The problem with the problem of evil
Father J. Steele
On the Way
The word "evil" has re-entered our national vocabulary. The term which had been relatively absent from the public square now imposes itself on a nation previously suspicious of moral categories.
As Christians we may ask what the tradition has to say about evil. The problem of evil in its classical form asks questions about its origin and nature. What is evil? How can evil exist in a world created by a God who is all-good and all-merciful? The classical response is that God created us free to choose between good and evil, and humanity tends to choose evil because we are fallen. The problem with the classical formulation of the problem of evil that every undergrad encounters in first year philosophy is that it leaves us cold. The old formula answers a question that no one is asking. A nation turned to prayer in great number is not now worried about the nature of evil and even less concerned about how God might have permitted it. Rather, the question that is beginning to churn within us is what to do about it.
Again the tradition gives us some resources. The Christian presumption against violence and the Just War tradition which seeks to limit greatly the parameters of military aggression under certain limited circumstances attempts a balance between the preference for peaceful solutions and the need to defend the innocent and ensure their safety. Yet, even this answer leaves us cold. We have witnessed real evil. Military solutions solve military problems. They do not solve the problem of evil and what to do about it.
The present and eternal problem of evil is how to recognize evil for what it is without demonizing its perpetrators. We know evil when we see it. And we have to act to prevent it in the future. However, a military victory alone will not get at the root of the evil we must prevent.
We have learned this lesson before. We once learned that the Nazi war machine with all its hatred monopolized on the suffering of a people crushed under the burden of an inhumane armistice agreement. When the war was won, the Marshall Plan was the Allied response to the incomparable evils of the Fascist regime so that similar evils would not be repeated.
We have been demonized as a culture and as a nation. Having called us evil, others have justified horrific evil acts. Demonizing and dehumanizing the enemy is the first temptation in violent conflict. This temptation is every bit as real for "us" as for "them." Once the enemy is demonized, nothing more is learned. We cease to look for root causes or any explanations for the aggression. We do this at our own peril.
It is concerning that we are not asking why the terrorists hate us. This may seem a frivolous question to ask as we continue to bury our dead, as we get on with the business of war. Knowing why they hate America will never excuse or justify the evils of Sept. 11. However, knowing the reasons for their rage is essential to preventing an endless pattern of reprisals.
"On the Way" is the Campus Ministry's question and answer column that appears every other Tuesday. Father J. Steele is rector of Morrissey Manor and also works in Campus Ministry. Please direct questions to email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, October 16, 2001