The essence of evil

I have a confession to make. I have been reading the Daily Mail.

No, I haven't gone over to the dark side. Rather, I have been true to myself. I have always tried to keep an open mind. And sometimes that means doing something of which my critical self does not approve. Like reading tabloid newspapers.

Reading is an important part of my life. I've always needed time to myself, to read and think. Without that space, my mind fogs and I become irritable. I suppose I am a bit introverted, really.  But shutting people out, even temporarily, can be difficult. Frances has her head in a book again? Just shout to get her attention. Works every time. And now that I have become my father's part-time carer, time for reading and thinking is hard to come by. The fog is slowly descending on my mind.

I discovered long ago that the easiest way of creating time to read and think is just to disappear for a while. So, over the years, I have collected some favourite boltholes. One of them, bizarrely, is Medway Service Station on the M2. Ten years ago, I used to stop there every week on my way to teach in Sittingbourne. It has a decent coffee shop with comfortable chairs. And it has newspapers. You just borrow them to read while you drink your coffee.

Most days now, I drive from my home in Rochester to my father's home on Sheppey, and back again. It's essentially the same journey as I used to do all those years ago.

So, a few days before Christmas, I was driving back from Sheppey to Rochester after helping my father with his shopping. Longing for some time to myself, I decided to stop at Medway Service Station for half an hour.

I ordered a coffee and went to look for a newspaper. The coffee shop was fairly busy, so most newspapers were already in use. There were only three on the stand - the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and the i newspaper. Disappointed, I reached for the i as the best of a bad bunch. But something stopped me. "Keep an open mind," said a voice in my head. And I thought to myself, "I have been critical of the tabloids - and especially of the Daily Mail - but I don't actually read them. I'm a snob."

So I picked up the Daily Mail and headed back to my seat.

It was the day after the Berlin terrorist attack. The first few pages consisted entirely of pictures and reports from people at the scene. I read them with interest. The eyewitness accounts were powerful: I, too, could feel something of the fear and horror that those people experienced, simply from reading their words.

But it was not the reporting of the terror attack that stopped me in my tracks. It was something entirely different.

The previous day, Rabbi Lionel Blue had died, one of many celebrities in the 2016 morgue. In his memory, the Daily Mail devoted an entire page to one of his reflections. In it, he described how he met God in a Quaker meeting - hardly the Holy of Holies for a Jewish man. I was reminded of my father saying he met God on a railway station. People find God in the strangest places....

Irreverent as always, Rabbi Blue dubbed his new friend "Fred":
It’s a friendly name and that’s how he popped up in my imagination.  Fred spoke back to me but his answers weren’t ones I expected.
They weren't what most of us would expect. We imagine God as controlling, not permissive: as dictating what we should believe, not allowing us to decide for ourselves. But Fred was different. Rabbi Blue continued:
‘Do I become Christian?’ I asked him. He was uninterested. ‘That’s your business,’ he said.
As I read this, a memory came to me. A 22-year-old music student standing in a Russian Orthodox church in Moscow, watching with horror the elderly women praying to the icons. "It's idolatry!" cried my younger self. And a voice in my head said, "Nevertheless, these are my children too".

At that time, I believed in God, but my faith was narrow and rigid, excluding others who did not conform to Christian evangelical norms. I was sure what those women were doing was evil. But God had a different opinion. Briefly, he gave me a glimpse of the world as he saw it - and it shocked me to the core. What I thought was evil, he considered unimportant. But condemning those women for their religious practices was a different matter. My version of Christianity was his idea of evil. Not that he was condemning me, mind. He just wanted to open my eyes.

That experience fundamentally changed my world view. To this day, I remain convinced that God is far more tolerant than we can imagine. Fred, utterly uninterested in Lionel Blue's faith choice, is the God that I know, the God I met in that church in Moscow.

We are all Fred's children, whatever faith - or none - we choose. I choose to be a Christian. Lionel Blue chose to become a Jewish Rabbi. Others choose to be Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or atheist. Our choices are driven by our cultural backgrounds, our temperament, our friends & family, our life experiences. But we have far more in common than the faith choices that divide us. The most important thing we share is our humanity. When we recognise another as a fellow human being, and share in their joy and their pain, we see the face of God.

And that brings me back to the Daily Mail. As I read on, I realised that it was all about people and their struggles. About their health, and their wellbeing. Six pages of eyewitness reports of a terrorist attack. A whole page report about elderly people with dementia being discharged from hospital in the middle of the night without support. Joyful reports about advances in healthcare that make people's lives easier. Angry reports about cost-cutting and meanness that diminish people's quality of life. And through it all, I heard the voice of God. The God who told me to keep an open mind. The God who meets us in the most unlikely places. The concern of my God for humanity shone through that paper that I had despised.

