Battling Evil, Part Three: The World Today (4/28/02)
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
Rev. Gary Cox
This morning we will conclude our three-week series on fighting evil. In week one we examined evil from a theological perspective. Why does it exist? Where does it come from? On week two we took a look at the just war theory, and compared it with pacifism. Those sermons laid the foundation for this morning, but I don’t want to take time recapping them. They are both available in print both on the Internet and in the church office, and this morning I want to jump right into part three.
When I concluded last week’s sermon, I said that this it is not always easy to discern right from wrong, and there is no time when that distinction is more difficult for a Christian than when it comes to war. It is never easy to determine when it is okay to kill people—which is the inevitable result of war. And anybody who thinks this is a black and white issue is a part of the problem. That is why we spent the entire morning last week wrestling with the subject of just war.
Everything changed on September 11. Even the most pacifistic among us believe that the horrific evil of such events calls for some sort of response. But what is the Christian response to such a thing? “Turn the other cheek,” say those who stand on what they perceive to be a high moral ground. But when we studied that particular saying of Jesus in week one, we discovered that being struck on the right cheek—being backhanded—was the ultimate insult one man could pay another. When Jesus tells us that if we are “struck on the right cheek to turn the other also,” we are being told to demand respect. We don’t return evil for evil, but neither do we cower before evil. We stand against it.
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Standing against evil is a religiously sound principle. It is not a faithful response to evil to simply stand aside and watch it destroy all that is good, and right, and true. Mahatma Gandhi said, “In my humble opinion, noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” Likewise, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
If we can accept those ideas, then we are faced with a question. Philosophical theorems aside, how do Christian citizens of the United States of America stand against the evil with which our nation is presently confronted, and remain Christians in the process?
First and foremost we must make sure we are on the side of good. Regardless of how we interpret the faith, the Christian philosophy that one must not return evil for evil is pretty cut and dried. If evil fights against evil, then only one thing is certain: evil will win. Good doesn’t have a chance unless somebody is willing to bring goodness into the equation.
Like I said last week, I’m glad this is not a church where you look to the minister for the answers to such questions, because I don’t have them. This world is not black and white, and I am trapped in the same grayness as all of you. I will not tell you the proper Christian response to our current situation, because I don’t have that answer. But I do want to hold up some areas of concern with regard to our current situation and the just war theory, that I hope all Americans keep in mind as we move forward in a world that grows increasingly dangerous.
First, we must be very careful when we define evil. You’ll remember from last week that one condition of the just war theory is that the war must be fought for a just cause. Battling evil is certainly a just cause. Now, we know evil when we see it. When men hijack airplanes filled with innocent people and pilot them into skyscrapers, that is evil. There is simply no justification for such an act—not now, not ever. And when confronted with such an obvious evil, we must respond. But we must be careful, because evil is not always that easy to identify. If a gang member kills an innocent store clerk as a part of his initiation into a gang, that is evil. If a man robs that same store clerk because he has lost his job and has hungry children at home, is that also evil? It is certainly wrong. It is certainly bad. But does it rise to such a level of unjustifiable wickedness to be labeled evil? Anyone who has read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables knows such answers are not simple.
Applying that sort of thinking to the world situation, it is easy to look at a nation that discriminates against racial minorities and say those nations are evil. But it wasn’t that long ago our own nation permitted slavery, and quite recently blacks were still intimidated in some states when they attempted to vote. Can we label other nations as evil simply because they are a half-century behind us on this subject? We look at parts of the Muslim world and see the horrible injustice that many women in that part of the world endure. But can we label those societies evil, when women in our own country have had the right to vote for less than a century?
I love my country. All I am saying is that we must be very careful about labeling other nations, cultures, and societies as evil. Evil is a very powerful word, a very powerful thing, and we must stand against it. And yes, I think the demeaning of human beings, for whatever reason—sex, race, religion—borders on what we can appropriately call evil behavior. But we have to be very careful not to label something as evil just because it runs counter to what American society considers the norm in the year 2002.
