That’s how Shamima Begum has been described in the press in the last day or so. I haven’t linked to the papers that have reported this, but you can search online easily enough.
This isn’t a blog post about Shamima.
It’s a blog post about “evil scum”.
I am currently
reading ploughing through Yuval Noah Harari’s anthropology in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I have a way to go, and I’m trying to see beyond his obvious biases and agendas.
But I am struck by his discussions of our inherent survival mechanisms: the tendencies and instincts that we have carried from a different world into our own, as we have developed far quicker than our evolution, and that of the world around us, could keep pace with.
We create stories, Harari argues, to make sense of the world and of one another. These stories might be economic, political, religious – they are a way to imagine order and to build structure. We have been doing so for thousands of years. Assuming I have understood it properly, then I can buy into some of this argument.
And so, if what Harari says has a degree of truth, what stories are we creating and retelling at the moment, in order to manipulate the world around us; to survive and thrive and advance?
There are thousands. Metanarratives and micronarratives. But one story, which seems particularly prevalent in this age of mass and social media, is the story of “evil scum”.
Once upon a time, there were good people, and there were “evil scum”. The good people lived upright, noble lives, but the “evil scum” inflicted great pain and destruction. Only when the “evil scum” were wiped out did the good people live happily ever after. The end.
“Evil scum” is always someone else.
Usually someone who has done something abhorrent.
Something that we would never countenance doing ourselves.
Something that has hurt – or taken life from – another person.
This post is not an apology for, or a defence of, acts which are damaging, violent, and hateful.
The story of “evil scum” lets the people who do these things off the hook too quickly.
“Evil scum” dehumanises.
“Evil scum” assumes them and us.
We would never do what they have dared to do (one headline about Shamima read How dare she?)
We are upstanding, law-abiding, reasonable, human.
They are evil, perverted, degenerate, monstrous.
This narrative helps us. It allays the deep seated fear that we, too – or those we cherish – might one day do something terrible. It makes sense of the problem of evil by telling us that evil acts are done only by evil monsters. And never by human beings. It tells us that justice is black and white: “evil scum” deserve nothing that requires work on our part: no mercy, no forgiveness; no understanding, because they are not human. They are “evil scum”.
“Evil scum”, according to this narrative, are the ones who do evil things.
Not like the rest of us, who are good, kind people.
“Evil scum” should be annihilated.
That would fix all our problems.
The problem with this is that it allows pain to avoid eye contact with justice.
The “evil scum” narrative finds justice in destruction.
In a world already tearing itself apart, in a world where, for some, self-destruction seems to attract the highest accolade, then destruction is no justice.
The problem with this is that it takes away human culpability.
We are not so far removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, to forget that good people committed evil acts.
It is humans – and not “evil scum” – who do bad things.
It is humans who kill and destroy and inflict intense pain on one another.
The problem with this is that it tears human beings down the middle.
It creates sides and factions: “evil scum” versus everyone else…
…and asks us to sign up to a side.
It encourages the growth of ideologies resistant to the other: ideologies that provide the fertile ground from which disillusionment and radicalisation grow.
Put simply, when we write one person off as “evil scum”, there are a hundred others waiting to sign up too.
There has to be a better narrative – other stories that help us make sense of the unthinkable: that a fellow human might commit such large-scale damage and pain on another.
I am a Christian minister. The Christian faith is a metanarrative I use to make sense of the world around me. I don’t care whether Harari thinks I’m bonkers or not.
The central tenet of Christianity is not:
Love thy neighbour as thyself…
Nor is it:
An eye for an eye…
Do unto others…
It’s not even:
Don’t have sex outside of heterosexual marriage.
(Although if you listen to some quarters you’d think this was so!!)
The central belief of the Christian metanarrative, the beating heart of scripture and practice, is this:
No one is beyond redemption.
This doesn’t fit the “evil scum” narrative at all well, because that would have us believe, in our quest to remain comfortable, that one is either redeemed, or they are not.
I am redeemed. She is not.
But the Christian narrative says that’s not our call to make. And when it comes to those we write off as monsters, this is an impossible narrative to hold onto.
But hold it we must, amidst all our grief and confusion. Because, whatever monstrous acts she has done (or not), Shamima Begum is not a monster. She is a human being. She is one of our own. She has human DNA and human emotions and human reason and human capacity to suffer justice and show remorse and make amends and receive mercy. Or not, of course.
Despite the immediate comfort it offers (“I am human; she is evil”), in the end the “evil scum” narrative will offer us little hope, and no justice.
We are human. We are creative and destructive, kind and cruel, wise and foolish. We have the capacity to do wondrous good, or catastrophic bad. Some human acts will be intensely evil, and justice must be served.
But, however awful their acts, no human is “evil”.
“Evil” is what we do, not who we are.
Evil is always a choice.
Here is hope:
We have a choice.
We are not doomed to evil.
We can turn move beyond evil.
Evil does not define us.
Here is hope.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.
From Psalm 85