That said, I am not blind. The Daily Mail is partisan and divisive. It appeals to some and alienates others. And, more worrying, it promotes "othering" of those who are not "one of us" - migrants, Muslims, the very poor, the very rich. But I can see why God chose to use this very flawed medium to teach me a lesson. I was every bit as guilty of divisiveness and "othering". It is a lesson I shall not forget.

And it is a lesson that others too need to learn. As I look at the world today, I see fragmentation and discord, growing alienation, and a distressing tendency to divide people into "right" and "wrong", "us" and "them", Leavers and Remainers, Christians and Muslims, citizens and migrants, white and black, "ordinary people" and "experts", workers and bankers .....the list is endless. I find the religious divisions particularly distressing, perhaps because I lived through the years of violent religious discord in the United Kingdom, and I fear for the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. And perhaps also because I still hear "nevertheless, these are my children too" in my head.

When we divide people into "us" and "them", we deny the humanity of those we decide to exclude. And by denying their humanity, we open the door to terrible, terrible things. By convincing ourselves that they are less than human, we can justify to ourselves the torture, rape, slavery, imprisonment and murder of our fellow human beings. Acts of unthinking cruelty become commonplace, social deviants are treated increasingly harshly, false and exaggerated stories whip up the fear that justifies brutality towards those who are "not one of us". This is the essence of evil.

It is often said that for evil to triumph, all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing. But I would say that when we stop seeing our common humanity in the faces of others, the triumph of evil is already assured.

Related reading:

The extent of evil
Joseph Brodsky on the Greatest Antidote to Evil - Brain Pickings
What have we learned from history?
True patriotism

Image: Medway Service Station from the M2. Source: Geograph


  1. in a similar vein, i have been listening to WLW, 700 AM in Cincinnati, a talk radio station which bills itself as "America's trucking network"

    between midnight and 5 AM one can hear what America's truck drivers are thinking, in their own words...

    Trump's election did not surprise me...

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Jerrod Seisyll,

    I have removed your comment because it contains a personal attack on me. My comments policy states clearly that I do not accept comments that include personal attacks on me or anyone else. You can find the policy on the "About this blog" page.

  4. Thoughtful piece - thank you, Frances

  5. Well written piece. However,as a evangelical christian who doesnt accept pluralism I can't help but feel that I'm being placed into a "them" group for being narrow minded in my beliefs. You go on to say that these narrow minded views cause the division and racism in society today.
    How inclusive is this tolerance of other religions if it only includes those who are similarly liberal And pluralistic in their theology.

    1. How can you claim to be a Christian while believing it is ok to exclude and condemn people who don't share your faith, your racial origins or your sexual orientation? How is creating a whites-only, "Christian" ghetto where you can feel safe consistent with following Jesus, who spent his time with the outcasts of society and counted among his followers prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman soldiers and Samaritans?

      This is what Jesus had to say about those who are narrow-minded in their beliefs.

      “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

      "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

      “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

      Luke 18 9-14.

    2. I agree that Jesus preached against racism and xenophobia.

      My comment was referring to religious pluralism, the idea that all paths can lead to God.

      Jesus said "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me "

      The parable above refers to pride vs humility, note that the two men were praying to the same God.

    3. Jesus also said "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

      I would also suggest reading the story of Emeth from The Last Battle by CS Lewis.

    4. Again, I think not judging here refers to other Christians. Jesus spent much of his time denouncing religious heretics of his time. Of course we can judge other worldviews/ faiths, it would be ridiculous not to.

      Unfortunately I think CS lewis got it wrong on this one, he's not God after all, neither is Fred!

    5. By all means criticise other faiths. But you have no right to judge their followers. Jesus himself did not. See the story of the Samaritan woman (John 4).

      Only God knows what is in the heart. You do not have such knowledge. So when you take to yourself the right to judge others on the basis of their religious belief - which is a matter between them and God - you usurp the role of God. As an evangelical Christian, you know that usurping God is evil, by definition. To whom do you owe your allegiance - God, or his usurper?

    6. Oh, and clearly Rabbi Blue would disagree with you about Fred. As would I. You do not have the right to dictate to us what - or who - God is.

    7. I like Ben Dilworth's claim that "Jesus preached against racism and xenophobia". How about this then?

      These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: 'Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.' (Matthew 10:5-6).

    8. So one part of the Bible contradicts other parts of the Bible. Same with the Koran. Though I'm sure the tricksters who make up the theology profession can talk they way out of that little problem. For that reason I regard relying for moral guidance on books written 2,000 or so years ago by strange self appointed "prophets" as pathetic. People who can think for themselves don't need that sort of crutch.

