Kevin Rudd and the problem of evil

kevin-ruddAndrew Hamilton has this good piece in Eureka Street:

After both the bushfires and the recent explosion on the asylum seekers’ boat, Mr Rudd expressed himself with uncharacteristic vehemence. In the first case he spoke of the evil of arson, and in the second he said that people smugglers could rot in hell.

This kind of language echoes the tabloid characterisation of people who have done particularly foul deeds as monsters. Such strong language serves many purposes. It insists that there is a clear difference between right and wrong, and that moral standards are objective, not subjective. It cuts through moral complexities and through arguments that would diffuse or minimise the moral culpability of the perpetrators of monstrous deeds.

It also separates evil-doers from ‘people like us’, and effectively excommunicates them from society. Arsonists and people smugglers have abandoned themselves to an evil that is alien to the rest of us. By denouncing and excluding them we keep ourselves untainted by their evil.

This view, for all its uses, contrasts with the Christian view of moral evil. The Christian view is more complex and holds together under tension three different insights.

First, it sees sin as pervasive, present in every human heart, and as distorting every relationship and institution of society. Because sin is so pervasive, the crucial line of separation does not lie between monsters and ordinary human beings. It lies between movements of the human heart that are open to God and others, and those that are selfish and possessive. The difference between Hitler and ourselves is one of degree, not of kind.

Of course, simply to insist that sin is ordinary and universal risks domesticating it. If there is a little Hitler in every human being, then what Hitler did could also seem to be of little significance. The second strand of the Christian view of sin is to recognise its destructiveness. When we choose our individual interests over our relationship to God and to others, we incalculably harm both our world and ourselves.

The BrisConnections business illustrates this. The greed of the parties who structured the deal, lured investors into it and served their own interests in resolving its conflicts is ordinary enough. But its drabness may cause us to neglect the potential damage done to society when it leads observers sensibly to decide that neither the parties to the dispute nor similar financial organisations are trustworthy. Such withdrawal of trust led to the Recession and its diminishment of human lives.

To recognise simultaneously the havoc that sin wreaks in individuals and society, and its pervasiveness in all human lives and relationships is challenging. It seems to encourage a grim view of the world. Indeed it is no wonder that people associate negativity and repression with Christianity and with any emphasis on sin. So the third strand of the Christian view of sin is also central. It is that God has overcome evil. So we can look honestly at our own lives and realistically at our world, confident that the Good News has outrun the bad.

The Christian attitude to people who have done monstrous deeds is complex. It encourages us to begin by seeing them as people like ourselves who are held in play by God’s love. We recognise the twisted knots of motivation in them and the factors that lessen moral culpability. We also give weight to the harm they have done. That does not deprive them of the respect to which they are entitled by their shared humanity.

Seen in this light, the incident involving people smugglers and asylum seekers requires a more complex view than that taken by the Prime Minister. We should look carefully at all the people involved. They are human beings like us, and the line of sinfulness runs through them as for us.

But they are also caught up in the sin of others — embodied in the Russian occupation, the initial encouragement of the Taliban for geopolitical ends, the current military action, and the ethnic hostility between different tribal groups in Afghanistan.

We should also give full weight to the selfishness that has led Australians to evade the claims that asyulum seekers make on us by virtue of their shared humanity. This is embodied in the artificial devices used to exclude asylum seekers, the pressure previously put on asylum seekers to return to their death in Afghanistan, the forced separation of refugees from their families through Temporary Protection Visas and so on.

But our focus throughout ought to be on the people caught in this story who are like us. They include the asylum seekers, the people smugglers, the officials administering an unjust policy, and Mr Rudd himself. Each makes claims on us that should be heard and judged. All are entitled to receive a hearing and a just judgment.

[Source: Eureka Street]

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