Beautiful Wickedness


The Episcopal church I attended as a boy still used the old 1928 Book of Common Prayer when I was growing up in the 1950s. Its tone was set by the General Confession, which dated from the 16th century, when eternal damnation was a lively prospect among adherents in the mother Church of England. Worshipers seeking to partake of Holy Communion were expected to grovel first: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed.” This approach appealed to my mother, who was a firm believer in the doctrine of original sin, particularly as it applied to her own progeny. Looking back, I wonder whether it might have been a bit much to burden small children with the idea of manifold sins and wickedness, which was more than a mouthful to say, much less to commit at that tender age, whether grievously or not.

Wickedness, as a term of art, had largely fallen into disuse by the time I came along. There was, of course, Margaret Hamilton’s famous death scene in The Wizard of Oz, when the Wicked Witch proved to be water-soluble. Dorothy drenches her with a bucket of water, and she winds up as a steaming pile of rags on the floor, but not before wailing, “Who would have thought that some little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?”

The Wicked Witch deserves at least some credit for having so robustly embraced her true nature, but this may also be the tipoff that we are dealing with a fairy tale. Real-life villains (another antiquated term of art) rarely acknowledge their essential wickedness, even to themselves. Adolf Hitler regarded himself as Germany’s savior and strongly identified with Jesus Christ. Rudolph Höss, who was hanged by Polish authorities in 1947 for his role as commandant at the Auschwitz death camp, claimed he had been unjustly vilified as the murderer of millions, whining that the public would never understand he also had a heart. Slobodan Milosevic, acting as his own lawyer at his war crimes trial in The Hague, conducted more of a filibuster than a defense in fighting charges of “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia. The case dragged on for years and ended only when Milosevic died of a heart attack in his cell.

Even a fairy tale figure like Snow White’s evil stepmother seemed preoccupied with asking her mirror who was fairest of them all rather than appreciating her beautiful wickedness. The evil queen shape-shifted into an old hag when it was time to give Snow White a poison apple. This demonstrates a psychological truth that morally compromised individuals sometimes delegate their dirty deeds to an alter ego in order to preserve their self-image as the fairest of them all. For example, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton noted that German physicians assigned to the Nazi death camps would sometimes adopt a semi-autonomous “Auschwitz self” whose job it was to send inmates to their deaths, thereby enabling them to continue thinking of themselves as good doctors and family men. Most of us are not driven by such moral extremity, but depth psychologist Carl Jung said we all have a “shadow” self consisting of unconscious personality elements that can’t be reconciled with our sanitized self-image.

Thomas Cramner, Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the General Confession in the original Book of Common Prayer, knew nothing about alter egos or “shadow” selves. But he was an acute judge of human nature, and he got right down to business. Cramner’s Confession is a model of brevity; there is no dreary recitation of sins mortal or venial. “Manifold sins and wickedness” leaves nothing out, and for good measure Cramner threw in the phrase, “in thought, word and deed.” He understood that the main difference between the arch villains of history and the ordinary rung of humanity is that most of us lack the courage of our convictions. We may want someone dead, but we are rarely prepared to act on our evil impulses for fear of retribution. Divine retribution rarely enters into our calculations these days, but perhaps it should. It is entirely up to us whether or not we chose to embrace our inner wickedness, but if eternal damnation is to be our reward, then it should not come as a surprise.

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