise of a destructive force to a position of such power in the American power system as an example of an “opportunistic” disease. The pathogens are always there, but when the immune system gets weakened and degraded, they can take over. Like Karposi sarcoma in the body of someone afflicted with AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
Which of course raises the question of what has weakened the American immune system. In the next section of this book, which will be devoted to fleshing out the basic ideas of these opening chapters, I will propose an idea that I believe makes an important contribution to answering that question. For now, a quick preview:
An essential part of a society’s “immune system” to combat evil resides at the level of the strength of the moral impulse in the character structure of that society’s members. This has to do with an internalization of moral constraints and moral standards. My thesis is that the explosion, in just the past several generations, of an unprecedented level of affluence has undermined the process by which such moral “shoulds” have traditionally become what Tocqueville called “habits of the heart.”
Our traditional moral systems developed during eras in which the members of human societies faced scarcity. Under such conditions, people are required to spend a lot of their mental life asking “what is required of me?” and rather little time with the luxury of asking “what do I want.” With the rise of affluence, the balance between those two kinds of questions — those concerning responsibility and obligation and those concerning desire — has shifted greatly.
The condition of affluence requires that the traditional moralities of obligation be supplemented by new moralities of “right choice.” Such an evolution of a culture’s moral systems requires far more time to transpire than the rapid transformation in societies like ours of the level of material wealth, and thus the width of scope for the satisfaction of desire.
In consequence, we in America find ourselves in an interim where the old morality has been weakened, the newly necessary kinds of “shoulds” have not yet developed, and the habit of gratifying desire –not only right desire, but wrong desire as well — has become increasingly ingrained in the habits of the citizen’s thoughts and behavior.
The weakening of the moral immune system — which may also be an important factor in the blindness and weakness shown by liberal America’s response to the current crisis — thus opens the door wider for the advance of the Karposi sarcoma of our body politic, i.e. the evil force that has taken over the political right.
The weakening of the moral immune system — which may also be an important factor in the blindness and weakness shown by liberal America’s response to the current crisis — thus opens the door wider for the advance of the Karposi sarcoma of our body politic, i.e. the evil force that has taken over the political right.
Spirit, Naturalistically Considered
In the foregoing, while using the word “force” repeatedly, I have occasionally used the word “spirit” as if the two words were virtually interchangeable. This brings us to what, to me, is the most difficult aspect of this vision to wrap one’s mind around: how in the human world there operate “things” that warrant being called “spirits.”
This puts us in the same position as with the question of whether there’s such a thing as an “evil force.” As with that question, exploring the issue ought not begin with the words, but with the phenomenon. As with the “evil force,” if a phenomenon can be discerned that has certain characteristics, we can then discuss what that phenomenon should be called. And as in the earlier case, I will make my case for why I think the term I’m employing — the notion of “spirit” — is apt.
Let me begin by being clear about what I don’t mean among the connotations that, for some people, the word “spirit” may conjure up. I don’t mean by spirit anything that exists outside of the world understood in naturalistic terms. I don’t mean anything that exists beyond the realm of cause and effect.
That said, I do mean spirit as something that operates at a different level from the immediate and concrete. In that respect, it is identical with the concept of “force” that I’ve been using here throughout. Indeed, that understanding of “forces” has a great deal in common with how we, in common parlance, often do use the word “spirit.”
Consider when we speak of “team spirit.” The “team spirit” is not contained within any single member of the team, but it is seen as animating them all. It might be seen as a pattern — consisting of feelings like loyalty and enthusiasm and the desire to win — that has been imprinted in the psyches of the members generally.
Is there something real that transcends the individual members and operates to move the whole in certain directions? I think so. That it cannot be seen in no way diminishes its importance.
Here’s a historical illustration of the phenomenon of “spirit” in human affairs.
