Pithy Post: Can We Call People Evil?

It seems like most of us are either too ready to call others evil or too reluctant to say it like it is. Is it good for society for us to quickly label people who are different from us? Is it good for society for us to refrain from ascribing responsibility to people for their actions? And, aside from whether it is good for society, is it true to who we are as human beings? I think the quotes below help us think through these things more clearly.

“Another reason why words fail us when it comes to evil is that we in the West today hesitate to ascribe evil to human beings. It is below their dignity, we think. Human beings are basically good and therefore incapable of truly evil acts. If they act in an evil way, we search for explanations– in their bodily make-up, family, economic status, culture. If told that a person chose evil, we strain ourselves to peek behind the choice and discover its ‘mechanism.'” – Bernhard Anderson, Out of the Depths, 27.

“But there is no greater insult to a human being than to reduce her to a set of influences. Our condemnation of her deed notwithstanding, we respect an evildoer by calling her evil because we are treating her as a responsible human being.” – Miroslav Volf, Against the Tide, 23.

By affirming humans’ responsibility for their actions, we are confronting the truth about them and about ourselves. And, at the same time, we are actually affirming the dignity of our moral freedom of choice.

8 Responses to Pithy Post: Can We Call People Evil?

  1. Alex Wen says:

    What a fascinating perspective, to be able to rise to the dignity that we are in fact ABLE to take responsibility for those unfortunate acts of evil. I like the Volf quote.

  2. Mark V says:

    I’m preaching on Proverbs 15:1-4 and my theme is similar to your blog post. We often set up a false dichotomy in our minds where we are either required to react strongly to a situation or do nothing and walk away. But in Proverbs we’re told to use “a gentle answer.” How great would it be if believers were known in our culture as being people who could give gentle and true guidance?

    • kbrooksy says:

      Exactly! It’s this age old so-called tension between truth and love. Thanks for the comment.

    • Alex Wen says:

      I fear that a reaction in the middle of that spectrum (react strongly – do nothing) gets labeled too often as indecision. Does anyone feel like they encounter that? That seems to be my personal experience and would love it if people saw that not as indecision, but as taking the appropriate time to carefully lay out the gentle and true guidance to which you refer.

      • kbrooksy says:

        I would love to hear the perspective of others on this too, but I have felt what you are describing, Alex. Gentleness cannot be an excuse for indecision/inaction but neither should we use the coercive power of labeling someone to force them into a premature response. That being said, in some situations to respond well is to respond quickly. But quickly does not mean rashly or harshly. Am I making sense?

      • Mark V says:

        I love your point, Alex. It’s especially pastors who are expected to give quick answers. We might be judged as indecisive (or even labeled as weak leaders) if we choose to listen instead of offer advice, make a judgment call or recite Scripture. As a pastor I need to remember that listening shows discernment. (Now if only my congregation would see it the same way. (just kidding.))

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