A second area of concern involves the just war principle of proportionality, which holds that the response must be proportional to the evil which it confronts. If you’ve listened to talk radio lately, you know there are a fair number of people shouting, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” Now, if you can summon those images of those planes flying into the World Trade Center and not get angry, you are a better person than I am. But when it comes to war, we must be very careful not to allow our anger—our emotions—to take precedent over our rationality.
To see the result of such a thing, all we need do is look at the conflict in Israel. I have several friends who see this as a black and white situation. One side is right and the other side is wrong. And my friends fall along both sides of the debate. Quite honestly, I’m having trouble finding the good guys in this Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.
I couldn’t properly analyze that situation if I had to, and it would take me a month to even try. But one thing seems certain. The anger, the hatred, the bitterness on both sides precludes any real chance for peace. In the early days of the modern state of Israel, their Arab neighbors said they were going to march them into the sea. Regardless of how one feels about the way the modern nation of Israel came into being, the people of that nation took rightful offense at the idea of being annihilated, especially considering the holocaust was a very recent memory.
Likewise, nobody likes to be told to “move, leave your homes behind, and make room for your historic enemies,” and that is basically the way the Palestinians interpreted the whole situation. Israel developed a philosophy as they came under attack from the displaced Palestinians. It was much more than “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The philosophy went like this: “If you kill one of ours, we’ll kill ten of yours.” That was a clear violation of the just war principle of proportionality, but a lot of people admired it. And a lot of Americans are advocating that type of mentality in response to September 11. The thinking is, “Let’s make it clear that if you attack the United States, you’re going to have to pay for that decision many times over.”
Before we buy into such an idea, I only ask that we consider how well it has worked in Israel. Now, nobody is safe. The people of Israel cannot go shopping, or out to eat, or even to school, without wondering if they will survive the experience. And Israel’s superior military is almost powerless in the face of this type of hatred. Many Palestinians are so convinced that Israel is evil, and that their own cause is righteous, they are willing to die while killing as many of their Jewish enemies as possible. The reason I’m asking Christian Americans to make sure our response to the evil we now face is proportional, and is not done out of anger, is simple. I do not want the battle between the United States and our enemies to do for us what the battle between the Jews and Palestinians has done for Israel.
A third area of concern involves the just war principle that says the good which is produced by the war must outweigh the evil war inevitably brings about. This became a concern for me when I saw the results of a recent poll. The poll asked, “In light of the fact both Arab and European nations are against it, should the United States act alone, and unilaterally commit our military to fighting the war on terrorism in other nations, beginning with Iraq?”
58% of Americans are reported to have said we should ignore world opinion and go this war on our own. I know there are people who feel that way, and I understand why they feel that way. But honestly, that 58% number seems awfully high. Either I am completely out of the mainstream, or that poll is suspect. As I discussed this matter with many of you, the overwhelming majority of you thought we should make every attempt to keep world opinion on our side in this matter—that we should not impose our will, militarily, on the rest of the world.
That doesn’t mean we should not respond to the attack upon our people. When we went into Afghanistan, it was with the intent of attacking the stronghold of the Al Qaida terrorist network, and removing from power the Taliban, who had supported those terrorists. When we undertook this venture, we were rightfully angry. But we did not rush to judgment. We made sure we were going after the right people, and we looked to world opinion to affirm that our anger was not affecting our rational judgment. Not only were Americans almost unanimously behind the decision to send troops to Afghanistan, the rest of the world stood behind our decision.
This was important, because as a justifiable rage became the norm for those of us who live in this country, it was safe to assume our actions were indeed justifiable, because not only our European allies, but the rest of the world, including most of the Arab nations, backed our decision.
I simply hope that as a nation we move forward prudently, especially in light of the fact that the United States has thus far been unable to garner support from anywhere in the world for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. If the United States attacks Iraq at this point in time, with the entire Arab world, and every other nation in the world, including our closest allies, begging us not to do such a thing, most of the people I’ve talked with are fearful of the result.
I’ve always told you I try not to be political in the pulpit, but if our faith cannot speak to the current world situation, then what value does it have? And I say from the bottom of my heart, I am not being politically partisan. This is not a White House verses the Congress, or a left verses right, or a Republican verses Democrat issue. This is a matter of taking seriously our duty as American citizens to be responsible for our government. And as much as I hate the idea of war, if we must enter into a war, I hope that as Christian Americans we can at least agree to adhere to the principles of the just war theory. The struggle our nation faces, and the struggle each of us faces within ourselves, should not be between a just war and a war fought with no regard for human life or world opinion. Our struggle should be between no war—pacifism—and a just war.
The reason I feel a moral obligation to speak out on this issue is simple. While none of us are happy with the idea of war, most of the people of this church, as nearly as I can tell from the conversations we have had, believe the actions we have taken to this point can be justified. But you have also told me that you believe a unilateral expansion of this war has disaster written all over it. Consider the principles of the just war theory that would be violated, or at least stretched, if we were to launch a military attack against Iraq as every nation in the world begs us not to do such a thing.
We’ve already mentioned the just war principle that the good achieved must outweigh the evil that occurs as a result of the war. My crystal ball isn’t any clearer than anybody else’s, but many of us are concerned about what good can come from our angering every single nation in the world. Many of us think it would be very hard to know that the good from such an attack will definitely outweigh the bad consequences.
You’ll remember from last week that another condition of the just war theory is that there must an immediate good effect. As gratifying as it might be to take down the regime of Saddam Hussein, it is unlikely that the people of Iraq would suddenly install a pro-American government. The only immediate affect we can be sure of is that we will have angered the entire world.
Yet another condition of the just war theory is that war must be a last resort. We all hold the same fears about the current world situation, and none of us would trust Saddam Hussein any farther than we could pick up and throw the county courthouse, but can we honestly say we have exhausted every other possible course of action; that declaring war on Iraq is our only recourse, our absolute last resort?
And last, looking beyond Iraq to the problem of evil in the world, consider the just war principle that says there must be a reasonable belief that the war’s objectives can be met. And herein lies the problem, and the reason I felt compelled to put this series together. We have every right to defend ourselves; in fact, it is more than a right. We have a moral obligation to defend ourselves. We owe it to the innocent men, women and children of this country to do everything possible to assure their safety. Cowering passively in the face of evil is not a virtue; it is cowardice.
But we have to fall back on the teachings of Jesus, and remember, we are to stand against evil, but we are not to return evil for evil. Why? Why wouldn’t Jesus tell us it is our moral duty to take every method at our disposal and fight evil with all of our hearts, and all of our souls, and all of our strength, and all of our minds? Because ultimately, it is not a winnable battle, at least not with our conventional methods of fighting.
If we commit our military to the battle against evil, then we have entered an unwinnable war. We have entered a war that it is impossible to win, because there will always be evil, as long as the world exists. If we go back to Part One of this series, we remember that as long as God holds this universe in being and calls it forth with the freedom necessary to allow for love, the possibility of evil will always be with us. That is the cost of freedom.
And so in this real life flesh and blood world, we will indeed stand against evil, and when pushed to the limits of human endurance we will do what we must to protect our loved ones, and to create a safe world where good people can live lives free from the threat of terror. As Christians, and as Americans, we’ve done it in the past, and we will do it in the future. But may we always set the bar for war high. May we seek with all our hearts to live lives of peace, and to be instruments of God’s peace.
And when people we love are confronted with undeniable evil, and we feel compelled to act against our loving nature, may we always seek to be on the side of justice, and righteousness, and may we always keep the principles of the just war at the front of our minds.
Because in the end, evil will not be completely defeated in this world God has given us to share. And that is why Jesus did not tell us to fight evil with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our strength, and with all our minds. Rather Jesus told us the only way to really stand against evil, the only way to rise above the evil that confronts us in this world, is to commit our hearts, souls, and minds to love.
How we wish the world were black and white! How we wish the questions were simple, and the answers obvious. That is not the world we’ve been given. But God will love us through every second of our angst, through every moment of our pain, through every hour of our doubt. And in return, as Christians, we will commit ourselves as much as humanly possible to the great commandment of Jesus: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
It’s not a solution to evil. But it’s enough. It’s enough.