This piece appeared as a newspaper op/ed in several newspapers of my very red congressional district (VA-06) in the fall of 2019.
In a previous piece, I said that “the error of much of liberal America has been a failure to recognize that “the issue of ‘good vs. evil’ is real, and vital to the fate of the human world.” This error is the result, in part, of perceiving events too much just in pieces – just “one damned thing after another” in the daily news. It’s the result, in other words, of a lack of any integrative idea that – by showing the interconnections among the pieces — reveals the larger forces at work.
I propose one such “integrative idea” that identifies two such “larger forces” at the heart of the current crisis in the American political realm: one is a force of wholeness, one of brokenness; one a force that’s constructive, one that’s destructive; one that serves life, one that degrades and destroys it.
These two forces can be seen acting in the world very much like what has traditionally been called “Good” and “Evil” – including how they contend against each to shape the human world.
This “Battle Between the Forces of Good and Evil” can be seen in purely secular terms, for they become visible through tracing the workings of cause and effect.
Consider the example of “brokenness.” For any specific manifestation of brokenness that we see in our world –an instance of injustice, instead of justice; hate instead of love; conflict instead of peace; cruelty instead of kindness; greed instead of generosity; deception instead of honesty; etc. – we can ask two questions, one looking backward in time, and one forward.
• Peering backward, we can inquire about its causes. What is it in the world that produces this brokenness. E.g. What are the factors that led to this war? What were the factors that led to this exploitative social arrangement? Or, what is it that resulted in this person being cruel, or greedy, or insistent on domination? (Many see evil just in terms of “evil” people, but people are shaped by their world.)
• Looking forward, we can examine the effects of that war, of that exploitation, or of this instance of human cruelty or greed or lust for power. What impact does this or that broken thing in our world have on how the human world develops from there?
As each manifestation of brokenness gets revealed as both the result and the cause of some other kinds of brokenness, what is revealed by the dense set of lines of interconnection that emerges is a pattern of brokenness moving through a cultural system over time.
Injustice may be the outcome of conquest, but then it also then damages people, creating psychic structures that feed more brokenness into the human world. At the root of the cruelty or the lust to dominate manifested by individuals, one invariably finds injuries inflicted by a broken world. And the brokenness of such people – filled with rage or greed – gets harnessed to make the larger world yet more broken.
The pattern may show up at different levels of the human system – the “war of all against all” in the system of civilized societies, tyranny and cruel oppression within those societies, the pain and lack of integration within the psyche of the humans traumatized within those societies.
And the pattern may take different forms. Injustice and war and people at war with themselves are not the same, but they feed into each other in a continuing cycle over the generations and the centuries. With all that shape-shifting, what they have in common is being transmitted through the system: i.e., what is constant is the pattern of brokenness.
Tracing the movement of this pattern of brokenness – spread naturally through cause and effect – we can discern an “It,” a coherent force that moves through the human world over the years, generations, centuries, that, by spreading that pattern of brokenness, breaks down all those life-serving structures that our religious traditions teach are the basis of the good in the human world (Jesus’s “do unto others,” Judaism’s Sholom, justice, etc.).
That “It” – that coherent force, abstracted one level from immediate events — is what acts like what has long been called “Evil.”
(And we can see the “force of the Good” in precisely the same way– asking the same two questions about each instance of the opposites of those forms of brokenness, e.g. about justice, kindness, love, peace, etc. It becomes clear that as brokenness begets brokenness – generally — so also does wholeness beget wholeness.)
With our times having an intellectual culture that lacks big organizing ideas that show the patterns at work in our world, Liberal America has failed to recognize what they were up against. Yet the pattern of brokenness was right there in front of us, in a political force that
• deals constantly in lies;
• is determined to take from those who have less to give to those who have the most;
• feeds people’s hatreds, never encouraging their love;
• preys on the weak and vulnerable;
• divides groups of people against each other;
• stokes people’s fears, never enlisting their hopes;
• destroys the living systems of earth to feed insatiable greed.
Nothing random about that picture. And the consistency of the push toward brokenness is clear evidence of the coherent force behind it.
Only occasionally in history do we get such pure cases – so consistently acting attacking what’s good in the world, doing virtually nothing to make things better – but when we do, it is essential to see it, to see that “coherent force that spreads a pattern of brokenness.” (As it is said in baseball, “You can’t hit what you can’t see.”) And equally essential to fight and defeat it.
Even with the blatant forms now before us (in Trump and the Trump Party), however, it remains to be seen, how fully Liberal America – still lacking the conceptual map to recognize a “force of Evil” when it arises – grasps the nature and stakes of this battle.
Andy Schmookler is the author of the 2015 book, WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World—and How We Can Defeat It