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Os Guinness Looks Evil in the Eye

Os Guinness Looks Evil in the Eye
The author of Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror talks about "life's greatest dilemma."

Interview by Stan Guthrie

3/10/2005

Author and lecturer Os Guinness has written or edited more than 20 books, including The Dust of Death ,The Call , and Invitation to the Classics . Earlier this month, HarperSanFrancisco published Guinness's latest work, Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror . Senior Associate News Editor Stan Guthrie interviewed Guinness.

Why did you write this book, and why now?

I actually had the date September 11 marked down in my calendar for a dinner discussion in Manhattan on evil, which was suddenly made all the more urgent by the terror strike, and I found myself in a passionate discussion of evil among leaders in New York and Washington.

Far earlier than that, evil has somehow been the horizon of my life ever since I was born in China in World War II. Twenty million were killed during the Japanese invasion that swirled around us, and five million-including my own two brothers-died in a terrible famine in Henan province, in three nightmarish months. My parents and I nearly died, too. Later, I witnessed the climax of the Chinese revolution and the beginning of Mao's repression.

So my own life challenged me to think about the problem of evil at a very early age. This left me wanting to address what I have never seen elsewhere: a book that tackled both the personal and the public issues together: Why do bad things happen to good people? And what does it say of us, after the most murderous century in human history, that the people who did these things are the same species we are?

Talk of evil is in the air, from the President's listing of the "axis of evil," to the televised beheadings by the Muslim terrorists and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, and now the tsunami disaster. Several new books, including yours, are grappling with the topic. Yet you say in the book that we are illiterate when it comes to evil. How so?

Sadly, the terrorist strike found the United States as unprepared intellectually and morally as it was militarily. This is the country with the most radical and realistic view of evil at its core-expressed in the notion of the separation of powers in the Constitution because of human nature and the abuse of power. But various philosophies and ideas have undermined that view over the last 200 years, so that American views today are weak, confused, and divided. On one side, many progressive liberals still think that we humans are essentially good and getting better and better. On the other side, many postmoderns actually think it is worse to judge evil than to do evil. And in the middle, many ordinary folk plaster life with rainbows and smile buttons and wander through life on the basis of sentiment and clichés. All of these views and others are shown up as bankrupt by the savage reality of September 11-and Auschwitz and the other terrible atrocities right through to the ghastly spate of car bombings and beheadings in Iraq.

Do you consider natural disasters like the South Asian tsunami to be evil, or simply unfortunate?

Following the tsunami, we saw a rush to judgment from many Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and some Christian spokesmen. It happened for this or that reason, they said. This is quite wrong. We simply do not know why it happened or why God permitted it, and we can be as cruel as Job's "comforters" when we say we know why when we don't. We Christians must begin as Jesus did when he dismissed his contemporaries who judged the victims of the riots put down by Herod or those crushed by the collapsing tower. In the biblical view, natural disasters are the dark, sad fruit of a world gone awry because of the Fall, and they are clearly part of the creation that is groaning in anticipation of its coming restoration.

You say modern evil is worse than evil committed in prior eras. Why?

I am not saying we are more sinful or more evil than previous generations, but that we are more modern. The modern world has simultaneously magnified the destructiveness of evil and marginalized traditional responses to evil. From the Armenian massacre in World War I, through the Ukraine terror famine, Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, down to Rwanda, the Sudan, and the Congo, the terrible toll reaches into the hundreds of millions of humans killed by their fellow human beings. And the reason for the destructiveness is not weapons of mass destruction. The reason lies in the unholy marriage of modern industrialization and modern processes and attitudes with killing. And by marginalizing traditional responses, I don't just mean that notions such as disturbance and dysfunction have replaced sin, and "grief counselors" have replaced pastors. We have gone far further, and as Roger Shattuck and others have pointed out, we have destroyed so many moral boundaries and limits that we have made evil cool.

Many in the liberal intelligentsia say monotheism-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-is the greatest source of man's inhumanity-if that is the right word-to man. Yet you say some of the worst atrocities, such as the Soviet Gulag and the Cultural Revolution, were committed in the name of secularism. Which is worse as a source of evil-secularism or religion?

