“Evil and the New Tolerance”

Daniel encountered great evil in his day. He was a man “against the flow.” Looking at the life and times of Daniel in the biblical account we have seen a man who unwaveringly held to the truth of God while at the same time being saturated in the culture and politics of his day. After a tragic event recently, the governor of that state referred to what happened as “evil.” He said there was no other way to describe it. Evil is not a word you hear very often in the public arena or privately today.

A little over thirty years ago, the media could use the word “evil” without embarrassment. In an essay in Time (July 31, 1978), devoted to reflecting on the horrific slaughter in Cambodia perpetrated by Pol Pot and his collaborators, David Aikman wrote: “In the West today, there is a pervasive consent to the notion of moral relativism, a reluctance to admit that absolute evil can and does exist. This makes it especially difficult for some to accept the fact that the Cambodian experience is something far worse than a revolutionary aberration. Rather, it is the deadly logical consequence of an atheistic, man-centered system of values, enforced by fallible human beings with total power, who believe, with Marx, that morality is whatever the powerful define it to be and, with Mao, that power grows from gun barrels. By no coincidence the most humane Marxist societies in Europe today are those that, like Poland or Hungary, permit the dilution of their doctrine by what Solzhenitsyn has called ‘the great reserves of mercy and sacrifice’ from a Christian tradition.”

Of course, if we cannot bring ourselves to classify the most horrendous genocide as evil, we are unlikely to think through ways in which all human beings are evil, ways in which the germ of the moral darkness lies within all of us. When James Waller published his book in 2002, arguing that evidence shows that the Nazi Holocaust was carried out by ordinary people and not a nation of sociopaths, reviewers went to extraordinary lengths to show that the thesis simply had to be wrong. For obviously if the thesis is right, ordinary people can easily become sociopaths. Waller more closely reflects biblical insight than do his critics. For although the Bible delights in “common grace” – the grace that God graciously distributes commonly to people – it is ruthlessly realistic about what lies in the human heart (e.g. Romans 3:9-20): “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks [everybody else], are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one;’ no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”

Once the category of evil disappears, our moral discernment has no structure. Strong fiber is reduced to mush; the skeleton of moral reasoning is taken out, and what is left is “jelly-like protoplasm.” We end up not only with rampant ethical relativism but with the anemic inability to feel or express moral outrage over pervasive immorality. The failure to recognize the evil in our own hearts is precisely what convinces so many of us that our opinions and motives are above reproach while those who contradict us are stupid.

There is a “new tolerance” today that is culturally dangerous, mentally stigmatizing and ultimately resulting in intolerance – an acceptable form of bullying. The new tolerance is nestled into some vision of truth largely shared by the culture. The issue then becomes what breaches of that vision can be tolerated, and whether social or even state coercion should ever be imposed when that vision of truth is violated, and if so, under what circumstances. Something similar could be said for the domain of moral conduct: in the older way of looking at things, certain conduct was approved and other conduct was frowned upon (invariably based on a complex mix of tradition, revelation, the state’s instinct for its own preservation, cultural consensus, and the like). Questions of tolerance and intolerance were tied to the extent to which departure from such cultural norms might or might not be acceptable. Transparently, issues of truth and issues of morality were tied together. For example, it was morally wrong for, say, two men to sleep together, or for a man and a woman to commit adultery, because God had given the truth about how his image-bearers ought to behave. By contrast, the new tolerance has been largely cut free both from a well-articulated vision of truth and from binding culture-wide moral standards, and thus pretends to be the ultimate arbiter in both of these realms.

These pretensions are hollow. What about the questions of morality. The supporters of the new tolerance, commonly think that they are advancing a higher morality. We must see clearly that this is not so. The evidence surfaces in many forms. Consider, for instance, the increasing reluctance of many people under the influence of the new tolerance to take seriously the word “evil.”