I’ve seen my share of evil, some so horrible that it entered my life with a thud and never left.
I lived through the second world war and as a small boy watched the names of dead soldiers pile up on a billboard at the end of main street. I delivered newspapers to grieving families so torn apart they could not bear to read another story about battles, guns or atrocities.
Years later, I concluded that there is no such thing as a good war, that fighting is always evil, proves nothing, and that both sides share in the wrong.
As a teenager, I watched the McCarthy hearings on television, and even though I was insecure about the threat of communism, I saw in Joseph McCarthy the embodiment of evil as one good person after another was thrown on the political waste heap.
I watched the Korean War take my high school classmates one by one and subject them to cruel and destructive situations that would have them waking in the middle of the night for the rest of their lives, drenched with perspiration.
When I was a young pastor I faced the Vietnam conflict and buried a good number of young men and counseled with many more who returned with wounded souls.
There have been other, perhaps smaller evils, that made an impact on my life, some mere cruelties that one human brought against another and some so monstrous I can’t even talk about them.
That’s our history, and we all could talk about evil as if it were a member of the family, so intimate was our knowledge. But now, according to a fine book titled “The Death of Satan” by Andrew Delbanco (Farrar Straus Giroux, $23), we have lost the myths and the religious language to talk about evil.
Now all we can do is worry that our future will somehow be destroyed by a great force that will descend upon the world and render it useless. We are left with nothing but skepticism.
He notes that some Civil War soldiers still considered the aurora borealis a sign they would die the next day.
Those myths were more than amusing speculation. Those soldiers, especially in the first years of the war, were men of faith who believed their cause was holy and they a part of a great spiritual battle for justice.
Delbanco points out that before the war, Americans spoke of the war as the will of God, as providence. But then they began to see they were nothing but targets - 50,000 men were killed or wounded at Gettysburg in three days of fighting - at Antietam, 25,000 in one day - at Cold Harbor in Virginia, 12,000 killed or wounded in eight minutes of fighting.
Is it any wonder then, that after the war they spoke of luck.
Following the war and for 50 years, the nation was exhausted. While progress continued, it was with a flatness that the pioneer nation had never seen before.
The Southern economy was destroyed, and it took 100 years to recover from the evacuation of the slave economy. Some say it is still recovering today.
But the worst result of that terrible war was the loss of faith and myth. The nation no longer could accept the old religious ideas.
We were on our way to skepticism and doubt. We had seen too much evil to believe in some kind of transcendent goodness.
Now, instead of defining events and disasters as acts of God, we have put all myths away as if they were childish things, Delbanco says.
“… The story I have tried to tell is the story of the advance of secular rationality in the United States, which has been relentless in the face of all resistance,” Delbanco writes. “It is the story of a culture that has gradually withdrawn its support from the old conception of a universe seething with divine intelligence and has left its members with only one recourse: to acknowledge that no story about the intrinsic meaning of the world has universal validity.”
But it is also true that Americans have always loved the idea of Satan, dressing him up in red underwear, with horns on his head and eyes on his buttocks. But all of that is mere comic book Satanism.
The real Satan dwells in our hearts and drives us like cattle into all manner of evil. And if we cannot talk about evil, how can we combat it?