On May 25, 2020, Minnesota Police Officer, Derek Chauvin, murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American. The murder of George Floyd marked another blot on human conscience. The beastly manner in which Floyd was killed demonstrated the failure of human institutions to transform the human heart. Many of us could not stand the shock that we experienced, especially as racism rises high in a country that is considered the superpower of the world.
In the face of the agitation against the killing of George Floyd, the people of Ghana are marking five years of one of the evil days in the history of the country. June 3, 2015 marked an unfortunate incident where fire and flood conspired to kill over 250 people and left others totally deformed. While natural evil unsettles us, it is moral evil that causes us much pain. This is because moral evil is caused by human beings whom we value so highly. But the shock of moral evil is also because we have a high view of human goodness.
In understanding human evil, it is important to reflect on the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution that was popularised by Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century created the impression that things progress on a linear scale: from simple to complex. While Darwin’s theory was developed in the remit of biological science, the theory of evolution was appropriated in the social sciences. Social scientists appropriated the theory to argue that human beings progress from savage to civility. The society also progresses from being simple (primitivity) to complex (civility). In sum, we move from bad to good; and from good to better; and better to best!
The impression that we got from the theory of evolution is that life would be better if the external factors of life were rigorously controlled. The idea of civilising the so-called primitive man was based on providing education – rationality. The so-called civilising project verged on the assumption that if people were educated enough, they would be free from the shackles of irrationality – the Id. The equation, therefore, was that the more educated we become, the better we become. The classroom becomes the key epicentre of socialisation in virtually every “modern” society.
In view of this assumption, over the years, many analysts have focused on broadening the frontiers of education to liberate human beings from a beastly act. So much hope has been invested in the transformative power of education that for platonic philosophers, human evil was as a result of ignorance. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave was one of the quintessential ways of demonstrating the importance of education to transform human life.
But over the centuries, human civilisation appears to verge on a cyclical basis. Perhaps, it appears that the more educated we become, the least transformation we experience. Apart from what some scholars refer to as natural evil, human history is replete with many instances where human beings have wreaked unspeakable havoc on their fellow human beings. Whether ideological battle or religious battles, we have seen human beings behaving beastly towards their fellow human beings.
As human wickedness unfolds daily, we are compelled to rethink the nature of human beings. The narratives and conversations that brought about the doctrine of social contract were based on the understanding that human beings are ontologically wicked and evil. While we have the potential to do good, we are equally dangerous to our fellow human beings. Greed, selfishness, and self-aggrandisement have collectively messed the human society up. We also have what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil. In discussing the argument for a social contract, Thomas Hobbes argued that humans are savagely self-centred and must be governed by a sovereign.
The idea of a social contract was conjured to, inter alia, salvage human beings from self-destruction and from the banality of evil. As part of the social contract, laws were passed to govern people’s actions; prisons were constructed to isolate undesirable characters and reform them for reintegration where necessary. More schools are built on a daily basis across the world to sustain civil life. Social welfare programmes are expanded to minimise the ravaging effect of poverty. Drugs are produced to manipulate human genes.
Given the logic of social contract, we blame the environment and our genes for almost every human evil. Sometimes we blame our evil on our ignorance. We argue that if only we had enough education, we would have behaved differently. Sometimes we base it on our genes. This is precisely the argument of some humanist writers like Yuval Noah Harari. But for our genes, we would have behaved differently. Sometimes we blame it on poverty. Other times, we blame it on bad parenting. In many cases, we blame it on bad company.
By externalising the reason for our evil proclivities, we seek to absolve ourselves of any blame. Consequently, instead of exercising a penitential culture, we take to blame culture. We blame everything, but ourselves, for the evil we commit. We are not responsible for our actions. We become victims of our environment.
In the ongoing discussion on racism, many are blaming racism on the 400-year history of the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. Others are blaming it on the Bible. Some are also blaming it on poor political leadership. With all these reasons and many more, some individuals have taken to the streets to destroy physical facilities; attacking the police and shouting against racism in response to the killing of George Floyd.
