published Friday, June 13th, 2014

Cook: Deliver us from ... what?

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.

— W. H. Auden

On the day he was arrested, accused of murdering, dismembering and then eating the body of a 36-year-old woman, Gregory Scott Hale was discovered by police doing something rather unremarkable. Something almost peaceful.

He was napping.

Coffee County, Tenn., police found him asleep on the couch, ever so casually, as if he'd just cut the grass.

"After murdering the victim, [Hale] beheaded her and cut off her hands," the affidavit reads. "[Hale] also admitted to eating part of the victim."

Then he takes a nap?

It is shocking on top of shocking: Uber-violence followed by a sleepy casualness? Both trouble us into an encounter with that very old question we ask in the face of nightmarish cruelty.

How does someone do something like this?

From post-prom sexual assault in our small towns to drive-by misogynistic murder in our big ones, we in America seem at a loss for explanations, shaking our heads in confused dismay, like hapless sailors on a sinking ship.

Perhaps it is time we reacquaint ourselves with a very old four-letter word.

Evil.

For centuries, people have used the term to describe the bloody excesses of human nature. At some point in the last 50 years, evil as a serious topic is something we've largely shunned in our society, abandoning it to theological conversations, usually only conservative ones.

"The devil does not take a day off," one preacher told me recently.

That may be so, but personifying evil as a prowling figure -- Satan, Lucifer -- fogs up the intellectual depth we need, and is also off-putting to many groups on whose help we'd depend, like scientists, academics, religious and political liberals and students.

The 20th century, with its millions and millions dead, demands we study evil in serious ways, and refusing to do so is an act of elitism, as if discussing this was only reserved for voodoo cultures, not our smartphone intelligent one.

"The question is not whether evil exists, but how it exists, how it works," writes Lance Morrow in "Evil: An Investigation."

Morrow's brilliant book discusses the different views of evil -- "One Big Thing," he writes, "or ... Many Things?" -- including the Dracula bite image of evil: When an otherwise good person is infected, transfixed, possessed by some outside force.

"Evil brings on a falsifying transformation, the sudden substitution of a wicked shadow self, of Mr. Hyde," Morrow writes.

Evil is both outside and inside us, and we so desperately need some invention that is able to measure evil, like a Geiger counter that could make the invisible something measurable. Imagine the difference between standing inside St. Peter's Cathedral, or at the foot of the Bodhi tree, compared to the ovens at Dachau, or under the Southern lynching tree.

I picture evil as pollution, emitting toxins that enter and alter the atmosphere around us. Some streets and homes are more polluted than others, and if we live near them long enough, we, too, are likely to get sick. At some point, the cannibalistic Hale certainly did.

"We should view evil as opportunistic, passing like an electrical current through the world and through people, or wandering like an infection that takes up residence in individuals or cultures," Morrow writes.

Science demands experimentation: what would happen if the national media suddenly called a moratorium on reporting about school shootings? Would it reduce the rate of future shootings?

What would happen if every TV show or movie that glorified violence was suddenly replaced by ones that glorified visible and mature acts of compassion and selflessness?

While evil may shape shift, it always has one unalterable characteristic: Evil devalues and dehumanizes.

That means the fight against it can be articulated and orchestrated; we don't have to grope in the dark. When we value, humanize and respect, we are the antidote to evil, which means within our study of evil we find another misunderstood and neglected idea that needs serious consideration.

The power of love.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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sagoyewatha said...

Could it be that Auden, Morrow and Cook use animistic language to give life and will to the theoretical constructs of love and evil? "Evil" causes crime like "demon possession" causes mental illness. When humans do not have the information to explain something "different" it is easy to make something up. This explains why just one religious organization named over 300 million persons, places and things as "Gods." Apparently, the solution to crime and mental illness is to employ exorcists and lovers. How silly to just hire a new police chief!

June 13, 2014 at 9:18 a.m.
judyrichard said...

As usual, a very thoughtful and insightful article by Mr. Cook. Just as the nature of the creation has not changed, the nature of man has not changed; he is still capable of great evil and great love. The faces of evil have evolved only in the sense that their tools of expression have become more technologically advanced. The metaphor of toxins polluting the environment is apropos, the provocation regarding replacing violence in the media is wishful thinking...until the profit motive incentivizes such behavior. Unfortunately, "follow the cash" is the Golden Rule of market economies, not "love thy neighbor".

June 13, 2014 at 12:50 p.m.
conservative said...

The caption led me to believe Mr. Cook's piece was about evil.

I did a page search for "sin", "Bible", "verse", "God", "Jesus", "man" and found no mention of any.

So, why read Mr. Cook's piece?

June 13, 2014 at 1:38 p.m.
storioni said...

To conservative: Above all, you need to read David's column. It's no particular secret that many of the most evil events in history can be traced to the curse of religious fervor. The intolerance and intransigence of the narrow world-view from which all fundamentalists operate guarantees there will be no end of it. One need not be religious at all to recognize the faces of evil or find them abhorrent. I recommend you read Scott Pecks' book, "People of the Lie." It's quite an eyeopener.

