Many issues today make no sense to people who do not believe in evil. Since the popular culture has denied the idea of absolute or objective truth for much of the past century, the old media, Hollywood, most of the education establishment, many politicians, and even religious leaders operate without an unbiased line of demarcation between good and evil, if they acknowledge evil at all. In their view, right and wrong, valuable or worthless, and good and evil are a matter of personal choice. Tribal cannibalism or radical Islam is as legitimate as American freedom or Christian love. Of course, most of them make their absurd equivocations from safe, secure homes and offices here in the United States while they ignore the millions of immigrants who give up their own cultures to choose our values of liberty, opportunity, and safety.
I just finished Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great about America, and I will undoubtedly echo some of his ideas. I recommend you read it for yourself. I have also been reading God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong, and the Left Doesn’t Get It. In it, Jim Wallis raises some interesting questions, and I agree with his commitment to making peace. However, his solutions seem to require centralized, socialist government and more power vested in the United Nations; I cannot support either. His thoughts, too, have influenced what I have to say. In this posting, I want to look at the concept of evil and use my 3-part approach: keep it solid, keep it civil, and keep it simple.
Keep it Solid: The Absolute Truth about Evil
Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire. Many today believe radical Islamic terrorists to be evil, and President Bush referred to them and the nations who harbor and support them as an “Axis of Evil.” Is evil an objective reality? Is there a difference between what the Bible calls sin and something we might classify as evil? Were Reagan and Bush correct in their use of the word “evil?”
I believe in sin; it is one of the basic problems of human history that convinces me that people are in rebellion against their Creator. Philosophers refer to “man’s inhumanity to man,” and organizations today work to protect “humans rights” because abundant evidence shows that tyrants murder, enslave, and oppress others, including their own people, by the millions. The realities of abuse, cruelty, predation, and slaughter tell me that both sin and evil exist and that no reasonable person should doubt or dispute it.
To distinguish evil from sin, I think we can rely on a phrase from the Old Testament. A sinner becomes truly evil when he or she “hardens his or her heart.” Up to that point, a person may still see that he or she, along with every other human, has a tendency to break the rules, as each has them; temptations fight with conscience. Again, this concept is so widespread that cartoons commonly use little devils and angels to represent the pull between right and wrong. That is the struggle of sinners. When a person ignores those voices till they no longer speak, that person has become evil.
Unfortunately, even good, well-meaning, and imperfect people may do evil things. Rash and ill-considered choices easily produce evil results—drunk drivers kill innocents, otherwise righteous anger leads to violence, and neglected furnace maintenance causes carbon monoxide poisoning. A momentary lapse of attention is not evil, but a child dead from drowning surely seems so. Even careful decisions can produce unintended consequences that harm others.
Of course, no one can see into the conscience of another, although many assume they know the motives of their enemies. Fear and hatred often precede the moral evaluation of an adversary. That’s why mothers have, for ages, taught their children that labeling a person as evil or hating them is wrong. Can we talk about evil and still “love our neighbor?” Isn’t it the sin of judgment to call someone evil? To answer, I rely on another phrase from the Bible: “By their fruit, you will know them.”
Evil people do evil things. It is not wrong to identify evil acts: murder, cruelty, torture (real torture, not just discomforting or humiliating), sexual abuse, enslavement, theft, and acts of this sort committed against individuals, ethnic groups, or whole societies are evil. People who do them, intentionally and without remorse, whatever justification they use, show themselves to be evil. Their consciences are seared, their hearts are hard, their very humanity is compromised, and we may rightly call them evil.
Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam were all evil men. Religious leaders who teach their followers to kill themselves with explosives in order to kill others are evil. Individuals and governments who murder and enslave others they deem inferior by race, color, or religion are evil. Leaders who kill their adversaries and oppress their people to increase and protect their own power are evil. Those who lie, cheat, and profit while they neglect their proper moral and civic obligations certainly do evil, although it is much more difficult to determine the state of their consciences. We must also recognize that dealing with complex problems such as terrorism, ethnic conflicts abroad, evil leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hugo Chavez, or even allies who disagree or envy us may, at times, lead to evil, both intentional and unintended. Sometimes, the tone of the disagreements over how to deal with complex problems uses the language of evil, or the arguments themselves become evil through the lies, attacks, and dirty tricks used to win them. We need to recognize and avoid this sort of evil.
Keep it Civil: Using the Language of Evil Cautiously
Fallible, imperfect people disagree. Even those who love each other discover that their differences of individual temperament and education, family background, life experience, race, and gender lead to differences of opinion, sometimes strong enough to cause serious division and strife. I am convinced that such divergences are the ultimate cause of the high American divorce rate. Sadly, many of us assume that disagreements represent “irreconcilable differences.”