Obviously, we cannot exonerate Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd. But where would Jesus have located the cause of racism? The answer is in Mark 7. Today, as part of my evening devotion, I meditated on Mark 7:1-23. In the story, as recorded by Mark, the Pharisees were charging the disciples of Jesus Christ for subverting purification rituals. They argued that, as the disciples failed to perform cleansing rituals before eating, the disciples had violated the traditions of the elders. According to the Pharisees, therefore, the disciples of Jesus Christ had committed evil (and become polluted), because they failed to do what was considered a tradition. The tradition of ritual purification that the Jews practised had become important for marking Jewish identity. Through tradition, the Jewish could identify individuals who had deviated from the Jewish way of life. Consequently, the Jewish tradition of purification (externalities) was stifling the Jews from seeing the real cause of evil.
But Jesus responded differently to the charge of the Jews differently. Instead of merely refuting their charge against His disciples, He told the Jews that it was not what was outside that pollutes a person. According to Jesus Christ, what pollutes one is what comes from one’s heart. So, instead of education or the environment, Jesus argued that it was the heart that was the citadel of all evil. He said out of the heart emerges evil thoughts (including racism), sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly (Mark 7:21: emphasis mine).
According to Jesus, therefore, it is not the absence of education; it is not the issue of a long history of enslavement, neither is it the issue of colonialism that cause racism. It is the issue of the heart. Certainly, history and context contribute to our understanding of the enduring effect of racism.
But racism is an issue of the heart. It is the issue that is framed in the form of a question: How do I love someone who is not like me? The answer to this question cannot be solved with doses of education. Institutional reforms will do little to resolve that question. The answer to that question is the need for the transformation of the human heart.
The transformation of the human heart is so central that Jesus did not engage in moral rehabilitation when He embarked on the redemption of the elect of God. His mission was not about building schools. His mission was not about refurbishing us. His mission – the epicentre of the Gospel – is the transformation of the human heart. Education may help us have a temporary change in opinion about something (including racism). But the heart, which is the centre of our actions, will remain untouched by education. Institutional reforms may have the superficiality of minimising racism, but the heart, until it is touched with the Gospel, will corrupt the institutions.
We all need a transformation of our hearts. We may blame everything for every evil, but until our hearts are changed, we will not be far from committing the very evil we condemn. Until our hearts are transformed, we will condemn our fellow sinners because they sin differently. It is the axiomatic to have the heart transformed that I love the African-American Negro Spiritual that runs as follows:
It's me, it's me, oh Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.
Not my mother, not my father,
But it's me, oh Lord.
We are all capable of committing the atrocities we condemn. Until the Lord transforms our hearts, we are no better when we condemn others. If we don’t have a change of heart, we will as well perish like any other person who holds the racial card against other people (Luke 13:3). Jesus’s response to racism is not just condemning those who are racist. His response is that those of us condemning racism must also have a change of mind. We should all go to God with a contrite heart to ask for forgiveness. We should move away from investing education with the power to change the human heart – which, as I have argued, is the centre of human actions and inactions. Until we face our ontology as sinners in need of prayer and grace from the Lord, we will not be any better from those we are condemning.
We can destroy buildings. We can set cars ablaze. We can pass laws. We can shout on top of the rooftop. All these are superficially good to express our anger. They provide temporary relief to our emotions. But to wholly deal with evil, including racism, we must acknowledge our need of the Lord to change us and our “enemies”. When Jesus was punished by His enemies, He did not rain curses on them. He did not condemn them to hell. Instead, He prayed for them to be transformed. He prayed for them to see His light. This is not to passively accept injustice. It is rather to identify the fundamental root of human evil.
Jesus’s approach to dealing with evil is based on the fact that the source of human evil is not institutions. The source of human evil is the heart (Jeremiah 17:9).
This was succinctly captured by J.C.Ryle as follows:
The wickedness of men is often attributed to bad examples, bad company, peculiar temptations, or the snares of the devil. It seems forgotten that every man carries within him a fountain of wickedness. We need no bad company to teach us, and no devil to tempt us, in order to run into sin. We have within us the beginning of every sin under heaven.
My thoughts and prayers are with the families of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin.
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra