The observation that a cloud of angry mistrust has descended upon this nation is so obvious as to be banal. Political partisanship has never, at least in my lifetime (my first president was Eisenhower), been so bellicose. Vile expressions of racial and ethnic hatred are on the upswing. Simmering fury is hair-triggered to explode at the slightest provocation.
Even the practice of Christianity—about which more and more Americans, despite protestations to the contrary from many self-proclaimed Christians, are indifferent—has been infected by this toxic mood. In the hands of politically partisan zealots, God has become a yes-man who obligingly endorses policy, and the faith has been fashioned into a bludgeon to intimidate anyone who wanders from the party line.
One of the most provocative and brilliant theologians of the 20th century, Jacques Ellul, presciently diagnosed the malaise that’s overtaken us. In his book What I Believe, he called it the “democratization of evil.”
Ellul noted with alarm the increase in widespread evil that began during his lifetime. (He died in 1994.) It wasn’t, he argued, that individuals were becoming more immoral. “To be sure, people [today] are no worse than those in past centuries.” But we’re no better either, and the problem is that we “now have more powerful agents at [our] disposal.” As a consequence, the damage that we can inflict on others, and on the planet itself, is more far-reaching than in earlier times.
For millennia, wrote Ellul, major evil for the most part was perpetrated by a small percentage of secular and religious rulers and aristocrats in whose hands unchecked power was concentrated. But no more. As wealth has spread more evenly and standards of living have improved, “instruments that can hurt our neighbors or unknown people” have become widely distributed.
In this new world order, you don’t have to be a potentate to create discord. Evil is no longer the prerogative solely of the powerful.
Because Ellul wrote about the democratization of evil in 1989, some of the examples he used to illustrate his thesis might strike us today as quaint. He cites, for example, noise and automobiles as weapons of democratized evil, the first as a ubiquitous destroyer of tranquility and the second as encouragers of “vanity, scorn, competition, and anger.”
And yet we ought not dismiss these two examples as pet peeves of an aging curmudgeon. Hard experience teaches us that any rock-n-roller with a sound system can assault an entire street block, and any yahoo with a driver license can become a road-rage warrior.
Pollution is a more dramatic consequence of the democratization of evil, “the result of power placed in the hands of almost all citizens” to indulge in thoughtless consumption and casual discarding. Ellul died before global warming became the horrific reality it is today. But were he alive, he would name it for what it is: an evil created not only by a handful of profit-greedy corporations, but also by millions and millions of commodity-greedy consumers.
In other words, by we, the people.
Ellul also died before the appearance of the most potent democratizer of evil to date: social media.
Individuals throughout the world now have the extraordinary power, simply by hitting a few keys on a computer or smartphone, to spew unfiltered hatred and disinformation to a virtually global audience. Reasoned political discourse has been hijacked by a 140-character mode of communication. Genuine religious dialogue has been replaced by fanatical ranting on Facebook and electronic bulletin boards.
Even when we’re not actually on our smartphones, many of us have so internalized social media’s abbreviated and shallowly judgmental style that we remain locked in social media mode.
None of this is to deny the obvious benefits of social media, but only to point out what’s painfully obvious: its value can swing both ways.
Ellul’s democratization of evil has a family resemblance to Hannah Arendt’s better-known description of modern evil as “banal” in her Eichmann in Jerusalem. Evil can, of course, take on colossal and staggering dimensions. But even these depend, for the most part, on the widely distributed actions of ordinary men and women who thoughtlessly perpetuate the stereotypes, prejudices, and contrived resentments that fuel violence.
How do we halt the democratization of evil? Ellul is clear that attempting to impose some kind of external moral order, as many rightwing Christians who have succumbed to political partisanship advocate, won’t work. Such efforts, ironically, serve only to disseminate even more widely the evil they claim to be combating.
What’s needed, argues Ellul, is “to find the way of self-mastery, of respect for others, of a moderate use of the powers at our disposal.” For all of us, religious or otherwise, this demands a return to simple decency, regardless of political affiliation. For Christians, it means putting faith before flag.
Hopefully, we take Ellul’s recommendation to heart before the evil we’re democratizing becomes so overwhelming that there’s no way back.
Kerry Walters pastors Holy Spirit American National Catholic Church. www.ancclewisburgpa.org; firstname.lastname@example.org