And why is the devil, and they that be of him, called a deceiver, because he is out of the truth, and would draw others from and out of the truth, and so destroy them both body and soul, but Christ destroyeth him (George Fox, Headley Manuscript, Friends House London, p. 311, catalogue item number 8, 82F).
In Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List, there was a scene that has remained with me as an accurate portrayal of the dynamics of evil. This particular scene offered a glimpse into the suprahuman power of darkness that lies behind the temptation to evil to which we, as humans, are exposed and regularly succumb as a matter of course. The state or condition produced by such yielding to temptation is called in our tradition’s parlance “worldliness,” “the world” being the term that signifies humanity’s opposition to God. George Fox writes: “All relations in the world are Devilish, Selfish, heathenish and earthly” (Cadbury, Annual Catalogue of George Fox’s Papers, item 6, p. 61).
The recalled scene from the film centers on an interaction between a commander of a camp and a young female Jewish engineer. She has discovered that one of the camp’s buildings has a faulty foundation that will inevitably lead to the building’s collapse, if not corrected. The scene begins with her rushing into the presence of the camp’s commander and his men who listen to her confident, fervent warning. After the commander has heard her out, he pauses a moment to consider the situation, and then promptly orders one of his men to shoot her. The scene ends with her murder.
Nearly a quarter century after having first seen this film, I mistakenly recalled the woman being dragged away while continuing to protest the commander’s failure to understand the danger: the building would collapse if nothing were done. Having recently again watched the film, I found a different, more powerful ending to the scene from what I had previously imagined.
The scene ends with the woman being shot, but immediately before her murder, she and the commander exchange one line each of dialogue. The brief exchange unmasks and displays the forces of good and evil that lay behind the conflict just played out between them. As the woman is forced to her knees prior to being shot, she defiantly asserts: “It will take more than that.” To which the camp commander readily replies: “I’m sure you’re right.”
Her dying assertion (“It will take more than that.”) implies the truth cannot be altered or destroyed by the silencing of those who speak it. Truth, the Word of God, is eternal and unchanging, and as such, it remains unaffected by that which was “a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth” (Jn. 8:44). In this scene, that point is made when the woman withstands the demonic assault by remaining grounded and speaking the truth until the end.
The commander’s reply (“I’m sure you’re right.”) while mockingly affirming the right and the true, simultaneously conveys a readiness to continue destroying beings who—alone of all God’s creatures—can know and speak truth. By ordering the murder of the truth-speaker, the commander unmasks a satanic defiance that would always have the exalted truth subjugated: whether that dominance is gained overtly by the killing of the body (as in this scene); or covertly, insidiously, through eliciting an overriding fear of diminishment or death.
Such fear quickly draws the mind away to creaturely self-service, and leaves the soul languishing unattended and desolate, its lifeline to God abandoned. For it is only in attentive relationship with God that the soul lives (Jn. 17:3). The forfeiture of the living relationship with God is signified in our tradition by the term “the Fall of man.” “By their fall they came under another power, another image, another likeness, and another god, even the god of the world” (The Works of George Fox, vol. 8, p. 136).
Though there were many other scenes in the film where destruction occurred on a larger scale, this one scene stood out because of the stark depiction of the characteristics of evil, and not simply its consequences. As opposed to satanic evil, the distinguishing mark of human sin is weakness: a refusal to honor truth when tempted by the possibility of possessing whatever one loves instead of truth. A weak succumbing to temptation is the mark of human sin. In this scene, however, we see not only human but also demonic evil, the origin of the temptation of human beings, who in weakness yield. Writes Emil Brunner in Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption:
Human sin, thanks to the fact that we are not pure spirits, but body-mind creatures, is never “complete.” Its negative “perfection” would be pure defiance, pure arrogance, that is purely spiritual sin. But our sin, thanks to the fact of our human constitution as “body-mind,” is always a mixture of defiance and weakness, of tendency to temptation both on the side of the mind and of the senses (139).
In its demonic form, evil is “perfect” defiance of God; it originates in the rebellion of “that being who could not endure not to be equal with God” (Brunner, 145), and it manifests in willful rejection of the divine imperative to obey the God of truth. In fact, George Fox identifies the rejection of truth as the defining act by which the devil became the devil: “he became a devil by going out of truth and so became a murderer and a destroyer” (Nickalls, 212).
Evil is perpetuated by tempting weak humans to reject the truth, and thus dishonor our Creator who has created us in His image, as beings enabled to discern and participate in truth, which is Christ (Jn. 14:6). To abdicate our humanity’s gift of the ability to know and participate in the truth, and thereby to defy God’s will, is to become less than human; it is not to become more than human, as the serpent enticed, “ye shall be as gods”(Gen. 3:5). Fox expressed this loss of humanity in the following passage from his Journal:
Now some men have the nature of swine wallowing in the mire, and some men have the nature of dogs to bite both the sheep and one another; and some men have the nature of lions, to tear, devour, and destroy. And some men have the nature of wolves to tear and devour the lambs and sheep of Christ; and some men have the nature of the Serpent (that old adversary), to sting, envenom, and poison. “He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear,” and learn these things within himself. And some men have the natures of other beasts and creatures, minding nothing but earthly and visible things, and feeding without the fear of God. Some men have the nature of an horse, to praunce and vapour in their strength, and to be swift in doing evil; and some men have the nature of tall, sturdy oaks, to flourish and spread in wisdom and strength, who are strong in evil, which must perish and come to the fire. Thus the evil is but one in all, but worketh many ways; and whatsoever a man’s or woman’s nature is addicted to that is outward, the Evil One will fit him with that, and will please his nature and appetite to keep his mind in his inventions, and in the creatures, from the Creator (Nickalls, 59).
Regardless of the extent of the consequences–-whether vast societal destruction or a single lie confined to a single, corrupted mind–-the dynamics of human evil are always the same: assent to temptation coupled with defiance. Its outward consequences are indicative only of its extent but not of its intrinsic character, for that is determined at its inception, not in its effects. That evil is first acceded to within underscores the inescapability of personal responsibility. Taking personal responsibility is the sole human act that can hinder both succumbing to personal sin as well as to the social sin of conformity, necessary for scapegoating and other grander-scaled, collective expressions of evil.
Holding the line, speaking the truth is the Christian’s (Quaker’s) obligation in the Lamb’s War. If the God of truth is honored in just one mind, heart, and soul, the world is not lost, as Jesus showed us by prototypal example. In this statement given before Pilate shortly before the end of his earthly life, Jesus identified his life’s purpose not only for himself but for us all.
To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice (Jn.18:37).
Seventeenth-century Friends of the Truth heard his voice and preached the Word of reconciliation to the fallen world. And we continue, grounded and speaking the truth until the end.
The ministers of the word that preached that, preached the word that reconciled people to God, and did hammer down and cut down and burn up that which was in them and had made a separation betwixt them and God, so it’s called the word of reconciliation and reconciles all things to God in one, both things in heaven and things in earth (Annual Catalogue of George Fox’s Papers, pp.179-180, catalogue number 15, 40G).
Pingback: Dynamics of Evil