June 13, 2014 at 3:12 p.m.

Conservative only reads one fiction book containing murder, rape, slavery, genocide, torture, and incest all approved by his imaginary friend Jehovah.

That's the Bible.

June 13, 2014 at 3:25 p.m.
conservative said...

To storioni:

"It's no particular secret that many of the most evil events in history can be traced to the curse of religious fervor."

That statement is quite true. One need look no further than the religious fervor of the heathen who are slaughtering in the name of their false god in Iraq right now.

All mankind are sinners and inclined to evil in some form or another. Only Christianity has a solution for the destiny of evil mankind and a restraint on the evil bent of mankind.

To speak of evil without mentioning the only solution to evil is non productive to say the least.

The solution to evil of mankind is the acceptance Of Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior.

Only Jesus Christ can change the heart of man.

Do not equate the fundamentalism of Christianity with the fundamentalism of those who follow a false god who cannot change the heart and quite obviously have not changed the heart.

June 13, 2014 at 4:27 p.m.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Conservative is the red-headed step-child of Jehovah. Like imaginary father, like ignorant son.

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Might there be a deity somewhere? Highly improbable, but possible. But is it Jehovah, Allah, or Yahweh? Nope. These three, like all the other gods, are created by man. No evidence for any of them.

"Only Jesus Christ can change the heart of man."

Jesus couldn't change a lightbulb. Dead men can't screw.

June 13, 2014 at 5:09 p.m.
conservative said...

To storioni:

"I recommend you read Scott Pecks' book, "People of the Lie." It's quite an eyeopener."

Any truths about evil in Mr. Peck's book can already be found in THE book, the Bible.

Who best knows about the evil that men do, why he does evil and the solution for the evil heart of man than God?

I highly recommend you read the Bible. It's quite an eye opener!

June 13, 2014 at 5:13 p.m.
lkeithlu said...

Most atheists know the bible better than most fundies. Which is why they are atheists.

June 14, 2014 at 8:23 a.m.
conservative said...

Again, you do not know what you are talking about.

You wrote:

"I adhere to standards my conscience tells me are right"

Have you ever lied or is lying an acceptable standard you "adhere" to?

June 14, 2014 at 8:41 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

I don't lie, con. That's your MO.

You are not worth engaging. Your hate and arrogance is known by everyone here. Enjoy your smugness; it's all you've got.

June 14, 2014 at 8:45 a.m.
conservative said...

"I don't lie"

You just did.

Everyone has lied. Everyone has violated their conscience.

June 14, 2014 at 8:53 a.m.
conservative said...

What is a fundie?

June 14, 2014 at 8:54 a.m.

conservative said... "What is a fundie?"

a. In your case the correct term is Fundy-NutZ.

b. Look in mirror.

June 14, 2014 at 11:09 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

"Evil," like "sin," is a meaningless term that only has relevance in the Christian worldview, a worldview that childishly thinks that Satan is real and that all bad/wrong choices and actions come from him in his ongoing fight with God for supremacy of the world. But just as the knowledge of science has shattered the belief (at least in the rational minds of those who heed that knowledge) that thunder-and-lightning and tornadoes and tsunamis are not the signs of an angry God but rather certain key elements of weather coming together in just the right way to breed such happenings; and just as we now know that mental illness is not the manifestation of demon possession but rather chemical imbalances in the brain and/or a lack of essential nurturing components in the formative years as children, most rational folks accept the fact (knowledge) that "evil" and "sin" and "Satan" are merely Christian scapegoats for behaving badly in society and a way for them (Christians) to instill fear in their likeminded flock. Even the notion of the need to FEAR God in any way is primitive, a holdover from the Dark Ages, when unknowing humans thought that their actions were directly tied to the favor and disfavor of deities in the sky.

Certainly, people do bad things, and some people do some VERY VERY BAD things. But even the most heinous actions of people have a rational explanation for why they behaved in such a way: either they were terribly mistreated as children, being raised in horrid surroundings lacking in love and moral guidance, or they have a mental illness of varying degree. That is not an excuse for their injurious actions but rather an objective way of looking at them in order to know properly and meaningfully how to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, as long as we have fundamentalist Christians loosely throwing around words like "evil" and "sin" and "Satan" we will be having to contend with them over the proper way to deal with such hurtful and socially unacceptable behavior. They continue to attempt to force others to believe in a God who demands that we fear and love him at the same time (an impossibility) and to believe in a living/breathing Satan who is always lurking in the shadows, sowing "evil" and tempting humans to do bad things. It's silly, childish nonsense, that in itself is injurious to young and otherwise impressionable minds of people unable to think for themselves. Primitive religious superstitions have no place in a 21st century world.

June 14, 2014 at 1:43 p.m.
sagoyewatha said...

Rickaroo, well said!

June 14, 2014 at 3:11 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Thanks, sagoyewatha. You said pretty much the same thing I did, only you had the good sense to say it with fewer words. Unfortunately I have a tendency to be long-winded. :)

June 14, 2014 at 4:32 p.m.
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