Ignorance vs. Malice

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’  (John 8: 2-12, NRSV)

Between 2000 and 2004, I worked as a senior consultant for Mercer Human Resource Consulting. One of our clients was Option One Mortgage Company (OOMC). We had been hired to conduct their employee survey. The survey helped OOMC measure and track employee satisfaction and engagement. In addition, we conducted statistical analyses to help them know what to do to retain their employees.

ForeclosureOne day in 2010, not too long after the height of the financial crisis, I realized that I had participated in that debacle. The financial crisis had been precipitated by the housing crisis and OOMC had been one of the mortgage companies selling risky home loans and foreclosing on people who couldn’t pay. I had assisted OOMC through my work as a consultant.

I didn’t have any intention of hurting anyone. I was ignorant. I was just doing my job. However, unwittingly, I had been participating in systemic injustice. I had inadvertently helped a mortgage company take advantage of consumers and precipitate global recession. While without intent, I had participated in unintentional evil.

Malice is intentional evil. Some of the prisoners that I met with this past week have probably committed malicious crimes. They have most likely killed another person, stolen what was not theirs, and/or intentional harmed themselves or others. While some of their actions were not planned, others may have been.

This past Thursday, in our discussion, we wrestled with how we can be sure God is real or trustworthy given the extent of evil in the world. I got the sense that some of the men had come to prison, albeit indirectly, because they weren’t sure that God was real or that God loved them. Some of them shared that when they were children they had experienced the untimely death of a family member. Others conveyed that they had grown up in poverty. Due to these types of events, they may be more likely to think that they don’t need to follow the rules because there isn’t a God that is going to hold them accountable or because they don’t feel that God cares about them.

As I reflected this past week, I came to wonder which is greater, unintentional evil, the evil that grows out of ignorance, or intentional evil, the evil comes out of malice. My sense is that more harm comes out of unintentional evil, the injustice that arises out of living in a broken world.

I believe that this reality requires us to be willing to allow God to examine our hearts and to purify us from those things that keep us from knowing God’s love. When we know we are loved of God, we are less inclined to do things like work for large corporations, where impersonal cultures keep people from understanding the impact of their work on other people, and to commit criminal acts.

The scripture text above suggests to me that we need to be deeply circumspect before deciding that we are justified in hurting people who have engaged in immoral or illegal acts. We have all participated in evil. We would do well to examine our own lives and attempt to discover first if we are without sin, without separation from God and God’s love.


5 thoughts on “Ignorance vs. Malice

  1. “intentional”/”unintentional” makes sense as a legal distinction; because you can’t effectively legislate against anything people can’t help or don’t recognize as wrong.

    Psychologically, spiritually, even a wrong intention is a side-effect of “Ignorance”. Even an innocent mistake comes of being not-yet spiritually-mature enough, not connected enough to whatever awareness we would have needed to be spared that suffering.

    “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they’re doing” — ought to apply to everything! It’s all “growing-pains.”

    I’ve started reading another book recently about “The Powers” that seems to bridge the gap between the ancient and the modern ideas of inhuman forces controlling the human world… Not done reading, but it’s interesting (if you’d be curious.) Certainly this would include all the various ‘systems’ that produce ‘systemic evil;’ but you could also, perhaps, add in the various cultural blindspots & ‘family curse’ influences that generate much of people’s personal glitches-&-twitches. What forces, for example, maintain ignorance…?

    • Thanks for your comment! I’ve read Walter Wink’s trilogy on the Powers. Are you reading Wink or someone else?

      • Wink was good; Stringfellow was better — I ended up saying some stuff that might interest you at http://www.sneezingflower.blogspot.com/2006_09_01_archive.html
        but I’m liking Richard Horsley in _Jesus and the Powers_ so far because what he’s saying works apart from the whole issue of “Are these things ‘supernatural’?” — a question I can’t answer to anyone’s satisfaction, & one that leads a lot of people to dismiss the notion, despite the fact that they’re clearly psychologically ‘captive to’ a host of culturally-conditioned assumptions and overbearing institutional forces…

  2. Hi Rhonda, I am glad to see you made it into prison for your first centering prayer session. I got to see Fr. Meninger speak this past week. For all intents and purposes, he is the “father” of centering prayer and taught the current method of centering prayer to Fr. Keating (his Abbott). He takes this all one step further. He laid out that unintentional evil is designed by God. It is necessary. All this manifests in the human condition. And that it is through and because of these evils that we are drawn by God “to examine our hearts and to purify us from those things that keep us from knowing God’s love”

    Meninger pointed out that we Catholics sing this every Easter…O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam.

    • Doug,

      Thank you for your comment! I wish I could have attended the session you did. I’m reading Meninger’s book (The Loving Search for God) now. It reveals the depth of his knowledge and is really a very powerful read.

      Your comment about unintentional evil reminds me of a statement I read recently in “Trauma and the Soul” by Donald Kalsched. He says, “We all start off as a human/divine unity — a oneness but the process of our separate human development means the descent or emptying out of our divinity (kenosis) into human particularity and limitation.” It’s our willingness to return to our spiritual nature that enables us “to become who we really are…..” It’s hard to accept the necessity of evil and suffering, but with time and experience I agree that we can understand it as a gift.


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