When you look at mass evil like the holocaust, do you ever wonder where all the “normal people” were in the midst of it? What were the ordinary Germans doing who, presumably, had functioning consciences? How did they let that happen to millions of their own countrymen? Or when you consider the antebellum South and its centuries of brutal slavery, do you think about all the regular people participating in that evil? How did all those nice Southern ladies look on without a tremor of conscience?
I think about this a lot. I shudder to think that I, too, could be party to such evil. I don’t fear that I might become Hitler himself or one of the slave traders, but I do fear that I could be a passive onlooker who contributes by my sheer passivity. For most of us who do not have the manipulative chops of the true sociopath, that is the real risk — that we, by simply going with the flow, will be party to massive evil.
Some of you reading this are thinking, “Oh, come on, Laura. Don’t be so melodramatic. You could never be so deceived, so passive. It’s easy to tell right from wrong.”
Allow me to disagree. I think it is quite easy to get confused between good and evil, especially when evil is embedded in one’s own culture. It can hide in plain sight if it is dressed as what’s normal. When powerful voices speak repeatedly and persuasively — declaring something to be true and good — we easily become confused. We absorb beliefs that, on our own, we might not have thought good.
A Christian theologian at Biola University did a genocide study in which he surveyed a range of horrors that have occurred in recent world history and he found this to be horrifyingly true. He says,
When you read genocide studies you find that most murderers also did many nice things: walked the family dog, baked cookies, gave gifts, helped a friend in need or played with their children just before or after they committed atrocities.
Yes, even Laura Goetsch is capable of profound evil.
So, what do we do? How do we avoid being swept into cultural tides of evil? This is not an academic question for me. It is a pressing concern for anyone who wants to be an agent of good, who wants not blood on their hands but healing salve. Every society (and every individual) is capable of gross deception and evil. None are immune from profound moral confusion. In fact, I would argue that we are in the midst of grand deceptions and evils even now in our country.
Knowing this human propensity, I try to do the following. First, I pray that God would give me eyes to see truth and courage to act on its behalf. I pray that He would enlighten my mind and prick my conscience when I am tempted to believe false and destructive things. Even more when I am tempted to do them! Save me, Lord, from my own folly and the falsehoods of my society. I am sure I will not figure every issue out correctly, but I pray that I will know what is truly good and what is truly evil in the most dire cases, in the times when lives are at stake.
Second, I surround myself with fair-minded people who are deeply interested in truth, people who are willing to challenge me. My husband is one of those people. He has little tolerance for self deception, and he pulls no punches when he thinks something is wrong or false. In addition to Rick, I have chosen friends who are honest, who care about truth more than comfort, and who are willing to say hard things.
Some of these friends are from different cultures than my own and their differing viewpoints are invaluable. My Ugandan neighbor with African sensibilities, my Korean American friend, my African American church-mates all see reality from a different vantage point than I do. Because of this, their insights are very helpful to me as I try to discern truth and goodness. As I listen to these diverse friends, I continually ask myself what I can learn, what perspectives of mine might need adjustment. We have to be willing to ask ourselves hard questions.
Beyond my personal circle, I try to read fair-minded writers who express diverse viewpoints. I read everything from the New York Times to The Federalist. I stick with thinkers who approach their subjects with humility, knowing their own propensity for self deception, and writers who regard opponents with graciousness while maintaining their own convictions. David Brooks is a champion of this, in my opinion. I also weigh more heavily messages that cost the messenger something to deliver. If the writer is risking her platform, livelihood, relationships or even life to say something, then I listen very closely.
While I enjoy snarky humor as much as the next member of Generation X , I do not allow caustic cynics to set my compass. We need to treat others with more respect than snark allows and we need to take the issues more seriously. Indeed, some of them are deadly serious. If we want to be on the “right side of history,” we have to work hard. Discerning which side that is is much more difficult than it might first appear. Let us think hard, friends. Let us pray humbly and listen well. May we have courage to swim against the flow, when justice and goodness demand it.
© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2015.