Part of the problem is that we manage conflict, even when it is minor, much as nations manage disputes, with the language and actions of warfare. A basic tool of verbal war is the declaration that the enemy is evil. Of course, in domestic conflict, the adversary isn’t an enemy although our approach may quickly create one. In international disputes, that path is a bit easier. Rivals are generally much more different, perhaps never friends; their race, religion, culture, history, and even dress and appearance make them easier to fear and, consequently, easy to hate. When adversaries act as enemies, as the terrorists did in the 9/11 attacks, fear, anger, hate, and retribution come even more easily. As with personal clashes, defenders may respond with the very evil that inspired their attackers, and it really doesn’t matter what you call the response—policemen, soldiers, and angry neighbors all may find it easy to justify their own evil.
Are Arabs evil? Is Islam an evil religion? We need to be careful how we label people if we harbor any goal other than their obliteration, which of course is evil. History and the Old Testament tell us that the enmity between Arabs and Jews is the oldest feud in human history, dating back to Abraham and his two sons, Ishmael the older and Isaac the younger, and to his grandsons Esau and Jacob, later rename Israel. The rivalry between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is as old as the newest of the three and the writing of the Koran. Many on every side have committed evil acts, even as some are committing them today. I believe we may accurately label certain people and movements as evil, when they do evil things, but we would be wise not to label an entire race, religion, or culture because of the evil behavior of some.
One problem we face today is the plain statements of the Koran and the past and present actions of Muslims who follow it. Religious murder is evil; I believe religion leaders who teach their followers to kill are evil. D’Souza (pages 185-6) rightly contrasts the practice of Christians and the “convert or die” approach, plainly written in the Koran. He labels the distinction as the difference between “force or consent.” On the Christian side, some believe that Christians were better off when Christianity was illegal (in the Roman Empire) because conversion to an illegal religion was surely genuine. On the Islamic side, one wonders how many would be Muslims if they did not fear other Muslims, their own leaders, their neighbors, and often even members of their own families. I must label those who advance Islam by force or who use Islam as a cover for their own ambitions as evil, even while I recognize many Muslims to be good and decent people, often among the most friendly and hospitable in the world.
I disagree with D’Souza, however, when he seems to imply that progress liberalized the Christian faith. I believe that Christians, following the teachings of the Bible, moved away from many commonly accepted evils, such as slavery, child labor, and gender inequality. I believe in doing so, Christianity brought progress to the West, especially to the United States, and that freedom is what we offer to the world today. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not so easily found anywhere else, certainly not established, though imperfectly, into the very foreign policies of an entire nation.
Can we label as evil our own political and ideological rhetoric? Has the understanding of American and world history become so deficient that few Americans understand how evil Hitler and fascism were? Is the current President or was the last one evil? Both are sinners, but I don’t believe we dare call either of them evil. Is Bush like Hitler; is he a fascist? Was Hugo Chavez correct in calling him the devil, or are he and Americans who agreed with him evil? Are those Americans who hosted Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Chavez evil for seeming to admire, uncritically, two leaders who have done enough evil to be deserve to labeled as such? I don’t think the hosts are evil, even though I believe people who use the language of evil to gain or increase their own profit or power come pretty close. I just say they are wrong…very, very wrong!
Those who condemn evil in others often fail to see the evil that may come from their own actions. One danger of ideological or religious rhetoric is pride. Humility keeps each of us from forgetting that we are all sinners. The sins of others do not diminish the evil in our own sins. A patriotism that sees America or its government as perfectly good (or bad) is as misguided as one that sees foreign threats from terrorism to illegal immigrations as evil (or not). Christians who support Israel on Biblical, prophetic grounds ought not to imagine that the largely secular Israeli government is all good or that all Palestinians, some of whom are Christians, are solely evil. Our ability to moderate our thoughts and speech away from such extreme categorization is a key component to doing more than wiping out our enemies, a virtually impossible task, creating more resentment, and instead turning enemies into allies, if not friends.
Even in dealing with truly evil people, we must be careful of our rhetoric. I don’t expect my government to require soldiers to attempt to make peace with those who are trying to kill them. Yet, our modern world allows communication to take place between enemies, even during active hostilities. Such communications offer an opportunity to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves,” in dealing with a committed enemy. Enemies have become friends, and we should always try to achieve such a conversion. We may fail, and war may be the only alternative. Up to the moment of final victory and after, our intent, our language, and our actions must aim toward reconciliation, peace, and friendship, if at all possible.
Keep it Simple: Evil Does Exist!
This is the hardest part, in some ways. How do we do we state the case in the simplest, most direct fashion, in order to persuade those who aren’t listening, are pre-occupied with the business of living or playing, or simply don’t care?
