Based on the comic novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the soon-to-premiere Amazon Prime show Good Omens revolves around a demon and an angel who, grown accustomed to living on earth among humans, join forces in an attempt to forestall the oncoming apocalypse. Stemming more from colossal theological ignorance than, say, blasphemous intentions, the ludicrous odd-couple setup of the plot says quite a lot about modern perceptions of good and evil.
The trailer reveals that the angel (a shrill Michael Sheen) is a prissy goody-two-shoes, proper and polite, who dresses in white and wears tidy suits. The demon (a roguish David Tennant) is a classic charming and sarcastic bad-boy who wears dark clothing and shades. These cartoonish characterizations of good and evil are not simply goofy; they are symptomatic outgrowths of how good and evil are both perceived and portrayed. They are tiny insights into pop cultural visions of what is traditionally good and traditionally evil.
Similar versions of conventional good and evil abound, in shoulder-angel and shoulder-devil style. Good is portrayed as fastidious, polite, uptight, a stuffed shirt, rule-bound. Bad is portrayed as attractively transgressive, exuding “bad boy” charm, willing to get dirty and ready to talk back; radical and anti-establishment. These characterizations proliferate in stories and songs, like the archetypical “good girl” who won’t find fulfillment or fun until she lets her hair down and plays with the bad boys.
But the problem with the images really isn’t that they praise rebellion against superficial conventions like social manners. If they only did that, there would be little to object to in them; they might have some actual value. No, the problem with these cartoonish portrayals is that they are nothing at all like good and evil in reality—not even a little.
In real life, goodness and evil are exactly the opposite of these caricatures. Goodness is willing to talk back—that is, it is willing to speak up. Goodness in some sense is always anti-establishment: “In the world, you will have trouble.” St. Francis was a radical; he was very holy; he was also untidy in his rags and rope, unlike many a fussy bishop and worldly cleric of his time. He was unconventional in his love of Lady Poverty, much to the chagrin of his wealthy establishment father who would much rather his son kept his fine robes on in the public square.
Mother Teresa was transgressive, violating caste systems and social mores in her service of the sick and suffering, and getting her hands quite dirty in the process. Perhaps more remarkable in our day, she was willing to talk bluntly and clearly, calling things—evil things, such as abortion—what they are, much to the discomfort and disapproval of the conventionally clean and attractive social conformists, like (for instance) the Clintons.
Mother Teresa and Francis were both liberated from convention in giving their lives to love and service of the Gospel; their opponents were always tightly bound by their own social expectations.
The devil is no fool; he knows that evil profits by hiding under facades that look nice and talk smooth. Goodness, like Jesus Christ, comes from humble beginnings and goes to the cross, rattling cages and overturning tables along the way. Yet, through this little trick of reversed impressions, we incorrectly see “goodness” as clean and pristine but fundamentally conventional and unexciting. We perceive “being bad” as thrilling and freeing. Evil is not only not grandiose or liberating, it is often petty and monotonous. Evil is not only not exciting, it is often quite deadening. Evil wants to make all like itself, and that is really very plain, for then everything looks alike—which, after all, is the effect of superficial conventions.
Goodness glories in the unique vitality, individuality, and richness of life; life lived well for others will erupt into vibrant branches and unexpected flowers, while the life of evil is restricting, turned inward on the never-ending circle of selfishness.
This problem of mixing up the visuals of good and evil came to my mind amid the firestorm of debate following new pro-life bills signed into law, most recently in Alabama and Missouri. In these visceral reactions, those who oppose abortion are labeled oppressively conventional, judgmental and prudish, unfamiliar with the real messy circumstances of women who “need” abortions. Abortion, its advocates claim, frees women from facing horrible situations or being enslaved to their fertility.
And yet, like the flipped popular portrayals of good and evil, this is in fact the exact opposite of what actually happens in abortion, which scars women, absolves community of responsibility for them, and destroys lives. Anti-abortion laws are not promoted by all-white male politicians who see an opportunity to hold women back from social advancement; in fact, it is men in power who most profit from abortion, which leaves them unbothered by unplanned pregnancies.
By contrast, the pro-life movement is led largely by empowered and outspoken women. Although hailed as an equalizer for the marginalized, abortion in practice is racist and misogynistic, disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities. Its reality is so horrific that it is not discussed honestly in polite society, which covers its ugliness with euphemistic (if worn-out) terms like “freedom,” or “rights,” or medical words like “procedure” and “fetus.” Images or language that expose the reality of abortion often trigger a knee-jerk response of anger in its defenders.
And that in fact tips their hand: such anger stems from fear of losing advantage and power. For abortion, like the terminology used to describe it, is tidy, efficient—above all, convenient for those in power. It perpetuates the enslavement of women living in abusive circumstances by covering up the evidence of their suffering. It assures that women in a crisis do not inconvenience anyone else with their fertility, which is so much more demanding than the fertility of men. It gets rid of the child so the woman can better fit in the world’s boxes, to proceed uninterrupted through society’s expected trajectory—without her inconvenient child.
Truth and goodness ask something of us, often more than we are comfortable giving—unlike evil, which uses euphemism and convention to keep us secure in the comfort of our selfishness.
Real goodness is boots-on-the-ground pro-lifers willing to help women in crisis pregnancies, providing them living space, financial support, medical care, and adoption services. Some call “good” the abortion doctor in his pristine white coat, mouthing hollow and inaccurate talking points forty-years-old about how he alone stands between women and inequality. But authentic “good” is the person willing to sacrifice for the provocative truth that all human persons, including the unborn, have inviolable value and cannot be neatly discarded, and that their mothers deserve genuine help and support.
Yes, for those in power, the evil of abortion is organized and convenient. So was Auschwitz, which likewise capably disposed of “undesirable” people away from the public eye. Goodness is more demanding and difficult, transgressing the widespread social acceptance of radical individualism that would sunder child from mother for the sake of social ease.
But maybe it is little wonder that we can’t see abortion for what it is, or a baby in the womb as a human being. Our vision of good and evil is backwards. We forget that goodness rolls up its sleeves and gets dirty helping others live with dignity; evil serves only itself, and so keeps its hands clean. After all, we can’t even remember that the devil doesn’t appear as a roguish bad boy or with forked tail and pitchfork, but usually comes disguised an angel of light.
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