[Churchill’s speeches and the kindling of the spirit of the British people]
The contents of the speech [delivered as Lord of the Admiralty, at the beginning of WWII, before he was Prime Minister] were not particularly memorable, at least
by Churchillian standards. There was none of the inspired rhetoric for
which he was celebrated. Yet no one was napping now. Throughout the
chamber, members and visitors listened intently, many leaning forward,
trying to catch every phrase. As Churchill spoke. Nicolson “could feel
the spirits of the House rising with every word.” What roused the first lord’s audience was not so much what he said but how he said it. His combative, determined manner, combining candor, wit, and confidence, “carried the exhilaration of a spring morning walk along the cliffs,” in the words of one observer, full of gusto, he conveyed a sense of Elizabethan high adventure in relating the navy’s exploits, so different from the torpid style of Chamberlain and the other ministers. When he finished, members on both sides of the chamber jumped to their feet with shouts and cheers. –Troublesome Young Men
[The testimony of a judge John M. Scott of Bloomington (IL) re a speech by Lincoln: “After his customary slow beginning and careful choice of words, Lincoln steadily “increased in power and strength of utterance until even” word that tell from his lips had a fullness of meaning not before so fully appreciated. The scene in that old hall was one of impressive grandeur. Every man, the venerable as well as the young and the strong, stood upon his feet. In a brief moment every one in that. . . assembly came to feel as one man, to think as one man and to purpose and resolve as one man.”’ –Lincoln Biography by Michael Burlingame, Vol II, p. 420]
also: “the spirit of ’76.”
In various traditions, the notion of the spirit has been connected with breath or wind. To “inspire” –literally …– is to kindle a kind of spirit within. In the creation story in the book of Genesis, it is God’s breath that “animates” Adam. In Sanskrit, the word “atman”…
The level of the spirit is something that, like the wind, cannot be seen but also, like the wind, creates visible movement in the concrete world. We look outside the window and see the autumn leaves also moving in the same direction and, though we cannot see the wind, we know that there is a wind blowing, and that it is the wind that drives the leaves.
Analogously, when it was asked here in the first chapter, what is it that expresses itself in all these ways –the insatiable lust for wealth and power, the making a fight over everything, the lying, etc.– the effort was to point to the something unseen that drives the actors in a certain direction. We can see that in all these destructive tendencies, an ugly “spirit” is animating the action.
In these respects, the “spirit” of which I am speaking looks just like the kind of force I described earlier — a coherent… — except given a different name. So then the question is, what is to be gained by using the word “spirit” that is not adequately conveyed by the word “force”?
Now we come to the hardest part: what I call the “As if” factor.
When I contemplate these contending forces of evil and goodness operating in the world — the one spreading its patterns of brokenness, the other of wholeness — see them in terms of the traditional religious personification of these forces as mighty and eternal conscious beings —like God and Satan—possessing benign or malign intent, and standing behind the forces of good and evil at play in the world. I see them, rather, as empirical forces embedded in the dynamics of human systems unfolding through time, comprehensible in wholly naturalistic terms.
But I also see a kind of opportunism in the way they operate, as if each were looking for openings to expand its power in the world, as if each had as its purpose the spreading of its pattern. (You may have noticed my bringing in locutions like seizing an opportunity and achieving its purpose.)
[NOTE: In America in these times, it is clear that there is a “divide and conquer” strategy at work: this force seems determined to set the American people against each other so that, nullifying in this way the potential power of a united public seeking to achieve their common purposes, the path is opened for that force to achieve its purposes. Sometimes I wonder how much of this strategy is thought out in the minds of specific, manipulative individuals, and how much it simply arises from the “spirit of brokenness” that animates people under the sway of that force.
For example, when the Republicans gained power not only in Congress but in various state governments around the country in 2010, the American people were reasonably united in their desire for action to be taken to address the pain of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. “Jobs” was what they told pollsters they wanted government to address. But when the Republicans gained that power, lo and behold there was practically nothing done about the unifying issue of jobs, but instead the major focus of legislative activity was the single issue on which Americans are apparently most irreconcilably divided: abortion.
(In my own state, Virginia, for example, there was the terribly bitter battle over requiring “transvaginal ultrasound” procedures on women seeking abortions, even though there was no medical need.)
Was this a deliberate choice on the part of these Republicans to fan the fires of division between different groups of Americans? Or was this simply a divisive spirit that worked through true-believing anti-abortion people that served the purposes of a force that works continually against the best interests of the people as a whole?
Consider this thought experiment regarding the way in which brokenness has gained ground in America in our times. If there were an evil spirit that had as its purpose the degradation and destruction of wholeness in this nation, how would it have behaved? The answer, it seems pretty clear to me, is that it would have behaved essentially the same as the course that has been taken in the unfolding of cultural/political/moral developments.
