In the May issue of Touchstone, there is an interesting article on high school students that are anything but typical. Terrence Moore writes from his own experience with what are obviously very gifted and very blessed students, and stand as shining examples in a field of peers that are jaded, entertainment-minded, relativists. It is an article that completely belies my own experience working with youth and one that offers some degree of hope for the future of this generation. But, it also scares the pants off of me.
To illustrate his point, Moore introduces us to "Promise", a young woman whom he knows personally. She comes from a good home, is intelligent, faithful and a hard worker. But...
Promise has never set foot in a public school. Her parents discovered in their freshman year of college how little their public schools had taught them and how unprepared they were for higher learning. Moreover, they would never allow their daughter to be exposed to the drugs, sex, and crass behavior that are the norm from middle school onward.
It is true that high schools have largely been turned over to the social norms of sexual and chemical experimentation in today's youth and that this trend is pushing ever lower. I saw it in my students and I heard their stories. I don't blame any parent for wishing to spare their child from the deluge of temptations they will face in today's public schools. And yet, I cannot help but think that this separation from the vast majority of her peers will be to Promise's detriment. How will she understand her generation? How will she know how to reach them? If she can't speak their language and know the things that matter to them, how will she lead them, as Moore suggests she will? I don't for one minute think that a child must succumb to the temptations of their peers in order to better understand them. But without at least some common experiences, how will Promise forge a link with those in her age group? I saw those highly intelligent, moral, faithful homeschoolers in the youth group I lead - I saw that they never fit in and that their separation invariably lead them to live in completely different worlds than their peers. It didn't matter what they knew or how their lives could have been examples to the other students; no connection was possible. And frankly, it is entirely possible to traverse the perils of public school and still come out well-educated and having resisted the temptations of sex, drugs and relativist thinking. I know because I did it.
From here, Moore goes on to list more of Promise's promising qualities. She doesn't disrespect her parents, drink or do drugs, sleep around or brush off school. She feels sorry for girls who do, not because she is self-righteous but because she believes they simply don't know any better. Promise rejects feminism and "...is pretty and enjoys feeling pretty." (This point strikes me as tendentious - what does being pretty have to do with anything and how would Promise feel and behave if she were unattractive? It does not strike me as particularly counter-cultural to enjoy being pretty, what with the amount of emphasis today's culture places on feminine beauty.) Promise is also politically engaged and aware of the import of today's key issues and debates, which I certainly found to be quite uncommon among my high schoolers. All-in-all, Promise is a bright, well-rounded, Christian student who takes her faith and education seriously. But Moore goes on to conflate what appear to me to be clear issues of morality (abortion) with politics and here is where I have the greatest problem with his description:
Promise wholly supports the war on terrorism. This sweet girl will tell you without batting an eye that anyone who blows up a building or decapitates someone for a misguided faith is pure evil. Promise is glad that strong and brave men carry guns to protect this nation both at home and abroad.
Supporting the war on terrorism is not on par with abortion, which is the issue he discusses immediately prior to this paragraph. Having genuine political disagreements over this country's response to 9/11 and the war in Iraq are simply not the same as abortion and nor is there an explicitly Christian position on these points. Also, both men and women defend this nation at home and abroad and I find it odd that Promise should discount this fact and that Moore should forget to mention it. It seems to me that failing to mention the sacrifice of women in the police and armed forces implies more than just Promise's rejection of feminism, although I could be reading into it. But what worries me most is that second sentence. Moore points to this generation's inability to think morally several times, but I cannot accept that this statement is well supported by sound ethical consideration. Perhaps I'm mired in relativistic thinking, perhaps I did not make it through public high school and a state university with a degree in religious studies without being infected by the shoddy thinking Moore derides, but I seriously doubt whether, as Christians, we can ever describe another human being as "pure evil."
Is blowing up a building or decapitating someone for a rightly-guided faith pure good? Is it a mixture of good and evil? Or is it pure evil, as well? What if you're blowing up buildings for a misguided foreign policy? How does that rank? What troubles me is the conflation of "misguided faith" with motive. Those executing the attacks of 9/11 or decapitating Nick Berg were not doing it because they knew themselves to be supporting a false religion; they believed their actions were both in accord with and demanded by their faith. And in that, they were actually acting on good motives. Don't mistake me - I believe terrorism to be intensely evil and motivated by demonic forces, but that does not mean that those who engage in it are "pure evil." They were seeking what they perceived to be a good end, an end pleasing to God and beneficial to their coreligionists, and if their actions had focused on planting trees rather than murder, no one would accuse that aspect of their intentions as being inherently evil. Though there are times when our subjective motivations have nothing to do with the objective moral status of our specific behaviors, we all recognize that motive is indeed a salient point. Our society routinely and uncontroversially recognizes a legitimate moral difference between murder and self-defense, even in cases where there was no actual threat to the defender.
So the question really becomes 'can a person acting on subjectively good motives really be purely evil?' I think the answer is no, just as someone acting on subjectively bad motives (who somehow brings about an amazing good like curing cancer or ending world hunger) can be said to be purely good. Our society would want to turn our misguided philanthropist into a hero of heroes, a celebrated and honored person, to shower them with praise and adoration even though they intended to do evil. We would label them as good and forget about their failings. This is why I find Moore's, and by extension Promise's, unsubtle thinking on this matter so disturbing. To label anyone, even a hate-filled, murderous terrorist as "pure evil" is to cease to see them as human. It allows us to do anything we want to them because they have become completely alien. And in doing that, I fear we cross a line that we simply cannot cross.