Last Saturday, Pastor Walter Mitty couldn’t believe what he was hearing. As the men were filing into the Main Café for their weekly fellowship breakfast, Alice pulled him aside and whispered, “I hate to admit it, Reverend, but what you’ve been saying about Trump is true. The guy is nuts.”
It seemed Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney weren’t the only conservatives in the land who thought that Trump’s train had just hit a dump truck at an unrestricted railroad crossing.
On the way home, he remembered hearing the conservative columnist Michael Gerson saying on a news program that he thought 45 was evil.
And then his mind flashed back to one of the January 6 Commission hearings when William Barr stated in a video that the president who had appointed him was “not in touch with reality.” To Mitty, that was a polite way of saying that the former president was, in fact, nuts.
“Evil,” thought Mitty, “is part of my vocabulary. It’s a religious term with which secular folks often feel uncomfortable. They’d rather deal with empirically verifiable concepts like mental illness, included in something like the Physicians Desk Manual.”
But still, Pastor Walt liked to feel that his faith was at least partly defensible to thinking people.
He would hold debates in his mind with his humanist friends about subjects like sin, evil, prayer and the existence of a divine being … and, of course, in his fantasies he always won.
But this was real life, and the existence of democracy might be at stake, so as he usually did when he was wrestling with a complicated issue, he called his friend Michael Rosenthal.
“You’ve been watching the Jan. 6 Commission hearings, right, Michael? Do you think Donald Trump is an evil person or just unhinged?”
Mitty’s neighbor started laughing and said, “Where did that come from, Walt?”
“Seriously, Michael, I’ve been trying to figure out the difference. It just seems that the behavior of Trump, Giuliani and the supporters of the Big Lie can’t be explained just by bad potty training.”
“So psychology can’t provide plausible explanations for everything?”
“I can tell you what Rabbi Levine says about that. He says that in every person there is a struggle between Yetzer ha-tov and Yetzer ha-ra, the good and evil urges that compete with each other inside each of us.”
“And that’s different from mental illness, right?”
After a moment, Michael said, “That makes me think of an image in some Native American religions of a bad wolf and a good wolf existing in each of us.
“Right,” Mitty responded, “and it depends on which one you feed.”
They got onto other subjects like Michael’s sciatica and his neighbor’s allergies.
After hanging up, Pastor Walt called up Bernie Rolvaag at the History/Herstory bookstore.
“Bernie, this is Walt. Do you have a copy of Obama’s Hiroshima speech anywhere in your books?”
Bernie came back with the text of the speech in five minutes.
“Got it Walt, but I’d like to know what you’re looking for.”
So the pastor explained he was wrestling with the concept of evil and seemed to recall that President Obama had mentioned something about it in that speech.
“Got it, Walt,” Bernie replied. “It’s a short speech. Give me a minute. I think I know what you want.”
When Bernie returned, he said, “I think this is the core of what you’re looking for. Obama talked about humanity’s ‘core contradiction, how the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.’”
Bernie added one more quote: “The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”
Mitty thanked Bernie and started thinking about how so many people took the concept of evil seriously. They used different metaphors — bad urges, bad wolves, humankind’s core contradiction — but they all pointed to an aspect of human nature, which, although impossible to verify empirically, was still plausible for many.
That’s when the pastor of Poplar Park Community Church had to chuckle. We religious folk have been comfortable with the concept of evil for thousands of years, he thought, and we might apply the idea to the Nazis in Germany and the Hutus in Rwanda, but we also feel compelled to scrutinize our own souls.
It’s not just an inner contradiction, he concluded. There is also a battle going on between powers greater than we mortals can deal with on our own, and that’s one of the contributions religious folk have to make to the debate over what happened on Jan. 6, 2021.