No one deliberately sets out to be evil. Even the worst culprit you can think of was not always so horrid — something, more likely some long string of somethings, influenced him in the direction of the dark side.
Greater good — Sometimes a person turns to what we think is the dark side out of a conviction that they are actually following the good. They feel justified in the acts, choices, values we condemn, because they sincerely believe these things are serving some greater good, or are more in line with reality and the way things actually work — and accepting and working within reality are good things. Perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps they have been deceived. There might even be a chance that we are the ones who are wrong.
Carelessness — There is also evil that is done with hardly any awareness at all; without thought for any consequences, morality, or ethics. Or if there is awareness, the evil is rationalized as not so bad, as excusable, as expedient, as quid pro quo, as looking out for number one, as not really hurting anyone or anything, as something that can’t be helped, as everyone else is doing it, as just this once, as unfortunately necessary, as the least evil of the available options, and so on.
Despair — Then there are those who are driven to evil by despair. Life is absurd. Anything that looks like goodness or the possibility of goodness is an illusion. There’s no chance to have deep needs even acknowledged without ridicule, much less fulfilled with kindness. There’s been horrific abuse or neglect or tragedy. The hurt and outrage, and / or the sense of absurdity and helpless emptiness, burn within and must come out. One might as well hate, do as much damage as possible, take down as many others as one can.
It is not fruitful to divide people into the good, like us, and the evil, like them. However good we really may be, we have great kinship with the wicked. We both bear the image of God and are his beloved. We both have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Perhaps we the righteous are indeed on the path, embracing the rule of God in our lives and working with him, and this makes a great difference. But it doesn’t separate us from the wicked as if we were different species, as if we had no kinship with the wicked at all. It is conceivable that the righteous could have responded to some incident differently, or that we might do so in the future, and wander from the path. It is conceivable that the wicked could come to themselves, see reality more clearly, repent, and turn to God. We are kin.
This sense of kinship is one of the reasons I love G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. It is because Fr. Brown sees the potential sinful inclinations of his own heart that he can understand the criminal mind so well.
It’s also one of the things that appealed to me about Hand in Hand Parenting. They, and other gentle parenting resources, emphasize that how we interpret our children makes all the difference in how we parent them. If we think they’re manipulative selfish brats who must have the sin beaten out of them (literally or metaphorically), we’ll be more likely to foster an us-vs.-them mentality and condemn them too quickly and too often without seeking to understand them.
If, on the other hand, we consider that our children want to do well and want to please us, and that in each moment they are doing the best they can with what they have, we will be more likely to notice that they’re tired and hungry, or that they feel disconnected, or that they’ve lost their impulse control, or that they are too overwhelmed with strong feelings to access their rational mind. We’ll want to set and hold limits in a way that doesn’t isolate or humiliate our kids. We’ll want to solve problems in a way that fosters connection, warmth, and safety. We’ll be inclined to empathize, remembering that we, too, get tired and hungry and overwhelmed at times.
In the same way, therapists are supposed to maintain an unconditional positive regard for their clients — to assume that however deluded they are, whatever evil they’re engaged in, they are doing the best they can with what they have — that there’s reasons why they aren’t doing what we think they ought to be doing, and that they didn’t deliberately set out to be as messed up as they have become.
It is important to speak truth about evil, to call things by their right names. It is nonetheless crucial to speak truth in love — to treat all people as we would have them treat us, as beloved image-bearers of God, as those who are not beyond hope, as those who face challenges we often know nothing about.
“Be kinder than necessary. Everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”