Monotheism is the "great unmentionable evil" at the heart of our culture, Gore Vidal thundered in the Lowell Lecture at Harvard in 1992. His charge has been picked up widely and unthinkingly by educated people. The accusation is in fact ignorant, prejudiced, and dead wrong. On the one hand, monotheism is unquestionably the most innovative and influential belief in human history-for instance, its link to the rise of science. On the other hand, more people in the last century were slaughtered under secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals, and in the name of secularist ideologies than in all the religious persecutions in Western history combined-more than 100 million by the communists alone. The point is not to trade charges and countercharges about whether religion or secularism has produced more evil, but to challenge secularists to engage in serious discussion about public life with a great deal more honesty and humility.

Evil can be overwhelming, both to our faith in God and to our faith in man. How should we respond to evil in terms of our own faith?

It is often said that after Auschwitz there cannot be a God-evil is so overwhelming that it is the "rock of atheism." But as Viktor Frankl pointed out, those who say that [about evil] were not in Auschwitz themselves. Far more people deepened or discovered faith in Auschwitz than lost it. He then gave a beautiful picture of faith in the face of evil. A small and inadequate faith, he said, is like a small fire; it can be blown out by a small breeze. True faith, by contrast, is like a strong fire. When it is hit by a strong wind, it is fanned into an inextinguishable blaze.

For example, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that he came to faith in Christ through "the hell-fire of doubt." The turning point for him after all the evils he had experienced was several hours spent looking at a painting of the descent of Jesus from the Cross, after which he wrote, "I do not know the answer to evil, but I do know the meaning of love." The Cross-or as I put it, "no other god had wounds"-is only one part of the Christian answer, but we need to have a fully strong and adequate faith.

What would you say to someone who is suffering from evil?

Suffering is uniquely individual, so there are no recipe answers. The first part of reaching out in love is to listen and try to discern where and why the person is hurting, and only then to bring the reassurance that the gospel brings to that particular hurt. We must never forget that listening is love, that comforting someone with an embrace without words is love, and that if we do not know why someone is suffering, to pretend that we do and say what God is doing in his or her life can be insensitive, cruel, and dead wrong-as Job's comforters were. That said, evil can torture the mind just as it can torture the body, and it is wonderful to be able to bring specific, comforting truths of the gospel to bear on specific points of anguish and see them make a difference. For example, I have seen more people helped by coming to appreciate the outrage of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus-and its significance for the notion that "the world should have been otherwise"-than by a hundred worthy expositions of the Fall.

How do you maintain your faith as a Christian in the face of pervasive moral horror?

I think you have the question the wrong way around. Where else are we to go? Which other faith comes close to matching the biblical answer for its combination of realism, hope, and courage? Buddhism, for example, has been described as the most radical No to human aspirations ever formulated. And while I personally have sometimes admired the nobility of great atheists I have met such as Bertrand Russell, there is a bleakness to the nobility that is almost unendurable. "Atheism," in the words of Jean Paul Sartre, "is a cruel long term business, and I have gone through it to the end."

In contrast to all such views, the gospel is truly the best news ever-with its prospect of a world in which evil and suffering are gone, justice and peace are restored, and the very last tear is wiped away.

Do you think the current focus on evil has any upside?

Recognizing silver linings is not the same as knowing why God allowed suffering and evil in the first place. That, we simply do not know. The silver lining must never be made into the purpose. But in the biblical view, there is no such thing as "useless suffering." People often cite growth in character through suffering, and C.S. Lewis is famous for his idea that suffering is "God's megaphone" and gets our attention. A rarer silver lining that is very important in answer to our postmodern, relativistic, nonjudgmental age is that absolute evil assumes and requires absolute judgment. When an atheist instinctively says, "Godammit!" and actually means it, he is right, not wrong, and is unwittingly praying a prayer that blows apart his atheism.

At the end of the day, it is challenging and sobering to look at human evil in the white of the eye. But from the very depths of my being, with no attempt at propaganda or special pleading, I would say after years of looking into the question, that there is no answer to human evil deeper and more adequate than the answer that is ours as followers of Jesus. But we need to speak it out, and act it out, with clarity, courage, and love today. The world is hungry for it, and so are many in the church.

www.ChristianityToday.com

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