“There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming.”
In the fall of 2003, I sat on a small block of rubble, sifting through half burned papers and drawings. Small white fires burned in the distance, where — just yesterday — al Qaeda and Taliban operatives fired 107mm rockets full of white phosphorus into a nearby village. White phosphorus — or “Willie Pete” as we call it in the military — is a nasty little concoction. The material is self-igniting so even dumping water on the fire doesn’t quell the flames. It will eventually re-ignite. When the substance touches skin, it burns to the bone.
For months, American forces worked to build the first all girls’ school in a remote village on the eastern border of Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s reign, they prohibited almost all education for women and girls, so the school was a milestone. American forces worked with local engineers and nongovernmental organizations to pay for the school and have it built. Classes commenced for a few months, then one fateful evening the Taliban attacked the town and wired the school with explosives. Now I sat amid the rubble while fires burned behind me.
As I sifted through the remains of the building and spoke with our interpreter, Yusuf, I couldn’t help wonder aloud what made men so insidious that they’d blow up a school. Yusuf, a trained doctor from Pakistan, was quick to point out that education helped lift people out of poverty and oppression. By having women get an education, they could question the Taliban, which that regime didn’t want. His reasoning made sense. There’s always been a push for education as a means to enlighten society. We believe the more educated men and women are, the more of societies ills will disappear. If we can educate people, then poverty will decrease. If people understand the past, they’ll be less apt to repeat folly. If they understand philosophy, science, and the arts, then human flourishing will expand.
For a moment, Yusuf’s statement made sense. Here were evil men in power wanting to keep their warped sense of power. Yet, there was a nagging slimmer of suspicion that there was more to unearth. Where did their evil stem from? Indoctrination? Brain washing? A lack of education as Yusuf suggested? Despite Western societies high level of education, evil still exists. Companies oppress their employees. Rape, abuse, and crime still plague Europe and America. And for all the talk of technological advancement for the better, the one lesson war taught me was that human beings have figured out how to kill entire groups of people more efficiently. Drones, IEDs, and nuclear weapons do far more damage than a peasant with a sword. In fact, education has made us so intelligent we now know how to destroy the earth.
As Yusuf stood staring at the white phosphorus fires shaking his head, I moved to a lone doorframe still standing amid the rubble. I pushed gently on the frame and watched it topple, joining more of the rubble where the hope for a better life once stood. And like the crumbling doorframe, my hopes disintegrated. Evil would persist no matter how enlightened or educated we become.
It is a well known and reported fact that President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill knew about the ongoing atrocities of the Holocaust during World War II. The British government knew about the Jewish genocide as early as 1941 — four years before the war ended. Many historians have speculated why there wasn’t immediate action against the genocide, and the answers vary. The one thing we do know is they met the first reports with denial. The Germans were educated men and women who produced literature, music, and art. How on earth could the average German fall hook, line, and sinker to such evil? Surely genocide and persecuting an entire people group based on their religious affiliation couldn’t happen in such an enlightened country? This is the culture that produced Bach after all.
Roosevelt’s epiphany to the problem of the Nazi party and Jewish genocide is recorded by Frances Perkins in her memoir, The Roosevelt I Knew. Perkins was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet as Secretary of Labor and a close friend of Roosevelt. She records that during the winter of 1944, the work of existential philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, became a topic of discussion during a White House dinner party. A young minister named Howard A. Johnson recommended the Danish philosopher to the President, who jotted down notes and ideas. Weeks later, when discussing the war effort with Perkins, the President remarked that she should read the philosopher as it would teach her something about the Nazis. She recalls him saying:
“Kierkegaard explains the Nazis to me as nothing else ever has. I have never been able to make out how people who are obviously human beings could behave like that. They are human, yet they behave like demons. Kierkegaard gives you the understanding of what it is in a man that makes it possible for these Germans to be so evil.”
