The Dogma Files Part 3 – Evil

Good_vs_evilMy son and I went last Sunday to see The Boxtrolls at the theater. I hope I’m not spoiling it for anyone, but it did have a rather deep message. As I watched this animated film I could see a number of societal roles that emerged among the characters. Without giving away the entire story, here is the dime version of the synopsis.

Archibald Snatcher is an exterminator who covets power. Members of society are divided into classes with hats that designate their power and status. The White Hats are the aristocrats who lead (using the term loosely) with special meetings of good old boys eating cheese around a table. Snatcher is a Red Hat, presumably representing the working class. The White Hats want nothing to do with Snatcher and there is nothing that he can do as part of a proper process to ascend to White Hat status. So, he uses the Boxtrolls – a subterranean species of peaceable trash collectors who wear boxes in which they sleep in and hide when they are scared. Snatcher concocts a story that he tells Lord Portley-Rind (head of the White Hats who constantly ignores his daughter, Winnie, when she tries to warn him about Snatcher) that the Boxtrolls have been kidnapping and eating people and must be exterminated before the townsfolk are attacked and eaten in grizzly fashion. He tells Portley-Rind that he will gladly dispose of the Boxtrolls in exchange for making him a White Hat. After much reticence, Portley-Rind agrees.

For the sake of brevity, I will give a very abbreviated account of the rest of the details. The townsfolk become afraid of the Boxtrolls and want nothing more than to have every last one of them exterminated. Snatcher uses any means necessary to achieve his goal of getting his White Hat – even vilifying and killing the innocent Boxtrolls who refuse to fight back and hide in their boxes when attacked. Snatcher has three accomplices – Mr. Pickles, Mr. Trout, and Mr. Gristle – whom he has convinced that the Boxtrolls are evil and uses them to achieve his goal. Throughout the movie, Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles begin to have doubts that they are actually the “good guys.” They ask many existential questions and even wonder out loud whether or not the Boxtrolls “have any awareness of the duality of good and evil.” Mr. Gristle is completely irrational and seems to do things that no sane person would do. Ultimately, Snatcher gets his White Hat and sits at the table with the aristocrats doing the only thing that they seem capable of doing – eating cheese. The problem is, Snatcher is severely allergic to cheese and dies soon after joining the group.

On the way home from the movie, I asked my son what he thought the movie meant. I believe he said that it was something along the lines of not making assumptions and things not being what they seem to be. I told him about the Holocaust and the Jews being a scapegoated people who hid in walls and attics to avoid being captured and sent to the ovens. I explained how Hitler essentially paved the way to his own demise while on his quest for power. We talked about how otherwise good German people watched and did nothing as friends and neighbors were rounded up and placed on trains without a return ticket.

Hitler. Stalin. Mao. Pol Pot. Kim Jong Il. So many others. Individuals who convinced the masses that a particular people group – Jews, Gypsis, Hmong – were the cause of the ills of those masses. This works best in times of economic crisis, because we always need someone to blame. Sometimes, like Snatcher, irrational fear is instilled where there is no real crisis. The false anticipation of a catastrophe and the resulting fear lead people to do irrational things. We would like to think that these are antiquated mindsets perpetuated in bygone days before humans became suddenly enlightened after WWII and the Cold War. If only that were true.

Evil lurks behind every corner and in the darkest hiding spaces of every soul. Those things that we think are unconscionable happen every day and sometimes we are the perpetrators. Being silent in the face of injustice, systemically oppressing others so that we can gain status, imagining that there is a clear dichotomy between our worldview (the right/good way) and that of others (the wrong/evil way). We even go as far as to attribute atrocities to being the work of a malevolent being who was cast out of heaven before the existence of humankind. Perhaps Satan is not lurking in Hades waiting to capture our immortal souls, or trying to convince good people to commit heinous acts, but is our own anthropomorphized capability for evil. Maybe we are too afraid to admit that we at any given time can be that which we fear most. It’s unsettling to think that we are capable of intentional malevolence and/or complete disregard for those who suffer needlessly at the hands of others.

Good and evil do not exist within the comfortably delineated duality to which we have assigned them. Instead, there is a vast grey area where we all reside. But what about Satan, Lucifer, The Accuser? Isn’t the Bible clear that such a being exists? What about Isaiah’s description of the Son of the Morning Star, Job’s Accuser, or John the Revelator’s beast? Each of these allegorical personages represented specific people and was understood as such by their intended audiences. The Son of the Morning Star was King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King responsible for the exile of the Israelites and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Job’s accuser or “devil’s advocate” represented the Ancient Near Eastern beliefs of the time. Surrounding cultures believed in a council of gods who created the Earth and made decisions together. In Job, the person who we usually assume is the devil, was actually appointed by God to check up on humankind and make sure they were doing what was commanded. The Jews had no concept of a place called hell, nor a being who waited there, in their theology. Finally, the beast in Revelation was the emperor Nero and the Roman Empire. The seven heads of the beast represented the seven hills of Rome.

Evil exists as a result of choices. We choose to commit harmful acts against fellow human beings. We choose to turn our heads when these acts are perpetrated against those around us. As there is much more literature on Satan-Lucifer -Devil and the subject of evil, this post does not even scratch the surface. My primary hope in composing this post is the awareness that attributing evil to a personage with horns and a forked tongue who “makes” people perpetrate horrible acts is a dangerous practice. It is this type of projection and shirking of responsibility that leads to Holocausts and genocide. Attributing evil to an external source allows us to hide and shrug our shoulders as if it can not be helped. Instead, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and take responsibility for our own actions so that light may be shined in the dark recesses of our own hearts. Without a decision to become complicit, or at the least ignoring the problem, the Holocaust never could have happened.

(Kant, Kierkegaard, Augustine, and many others have written extensively about the problem and nature of evil. For a nerdy, yet very cool read, try Marjorie Suchocki’s The End of Evil: Process Eschatology in Historical Context.)

One Response to “The Dogma Files Part 3 – Evil”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    Beautifully written. Please forgive the truncated reply, off the phone, but suffice to opine that your primary hope was realized and appreciated by at least one. The Boxtrolls picture appears to be an homage of sorts to Dr Seuss Star Belly Sneetches , albeit with a more sinister twist.

    My wife and I have on occasion discussed the good v evil notion, and we tend to think more along the lines of good v bad. It seems to us that we all have good and bad within us, and that even good people do bad things or have bad moments, etc.

    But evil? To us, that’s qualitatively different (more malevolent) than being bad.

    Our 17 year old son has opined that evil people are per se mentally deranged or defective.

    I think that most people are good, try to do good, be good. And that evil people are relatively few and far between. And most encouragingly, are counterbalanced by those exceptional spiritual beings who transcend merely being good.

    For Christians, we obviously think first and foremost of JESUS.

    Keep writing Teacher! JL

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