If, against every likelihood, I were ever to attend a high society function of some kind, I might engage members of the upper class in a conversation on the benefits of sanitation for the public health. As modern human beings educated in the basics of science, these people would, in all likelihood, readily agree that sewage treatment was a good idea, though they would likely balk at paying additional taxes for any improvement in the current system. It goes without saying, or course, that their reaction to a suggestion that they should get their hands dirty by working in a sewage treatment facility would be met with the utmost level of derision, scorn and hostility. They might acknowledge the benefits of public sanitation, but any suggestion that they should help bring those benefits about through manual labour would naturally be rejected as being crude, coarse, uncivilized and unthinkable. We can easily imagine a high society person responding to such a suggestion by sniffing haughtily, “I am not that kind of a person”.
In this extreme example of class distinctions and societal roles, we catch the glimpse of an important truth. Though a society of human beings may share certain priorities (such as public sanitation), different members of the society would not expect to participate in the more unpleasant aspects involved in realizing these priorities. Wealthy members of modern American society would never live in a city where sewage was allowed to run down the middle of the streets, but they would even more strenuously object to doing the unpleasant physical labour associated with managing sewage. As a member of the educated elite that shuns physical labour in preference to working with our minds, I have a vested interest in these class distinctions and societal roles and no particular inclination to condemn this phenomena as amoral in and of itself. The fact that people can approve of an action while simultaneously being shocked and appalled at the idea of actually performing that action themselves, however, is a good illustration of another phenomena which I do condemn as amoral. This is the immorality of tolerating evil within a society.
To see what I mean by societal evil, let us perform a thought experiment. Let us imagine having a conversation with the members of the upper class in Germany during the 1930’s. Instead of discussing the benefits of public sanitation, let us imagine that we were discussing what the Nazis called the “Jewish problem”. Given the fashionable antisemitism of the times, one can easily imagine that the attitudes of upper class people towards European Jews were predominantly negative. They would, in principle, have agreed that something had to be done about this “problem” and would likely have been supporters of Adolf Htler, but they would have opposed the idea of participating in violent acts themselves for the same reason they would have opposed performing manual labour. They considered themselves “too good” for or “above” such distasteful acts.
The question I want to ask is, what responsibility did the upper class members of German society and financial backers of Adolf Hitler have for the crimes of the Third Reich? Are they entirely blameless because they would never have actually killed a Jew? Or does their participation in the evil societal attitudes that resulted in the Holocaust make them partially responsible?
I think it is clear what God’s answer to these questions would be. If you participate in the evil attitudes that lead to a certain crime, than you bear responsibility for that crime. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts–murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matthew 15:19) God holds us accountable for our thoughts and beliefs and will undeniably hold those who supported Adolf Hitler accountable for the crimes of the Nazis despite the fact that they did not participate personally.
God’s attitudes toward the evil of beliefs stands in stark contrast to human attitudes. The human attitude is that as long as we never actually killed a Jew with our own hands, then we are not guilty of these crimes even if we share and encourage the horrific attitudes that led to them. We did not do the actual physical labour required to realize what we considered to be a valid societal priority and we are therefore acquitted from moral responsibility for the evil of the actions associated with attaining that priority. It is as if human beings believe that the Mafia don who orders the hit and pays for it is blameless of the murder while the assassin is the one who bears sole responsibility. This attitude is ridiculous and amoral.
I was reminded of the evil of immoral societal beliefs when I watched a recent clip of Ben Afleck arguing with Bill Maher and Sam Harris on the problem of Islam. While I was sympathetic with Mr. Afleck’s underlying desire to prevent the persecution of “innocent” Muslims in America and the West, his attitude seemed to be that Muslims are innocent of all crimes they do not personally commit regardless of their beliefs. Yes the majority of Muslims believe that cartoonists should be prosecuted under Islamic law for drawing images of Muhammad, but they are not bad people and are not responsible for any of the murders that might result from this attitude. Yes the majority of Muslims believe that the Zionist regime should be destroyed, but they are good people who would never actually blow up a bus full of Israeli women and children. Yes the majority of Muslims believe in Sharia law and that thieves should have their hands cut off, but they are not violent people who would ever amputate a hand themselves. Muslims believe in things that are unquestionably evil and harmful, but they are not responsible for the damage caused by those beliefs because they would never actually cause the harm directly. They are “good people” and would find acts of violence performed in furtherance of their beliefs distasteful and ugly and they are, therefore, not responsible for them.
I agree that a Muslim who believes in the right of a cartoonist to make fun of Muhammad and who does not support terrorism against Israel is not at all responsible for the actions of extremists and terrorists. On the other hand, any Muslim who believes that Israel should be destroyed or who believes that those who ridicule Islam should be punished bears some responsibility for the actions of extremists and terrorists who are working to achieve these ends whether or not they would themselves riot or perform a suicide bombing. Societal attitudes of acceptance or encouragement are the nutrients required for the seeds of evil to germinate and grow and anyone sharing these attitudes bears responsibility for the fruit that must inevitably result.
It should be needless to say that Muslims are not the only people who are responsible for societal evil through evil attitudes. American Christians have been antisemitic and encouraged evil against Jews and other ethnic groups. Atheist attitudes have encouraged abortions and political violence. The sordid history of societal evil is another reason why Christians must constantly strive for the perfect and all inclusive love of Christ.
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)