Evil exists; we dare not ignore it! To many in our relativistic, narcissistic culture, it’s easy to discount evil. Many feel secure in the freedoms and prosperity of the United States, despite 9/11. The only evils acknowledged are those that are personal, like Rosie O’Donnell’s fear of the moral judgment of Christianity, which she imagines to be equivalent to the threat of radical Islam. Christians like me may disagree with her, even desire to restrict gay rights, but we would never behead her, force her to cover herself in black from head to foot, or demand she be kept from public view. Frankly, we Christians need to be careful, too, in choosing to fight lesser evils when the greater ones would kill us.
Be careful that your response to evil is not itself evil. Christians have an obligation to oppose evil wherever and however they can. Our government has a constitutional duty to defend and protect us from our enemies and to enforce the laws of the land. We American Christians have a dual obligation to God and to our nation. Our government exists under God’s sovereignty but is Christian only to the degree that our Constitution and laws incorporate Christian values, as our history shows they do. We who are Christians must listen for the voice of God to warn us of our own evil, and we should be alert to the incursion of evil into our activities and institutions. However, we may hold our government accountable only to the Constitution and laws and seek to enact new laws that we believe appropriate.
In response to external threats, we must hold our government and ourselves accountable first to U. S. law, international law only to the extent that we have endorsed or agreed to it in law, and, by persuasion only, to God’s law. Above all, we must deal in truth regarding enemies, suspected enemies, allies, and our own fellow citizens. Ideological rhetoric, political crusading, suspicion, conspiracy theories, and virtual mind-reading offer lies and distortions as truth for ends that are often evil, and the dishonesty itself is grossly immoral.
Nevertheless, we dare not appease evil; we must stop or destroy it! I believe President Reagan did the right thing. He named the Soviet Union and its aims as evil, and he took steps to oppose it. His determination contributed substantially to the fall of the Iron Curtain and to the progress of freedom. The United Nations gave Saddam more than enough time to prove that he had properly disposed of his weapons; indeed, their approach was a combination of appeasement and corruption, as we later learned. European nations seem to have an appeasement approach to the Muslims who espouse terrorism and riot in their own cities, and many American politicians support appeasement to an obvious invasion of illegals and to their allies and employers, despite the evidence of terrorists hiding among them. Appeasing evil only assures its continued progress in evil activities because most evil people regard indulgence or tolerance as weakness. It does not challenge them to stop doing evil; it requires power of some sort to stop them.
Beware of innocent victims, collateral damage, and unintended consequences. We dare not ignore or appease evil, but we must not punish the innocent along with the guilty. We fight a war on terror, but war kills people and breaks things. It is easier to avoid killing innocent civilians when facing an army on the battlefield. Guerilla warfare increases the likelihood of civilian casualties, and the cowardly use of innocents as shields is simply evil. I commend our American military for using modern technology to minimize civilian deaths and property damage during the Iraqi invasion. Can we find and use similar creative approaches to end the internal destruction among Islamic factions to bring the further killing of civilians to an end? I hope so.
Blessed are the peacemakers. As a Christian, I struggle with the necessity of war. I am convinced that we must find a way to end terrorism, which probably means we must destroy the terrorist networks, their monetary support, and, probably, terrorist leaders. This unfortunately means war, not police action. There is no duly authorized police power. I cannot sanction an international consolidation of power, certainly not in the United Nations, which has proven to be weak, corrupt, and a platform for evil men and nations to spout their propaganda (It is ironic that citizens, allies, enemies, and the U.N. condemn American unilateral action but accept the United States’ disproportionate support of the U.N.).
War may be necessary, but victory alone does not create peace. Peace is more than the end of fighting, whether by surrender or truce. War makes peace more difficult; defeated enemies generally resent their defeat, and the next war simmers under the surface of otherwise peaceful conditions. Harsh treatment by the victors turns resentment into hatred. Yet, we have learned and demonstrated a viable alternative. Today, Germany and Japan, despite losing to the United States and her allies, have themselves become allies. Generosity in victory, the creation of democratic governments, and liberal financial help for reconstruction (as opposed to hauling off the “spoils of war”) turned enemies into friends.
Can we defeat radical Islamic terrorists and create a peaceful co-existence? This enemy has no national government, specific people, or even location. The “Axis of Evil” is defined by its use, support, and encouragement of terror, not merely by its hatred of Israel or of the United States. The commitment by much of Islam to worldwide domination, often by convert or die, through all of its history and supported by plain statements in the Koran, make peacemaking an especially difficult proposition. Individual liberty, prosperity, and freedom of religion, which we price as our American heritage, are the very things regarded with suspicion and fear by many Muslims, especially when they see rampant materialism and hedonism on American television, readily available by satellite. Yet, freedom, an end to poverty, and even the chance to choose to believe as they wish may be the keys to the vast populations controlled by Islam today.
We need to win the war on terror, but we must also win the peace.