Good and Evil, Darkness and Light

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the recent Taliban massacre, crying out that all people of conscience should unite in condemning the acts…And, he is right. He also called them ‘mediaeval’, on which point he was not so right. There are not many cases in the middle ages of women and children being slaughtered, and, in fact, warfare back then was engaged in, in most cases, with strict rules.


However, the evil displayed the other day at the school at Peshawan, a cold, calculated evil (the gunmen were overheard asking their ‘command centre’ “All the children in the auditorium are dead…now what?”). One recalls Hannah Arendt’s description of the doers of dark evil as ‘banal’.


Well, soon after that banal conversation, the killers themselves were dead, gone to meet their God, Who will mete out justice, along, we may hope, with mercy. We cannot know their fate; one of their spokesmen justified the attack, saying, again rightly, that their people, women and children, had been the victims of indiscriminate killings (one need only ponder the constant drone strikes on targets in the region), so they wanted the killers of their own children to ‘feel their pain’.


Ah, yes, as I wrote, an ‘eye for an eye’, but that never really salves the pain of death, only increases it.


Such evil is nothing new in the world. A few days after the feast of Christmas, rapidly approaching, the Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Innocents, an indeterminate number of boys under two murdered by the order of King Herod. They were victims of a war of a spiritual sort; Herod wanted to remove what he thought would be a rival claimant to his throne. He could keep his throne, for it wasn’t really his anyway. Christ came to found a new kind of kingdom, that would trump any earthly rule.


Yet, even in the Christian era, the evil continues. The same John Kerry, who decried the killing, is also a staunch supporter of abortion at any stage of pregnancy. Now, I am loathe to compare the gravity of various evils, since the magnitude of an evil is complex, deriving from the act itself, the intention of the agents, the state of their conscience, and all the circumstances surrounding the act. However, one must admit that if the unborn child is a human being (and what else could it be?), then the thousands killed day in, day out, amounts to a rather great evil.


Need we also forget the atrocities committed in war, even by Western nations? The firebombing of Dresden killed thousands, men, women and children; the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki amounted to at least 200,000 killed almost immediately, again, many, if not most, of them women and children.


We will never likely know the numbers of civilians killed in more recent wars, in the bombs dropped, the drone attacks from thousands of miles away, missiles fired at shadowy targets on computer screens. The ‘pilots’ of such drones, sitting at consoles under the ground in some secret location in North Dakota and elsewhere, are never exactly sure whom they are killing.


These acts are usually justified, even by Christians, by the circumstances and the intent. After all, did we not have to defeat these evil enemies by any means? Yet these are the same arguments, in essence, that the Taliban and ISIL use. They too are out to ‘defeat their enemies’. We may argue that their acts, killing individual children at close range, requires a greater ‘hardening’ in evil; perhaps. But one could also argue that it is more evil to kill without looking, and without wanting to know the carnage one is causing.


We may also argue that we have ‘more’ truth on our side. After all, we stand for democracy and freedom. Well, we used to, and to an extent we still do. But both of these elements of a free state are on the decline in the West, as even a cursory look at current laws being passed will evince. True, as a Christian civilization, we also have, or at had, more of the truth. But even here, are we so certain of our shared truths anymore? There are professors at Ivy League campuses arguing for the right of parents to murder their unwanted children up to two years of age. Is this civilization?


My point is not that the Taliban and ISIL are justified, nor am I advocating pacifism. War is sometimes a necessity. We should remember, however, that total war is a grave evil, and that even in war, some things are never permitted. Far worse than the physical evil of death is the moral evil of a corrupted will, hardened against the truth.


On top of this list of non-permitted actions is the deliberate killing of the innocent, something that can never be done, regardless of one’s intent or the gravity of the circumstances. Once we cross that moral line in the sand, we are already in the realm of the diabolical; after that, it’s just a question of how far we go.


To end on a note of hope, for there is always hope: Christmas is coming, and in these darkest days of winter, we should look not so much at the darkness of the world, but at the light of the truth Christ brought. For it is only in this light can we truly see evil for what it is.


December 19, 2014