Thinking Anew – The challenge of confronting evil
Remembering the victims of the London terror attack. David Mirzoeff/PA
When news of the Manchester Arena terror attack broke, people across the world were stunned. Many wept, while others struggled to find words to express their grief and their anger. Who could do such a thing to children and teenagers attending a concert? The answer is people like the three men who, not many days later, visited death and injury on innocent people in London. No matter how they or those who think like them try to justify their actions, there is only one word that fits in moral terms and that word is evil.
Evil is not sin with a loud voice; it is more than an occasional lapse. It is an ever-present threat; a power that can take possession of anyone, removing any sense of right and wrong or the capacity to show kindness and compassion. The Nazis believed they were doing good when they eliminated six million Jewish men, women and children, continuing to do so when that war was clearly lost. The Manchester and London killers believed they had a just cause when they slaughtered and maimed their victims; they believed that what they did was not only justified but honourable.
We find it difficult to acknowledge the systemic presence of evil in everyone. We put distance between ourselves and those who do terrible things. And so, recent atrocities across Europe are attributed to “radical Islam” with the unfortunate result that innocent Muslims are abused. We should not overlook the fact that similar atrocities including the killing of children were carried out by Irish people, some claiming to be Christians, on this island and beyond not so very long ago. Evil recognises no boundaries, political, religious, social or cultural.
In his book Stepney Calling, Bishop Jim Thompson sees evil as an ever-present danger facing each one of us and suggests that we should never underestimate how real it is. “The sources of evil in myself could be in part the result of stored resentment and anger . . . yet those descriptions do not seem to me to describe adequately the independence of the evil within me. I am led to believe that the impulse, the energy and the will behind the evil I have done are not just a facet of my past experience, but rather a reality against which I have to struggle. Nothing could be more dangerous than to underestimate the reality of evil.”
Christians are called to confront evil wherever it is found and tomorrow’s readings underline the fact that this can be dangerous. Jesus warned his disciples “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” The psalmist points to the cost: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants.” Challenging evil is a dangerous occupation.
The Old Testament reading from Genesis has an intriguing account of a meeting between Abraham and three mysterious visitors. (Some see in this an allusion to the Holy Trinity). Abraham’s immediate reaction is to make them welcome and offer hospitality even though these are strangers: “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.”
Hospitality is a recurring theme in Judeo/Christian thinking. It makes sense because when people are made welcome, given space, shown respect, they are far more likely to respond with gratitude and friendship. Much of the pain and hurt and anger that exists in our world today is derived from the indifference of the well off – nations and individuals – to the cries and desperate needs of the impoverished many, fertile ground where evil can take root. That can never justify or excuse evil in any form but perhaps in some measure it explains its appeal to some. Edmund Burke was aware of the danger when he said: “For evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.”