Even though, in the battle with the forces of goodness/wholeness that are also embedded in American civilization, this evil force has been checked and slowed and sometimes pushed back, it nonetheless has acted as if directed by an “evil spirit” seeking to expand its empire. Its mode of operation pretty well mimics purposefulness and even strategic planning, as it works through the brokenness of human actors and their systems to imprint its pattern on ever more dimensions of American society.
It is this appearance of purposefulness and opportunism that extends that set of criteria I used previously to define what I mean by an “evil force” into something that that conjures up the image of something that warrants being called “spirit.”
But that is not the whole thing. One wouldn’t use the word “spirit,” after all, to describe just anything that behaved opportunistically. After all, the behavior of water is also opportunistic in the way that water “seeks” whatever route is open for it to flow in its downhill tendency. If I wouldn’t speak of the way water “seeks” its downhill course as showing “spirit” at work — and I wouldn’t — what’s gained by looking at this vast pattern of brokenness — which is, at the fundamental level, as naturalistic a phenomenon as the flowing of water — in such terms?
Part of the answer is that component of my definition of “evil” that concerned the kind of “human face” that is visible in the expressions of the evil force: the greed, the cruelty, the lust for power, etc. While at some level the operation of evil in the human system is just the naturalistic unfolding of cause and effect, just like the twists and turns of water flowing downhill from field to stream to river to sea, it simply does not have the “personality” of a force that magnifies all that’s worst in the repertoire of human beings.
Some years ago, for unhappy reasons, I was in the office of a surgeon who specialized in the treatment of breast cancer. She spoke about cancer as an “evil” — describing its insidiousness and destructiveness — and she expressed genuine hatred for it. Although at that moment, such a cancer was threatening the life of someone I deeply loved, I could not see joining this surgeon in her sense of this disease as an “evil” to be hated. (But maybe if I spent all my professional life at war with the disease, I’d have felt differently.)
Nor would I see earthquakes or tsunamis as manifestations of “evil.”
But when an opportunistic force expresses itself through the rich taking what little the poor have, or through soldiers murdering children in front of their parents, or through powerful people using lies to feed people’s bigotry so they’ll take out their frustrations on the innocent instead of the guilty– that force has qualities that have more of a darkly “spiritual” flavor.
There’s yet another factor: it is that hiddenness, the subtlety of the workings, the vastness of the interconnected rivulets through which the pattern (of brokenness or of wholeness) is spreading itself.
With the water, it is just the water. Nothing is hidden. There are no interconnections to be seen in order to understand what’s “really”going on. Why talk of “spirit” when its just this drop or handful of water, or even a whole river, that’s “feeling” its way?
But with the pattern of brokenness –which is being transmitted from level to level (intersocietal to societal to psychological and back again) and from form to form (war to trauma to rage to projection to domination and back again)– we face the challenge of understanding the “It” that is what we are up against.
In America today, it is not just the greed, not just the plutocracy, not just the right-wing propagandists, not just the cruel indifference to the suffering of the “losers” in society, not just the lack of devotion to any idea of the public good, not just the trampling on the rule of law nor the reckless disregard of our nation’s democratic traditions– it is all of these and more. But more fundamentally, it is the “It” that underlies them.
As I said before, I do not see this “evil spirit” as something personified, like Satan. But this evil spirit acts “as if” it were an “It” with malevolent intentions. And it is this “It” that must be fought and defeated. [NOTE: “There is an It”]
It is important from a strategic point of view to understand the essentially unitary, coherent thing that gives rise to all these manifestations. As in baseball, you can’t hit what you can’t see. And people are less likely to understand what they can see when, like the blind men and the elephant, they are fixated on only the trunk or the tail or the ear.
In America today, evidence abounds that the lack of seeing the common destructive spirit behind all these many manifestations leads to an incoherent (and therefore unnecessarily weak) approach to combating an essentially coherent enemy.
Additionally, just as the word “evil” brings forth from within us a deeper response than merely the word “destructive,” so also does the word “spirit” evoke in us a deeper response than merely the word “force.”
And it is not only that this deeper response is useful to meeting the challenge we face, but also that the sense of there being at work in the world a battle between such vast and enduring “spirits” of brokenness and wholeness, I believe, conveys a fuller understanding of the reality of the human world.
It is a reality that, in the moments I’ve understood it best given me gooseflesh. Those moments when I’ve glimpsed enough of these “brushstrokes” to get a deeper sense of the larger picture have been moments when I’ve sensed the deeper spiritual reality of the struggles of humankind as we seek a more whole, more fulfilling civilization on this planet.