Monday, March 30, 2009

A Bite of the Apple

There are many interpretations of the myth of the Garden of Eden, and I have mine.

In some versions of the story, what gets Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden is the fact they refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Adam blames Eve for making him take a bite of the apple (actually the word "apple" is never mentioned; it's just called "fruit"), and Eve blames the serpent.

What they're doing is scapegoating each other, and as M. Scott Peck pointed out in his book, People of the Lie, "Scapegoating is the genesis of human evil." And he's right.

Scapegoating is when people say, "I am good, and because I am good, I must project my imperfections elsewhere. Let's try you. That makes you evil and the cause of my problems."

It doesn't sound like much, but it is. The Nazis did it, and the Communists did it. In the 20th century I've read estimates of anywhere from 177 million to 200 million people dead because of State-sponsored scapegoating.

Today, you can see this scapegoating even in the United States. George Bush claims we were attacked because "we are good and they are evil." Since "they" are evil, of course they have to be killed. All this ignores the horrible things the United States has done to other countries, such as blockading Iraq for ten years and leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, including children and infants.

Another interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden is Innocence to Experience, and Unconsciousness to Consciousness. They are related to the scapegoating.

Adam and Eve are unaware of the difference between good and evil. They are innocent of it--unconscious of it.

Curiously, the story doesn't even suggest that evil doesn't exist, just that Adam and Eve aren't aware of it. When they eat the fruit, they then become aware of evil.

Before they eat the fruit, they are in the position I call, "I didn't know that." Evil exists, but people aren't aware of it. The example I use is to tell people that when the US invaded the Philippines in 1898, they killed about 200,000 people, and lost about 4000 troops.

Usually people tell me, "I didn't know that!" They are Adam and Eve before they ate of the fruit: evil is there, but they're aren't aware of it.

The next comment I often hear is, "I don't believe it." This usually means they do believe it, but don't want to admit it. This position isn't in the story of the Garden of Eden, but you might call it, "Taking a bite of the fruit." People are nibbling a little bit of it, and are starting to lose their innocence and become conscious of evil.

The next comment I often hear is, "Well, I agree with it." These are the people who say, "We had to kill 200,000 Filipinos, or a few hundred thousand Iraqis."

These are the people who have eaten the whole fruit. They know good and evil, but the "good and evil" they know is the limited kind that Adam and Eve knew, the kind that got them kicked out of the Garden and bought evil into the world.

These are the people who are essentially saying, "I agree with it because we are good and they are evil." That's what makes it okay, to them, to murder hundreds of thousands of people. They're scapegoating them, just the way Adam scapegoated Eve, and Eve, the serpent. It's what brings evil into the world.

A comment I occasionally hear from people is, "Yes, I know we've done bad things." That position isn't in the story of the Garden of Eden, either. But these are the people who take responsibility, unlike Adam and Eve. It's a position that moves beyond scapegoating, moves beyond saying, "I am good and you are evil and therefore are the cause of my problems."

It's a position that realizes there is no "good" over here and "evil" over there, with nothing in between. In reality, if it's anything, it's a continuum. Seeing good and evil as either white or black always leads to scapegoating, and therefore looses murder and destruction into the world, because people--and especially nations--are always going to claim they are the good guys and other nations, the bad guys.

In the story of the Garden of Eden there is a angel with a flaming sword baring the way back in. People usually interpret this to mean we can't go back to the happiness of the Garden of Eden.

I have another interpretation. The flaming sword is a warning not to return to the folly of Adam and Eve, of denying responsibility for what we've done. It's as good of an interpretation as any other, and to my mind, a better one. It's saying, "Don't go back to denying responsibility for your actions, don't go back to ignoring evil, don't go back to rationalizing it as a good thing."

Stephen Mitchell put it this way: "The clearer our insight into what is beyond good and evil, the more we can embody the good."

As far as I'm concerned, the Garden of Eden would be a lousy place to live.