When Wrong Feels Right

Week of Monday, June 4, 2001

How can normal, everyday people do unspeakable acts of evil? The Holocaust, Rwanda and the like come to mind. Here is an example from the former war in Yugoslavia, taken from Miroslav Volf's book Exclusion and Embrace.

I am a thiry-five year old Muslim. To my second son who was just born, I gave the name “Jihad.” So he would not forget the testament of his mother—revenge. The first time I put my baby at my breast, I told him, “May this milk choke you if you forget.” So be it. The Serbs taught me to hate. For the last two months there was nothing in me. No pain, no bitterness. Only hatred. I taught these children to love. I did. I am a teacher of literature. I was born in Ilijas and I almost died there. My student, Zoran, the only son of my neighbor, urinated into my mouth. As the bearded hooligans standing around laughed, he told me: “You are good for nothing else, you stinking Muslim woman...” I do not know whether I first heard the cry or felt the blow. My former colleague, a teacher of physics, was yelling like mad, “Ustasha, ustasha...” And kept hitting me. Wherever he could. I have become insensitive to pain. But my soul? It hurts. I taught them to love and all the while they were making preparations to destroy everything that is not of the Orthodox faith. Jihad—war. This is the only way.

Here the innocent victim is well on her way to becoming the new oppressor.

Christians are not immune from these dynamics. Sometimes we not only do horribly evil deeds, but we actually call these evil deeds good. Note the double movement. First, we do evil: “My people are shrewd to do evil, but to do good they do not know” (Jeremiah 4:22). But then, we name this evil good: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). I used to think Isaiah was speaking figuratively, but now I think he is expressing a simple, literal statement, that God's people sometime construe an act of evil or immorality into an act of piety. What we have done is “for the Lord.”

Here is an example from the church that I have been thinking about.

The Spaniards came to America for both gold and glory, but they also came for God, to spread the Gospel. In a letter to Pope Alexander VI, February 1502, Columbus wrote of his goal in the new world: “I hope in Our Lord to be able to propagate His holy name and His Gospel throughout the universe.” The natives they encountered were deemed pagan and subhuman, as their cannibalism and human sacrifices proved. Oviedo, a 16th-century conquistador and historian of the five volume work Natural History of the West Indies, describes the solution to the problem of Indians who did not want to convert:

God is going to destroy them soon...Satan has now been expelled from the Island [Hispaniola]; his influence has disappeared now that most of the Indians are dead...Who can deny that the use of gunpowder against pagans is the burning of incense to our Lord?
The results of these evangelistic efforts? Todorov estimates that the Spanish conquest of the Americas killed 70 million people, about 90% of the population, by murder, maltreatment such as slavery, and disease. In this example, wholesale genocide is construed as wholehearted piety.1

Another example I have been thinking about is Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. I had seen the excellent film The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000), seen Jim on Larry King Live, then as a result read his memoir entitled I Was Wrong (1996). Although here again we see similar dynamics in which wrong was called right, in this case, despite the wake of destruction, there is at least a slightly happier ending.

On October 6, 1989 Bakker was convicted on all 24 counts of fraud, and 19 days later sentenced to 45 years in prison. At that time their PTL ministry had annual revenues of about 0 million, 3,000 employees, and television programs that were aired in 52 countries around the world and seen in 13 million homes each day. His conviction was appealed twice but never overturned. His sentence was reduced twice, first to 18 years, then to 8, but even an early parole was denied and Bakker served almost 5 years in prison.

To the end Bakker has denied the charges that he defrauded and deceived his “partners,” and at least one person, law professor James Albert of Drake University, believes that Bakker might have been legally innocent of the charges.2 But as the title of his book suggests, Bakker now admits that he was terribly wrong on a number of important matters: lavish living, abandoning his family in favor of ministry, preaching the prosperity Gospel, and other numerous and glaring mistakes of judgment. But for most all this time, except for his 20 minute tryst with Jessica Hahn which he says he always knew was wrong, until he went to prison and God spoke so very deeply to him, he always felt the call of God on his life and thought he was right.

The words “I was wrong” do not come easily to me. For most of my life I believed that my understanding of God and how he wants us to live was not only correct but worth exporting to the world. One reason I have risked putting my heart into print is to tell you that my previous philosophy of life, out of which my actions and attitudes flowed, was fundamentally flawed.
Here is a man who had been in a far country, badly in the wrong but thinking he was right, who finally “came to his senses” (Luke 15:17). On July 1, 1994, the day of his release from prison, Bakker read a formal statement to the public in which he humbly asked for forgiveness for “my sin and arrogant lifestyle.” He thought he was right, but as he writes time and again throughout his book, “I was wrong.”

We need not demonize Columbus, this Muslim woman, her Serb torturers, or the Bakkers. As Solzhenitsyn once remarked in his Gulag Archipelago, it would be nice if we could neatly divide the world between the insidiously evil and the apparently good, but in fact “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” That is me. That is you. In his book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, John Conroy makes this very chilling point. We tend to think of a torturer as a sadistic monster. But “there is ample evidence that most torturers are normal people, that most of us could be the barbarians of our dreams as easily as we could be the victim.” Torture, he concludes, is “something most of us are capable of,” it is done by “people like us.”3

How can otherwise normal people do evil and call it good? To explain it fully might be impossible, and runs the risk of legitimizing it. But some description is needed. Denial and rationalization play a large part. So does isolating ourselves from those who would speak the truth to us. We need to pray that God moves us from denial and rationalization to self-awareness and confession, from isolation to accountability and community. John's words give us both a warning and a promise: “If we claim to walk in fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie...If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:6–9). Even when our sin and evil abound, thank God His grace abounds “all the more” (Romans 5:20).

  1. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Meaning of the Other (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), pp. 10, 133, 151.
  2. James Albert, Jim Bakker: Miscarriage of Justice? (Chicago: Open Court, 1998). The third key book on the Bakker saga is by the Charlotte Observer reporter Charles Shepard, who won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989).
  3. John Conroy, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture (New York: Knopf, 2000), pp. x, 88.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.