    9. "Jesus" supposedly said this as well :

      "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword"

      Just my 2 cents 😀😀😀

  6. I have no problem with the deletion .
    I was attacking the emotive politics relating to calls for unity .
    Or I was attacking the elite for the last couple of decades of politics and economics .
    The radical elements of the labour party have always believed ordinary people will move to them eventually .
    After 37 years , it hasn't happened yet .
    Many seem to be volunteering to play the role of shepherd , guiding the elite back to the masses .
    I guess its better to be the shepherd than one of the clueless elite in need of some help .
    You have already tried the story about your e u mates fully realizing how wrong they had been , and how they would get it right next time . Please don't vote brexit .
    That didn't work .
    The plebs and oiks have been dumped upon ever since the john major govt .
    A certain t h said the little people could do nothing if the elite stuck to the narrative on immigration .
    I think the gap is too large .
    Its a shame because you have real talent in other areas .
    I have had to de follow you and a lot of other economic accounts on twitter because of the constant morality stream .
    Imo , people want pragmatism .
    More morality , less pragmatism .
    I guess this comment is ripe for deletion . I wont be to bothered .
    What is the correct response to a morality blog ?
    Cheer with approval .
    Or walk away .
    Depends on your political biases .
    Imo , if you have nothing left but to describe your opponents as evil , then this is probably a sign of weakness .
    It will probably be fitting if you delete this .
    Then there will only be cheering .
    Echo chamber ?
    Well maybe not quite that stupid .
    I m sure you think you are doing something positive .
    This shepherd thing .
    But seriously , are the flock worth it ?
    I would leave them to the wolves .

    1. If you dislike what I write and say so much that you have unfollowed me on Twitter, why are you commenting here?

      I will not be treated as a punchbag. This is your last comment here.

  7. Well twitter is slightly different . But o k , I will cease and desist

  8. I desagree totally. I can accept that a person is a part of humanity. But the individual that committed the terrible act of terrorism in Berlin must be condemned, repudiated, independently if he was Christian o Muslim. Not in the name of a faith, but simply in the name of civilization. Religion has not any role in this.

    1. I completely agree that society has the right - indeed the duty - to judge and sentence those who commit crimes. My concern is the underlying attitude. The reason why people commit acts of terrorism is that they do not see their victims as human. Responding to that by treating others as less than human simply because they have the same faith as a terrorist perpetuates the inhumanity that causes the terrorism in the first place.

      In the UK, we demonised Catholics for centuries. This did absolutely nothing to end terrorism. On the contrary, it hardened attitudes and entrenched religious intolerance, discrimination and violence. Only when we stopped treating Catholics as lesser beings did the violence come to an end. Dehumanising others in order to justify treating them badly is evil.

    2. All that is right. I don't havve any thing against. However, I'm affraid that most of these sentiment have a rooth in our genetic. So, I suppose that collective reaction are always not rational.

  9. Great post. Went through a similar phase to you re evangelical christianity and came out an atheist / agnostic. It takes all sorts ...
    I sincerely hope we aren't going to see a revival of crude tribalism in the next few years.

  10. Congratulations, what you've discovered is graciousness. Love is the supreme human experience and grace/graciousness is simply love in action in the temporal/physical universe. Contemplate Grace and you become gracious. It's the greatest gift you can bestow on others and is actually a greater gift given to yourself. The concept of grace is actually the solution to our economic and monetary problems, and is the concept explored on my blog and in my economic theory of Wisdomics-Gracenomics here:

  11. "Secondary causes are only a veil to occupy the common people. God's elect see through the causes, to the Causer of causes." —Rumi

  12. “Evil does not exist; once you have crossed the threshold, all is good. Once in another world, you must hold your tongue.” —Franz Kafka

  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  14. Ralph Musgrave,

    This is my blog and I set the rules. The rules are published on the "About this blog" page. If you are not prepared to abide by my rules, you do not have the right to comment here.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  15. Fascinating post. Reminded me of this from Sydney Carter:

    The Devil wore a crucifix. "The Christians, they are right!"
    The Devil said. "So let us burn a heretic tonight!"

  16. Good article, thanks Frances.

    Note that "fragmentation and discord, growing alienation, and a distressing tendency to divide people into "right" and "wrong", "us" and "them", Leavers and Remainers, Christians and Muslims, citizens and migrants, white and black, "ordinary people" and "experts", workers and bankers ....." is the prime aim of the Daily Mail. It's aim is to divide and conquer for the benefit of its billionaire owner, it's millionaire editor and their cronies.

    I genuinely believe that the DM itself is a manifestation of evil, with the sole objective of weakening humanity for its own nefarious ends.

    Educated, decent people need to stand up to its wicked propaganda. I'm not religious, but I'm pretty sure "Fred" would be unimpressed with the way they carry on.

  17. Anon - why is the mail evil in a way that the Mirror or the Gaurdian are not? All seek, as Frances perceives, to give favour to their selected readership groups over 'others.' The Guardian reckons immigrants and the poor more highly than the indigenous and the middle class. Both seek to sell papers. there are more middle class so the DM is more popular. None of this is evil or even right or wrong. It is capitalism and a modern economy.


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