Monday, July 11, 2016

Responding to Evil

"Light Breaking Through"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I have heard the word “evil” used an awful lot nowadays to describe life in our contemporary 21st century world:  terrorists attacks in airports, mass shootings, racial warfare on our nation’s streets - so much “evil” in the world.

The other day I came across a very insightful op-ed piece in the New York Times, titled: How Should We Respond to Evil? The author, Steven Paulikas, suggested that our current national and personal strategies for coping with what we identify as “evil” don’t seem to be working very well.

For the most part, when we label something or someone as “evil,” our usual first response is to violently destroy it, to obliterate and crush it.  For example, back when 3000 people were killed in the horrific terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the immediate national response was retaliation, a “war on terror” that resulted in the death of over 460,000 people in Iraq and ultimately gave rise to modern-day terrorists organizations like ISIS. If anything, the threat of terror nowadays is far worse than it was before any “war on terror.”

The author of that recent New York Times article cited the 20th-century philosopher Paul Ricoeur,  who had learned something about how to understand and respond to evil when he was captured by the Nazis in 1940 and spent five years as a prisoner of war. There in that camp, a victim of the unrelenting violence of his times, Ricoeur learned that the best way to respond to evil is not through vengeance but by learning how to accept and heal a common humanity shared by us all:

The tragedy of evil is not the act committed
but the experience of the victim.
We best respond to evil through the wisdom of
an unwavering commitment to relieve suffering.
The response to evil must focus on the alleviation of suffering
rather than attempts at stamping out evil where we think we see it.

Over the past years, weeks and months, we have been flooded by story after story of hatred, violence and evil. When there is a mass shooting in San Bernardino or in a nightclub in Orlando attributed to Islamic extremists, the almost immediate knee-jerk response is a desire to stamp out and crush the evil at its source. Some have suggested that we “carpet bomb” regions in the middle east where ISIS flourishes, others have suggested that we close our borders to “all” Muslims, perhaps even deport those who are here.  And yet, as I think about it, doing this will hardly destroy evil in the world, in fact it will most likely help it to grow and flourish.  

I wonder what would have happened if, after the 9/11 attacks, instead of focusing on“waging war” by spending trillions of dollars on weaponry and warcraft we would instead have concentrated our efforts, energy and resources in places like Afghanistan by sending in “peace forces?”  What would have happened if we sent in money and troops to build schools and hospitals in order to alleviate the suffering of a society from which terrorist movements were ultimately given birth?

I also wonder if, in response to mass shootings in places like San Bernardino, instead of devising plans to cleanse the nation of Muslims, what would have been the result of a national effort to build relationships and enhance communication with our fellow citizens who are Muslims?  After the mass shooting in Orlando what would have happened if less energy was spent on retaliation against evil and more energy spent on a national dialogue about the dignity of gay and lesbian people in a culture of discrimination?

Maybe if this happened we may actually be fighting against the evil we seek to crush.

Jesus taught:

Do good to those who hate you,
Bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.

The Buddha taught

Hatreds do not ever cease in the world by hating, but by love.
This is an eternal truth.

While some may hear these teachings and think they are little more than abstract, unrealistic statements of wishful thinking, I honestly believe they offer great wisdom and “eternal truth” about how to respond to evil, a wisdom that actually has “real power” to do something about the “evil” in the world.


  1. It is a little like always searching for the 'why'. What leads people to want to act in 'evil' ways? What encourages racism? What are these 'evil' people's lives like? Where are they coming from? What are the conditions that foster the growth of their attitudes? As I attempt to understand my tantruming daughter and seek to find her 'why', it is no different from some of these greater problems in the world. Building hospitals, seeking dialogue, wanting to understand and relieve suffering...beautiful Paul. Thank you xxx