Though we want to deny that human beings are capable of such evil on a mass scale with the common man a willing participant, we each have the freedom of choice for the good or detriment of humanity. This idea was the crux of Kierkegaard’s thesis. He believed that fear and pride often consume the soul, and we become willing actors in our own depravity. Our thoughts are often the greatest indicator of the philosopher’s point. You’ve probably fantasized about strangling the guy who cut you off in traffic, torturing an old school bully, or even wandered into the realm of depraved sexual fantasy. So then imagine if Google created a technology able to broadcast our thoughts in the form of projected images? Would any of us dare wear this device? Or would it destroy society? I’d wager that marriages would crumble, friendships would implode, coworkers would get fired, and most of us would be eligible for a straight jacket. We like to point to the Nazis as examples of what we should never become, and yet our internal dynamics and thought processes beckon like Darth Vader.
To mitigate the fear that we’re not depraved, we project evil onto those with different belief systems than our own. After one of the Democratic primaries for the upcoming 2020 election, I scrolled through the talking points of potential presidential candidates on Twitter. One popular tweet caught my eye in which a pastor called presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke a “COMMUNIST and a COWARD.” I don’t agree with much in the American political machinations of our day for either side of the aisle, but as a Christian I couldn’t help shake my head. Typically Christians believe that evil is a transcendent force (i.e. Satan) as well as an intrapersonal one (i.e. your own selfishness). However, Christians are commanded to love our enemies and sacrifice for them. The Apostle Paul reminds fellow Christians that we don’t fight against people different from us, but that there are often other evil forces at work. Yet, here was this so-called pastor assigning evil to a man who holds different ideologies than his own. Were Beto O’Rourke to win the election surely this “pastor” would believe the source of evil stemmed from the White House as opposed to looking deep within and recognizing how much he hates his neighbor (as opposed to what his faith commands).
In fact, it’s easy for each of us to assign evil to those outside our circle, network, or tribe. For some capitalism is the source of all our woes, while others believe socialism will usher in poverty and malevolence. We point fingers at the Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, gays, straights, immigrant, naturalized citizen, Facebook friend, twitter enemy, or terrorist cell. They are the source of what is truly evil and will usher in the apocalypse. We never look inward that we might ultimately be the source of human suffering and evil. No, it’s everyone else we decry. Our enemies.
One of the strangest tales in history comes from a biblical account. Jesus Christ assembles his A-Team, but it’s full of losers and second-class citizens. In most professions, CEOs and executives assemble a team of men and women with stellar backgrounds for a start-up. Board members range from the well-connected to the powerful. But Christ chooses fishermen, arrogant brothers, a traitor, a zealot, a tax collector, and a slew of other miscreants. Of all the characters in his ensemble, Simon the Zealot and Matthew (Levi) the Tax Collector are the most odd because they’re natural enemies. Matthew collected taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire. While we think the profession innocent in modernity, imagine the Chinese government taking over your homeland and then employing your neighbor to collect taxes on their behalf. Not only does he take the job, but extorts you in the process. For all the talk of Judas being a traitor, Matthew was one too. And we must not forget Simon. Simon was part of the Zealots who believed Roman occupation was a slight against God. They often used terrorist tactics to assault Roman authorities, murder tax collectors, and plan coups — all in the name of God. Were we to rewrite the relationship between Matthew and Simon in the modern era, one would be a member of antifa and the other a member of the alt-right.
What I find strange is that these two men didn’t murder one another, but instead helped create the largest hodge podge of natural enemies — the Christian church. Whereas Islam and Judaism are concentrated in the Middle East and Buddhism in the Far East, Christianity’s epicenter always changes. Currently, Iran has the fastest growing Christian church. Africa, China, and South America too, have far more growth than the European and North American church. More often than not, churches are filled with natural enemies as opposed to friends. Men and women from different backgrounds, socioeconomic status, race, and even sexual experiences find themselves committed to the cause of Christ. Whereas the American version has experienced a great hijacking of the faith, the historic church of Jesus is full of men and women who would — by all normal accounts — have reason to hate one another. Yet, in commitment to their Lord, they put aside differences and learn to understand the other and grow in love.
I watched this dilemma play out first hand after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, when two friends of mine found themselves at odds. One was a strong and poetic member of the Black Lives Movement, whereas the other grew up hunting in a small Texas town. Both were college educated and friends. Yet the election divided them because one believed voting for Trump was a slight against the color of his skin, whereas the other felt he voted for the best candidate. Those caught in the cultural versions of Christianity, find reason — and even Bible verses — to hate their enemies or write them off. But those in the historical tradition find their enemies as would-be brothers and sisters. In my friends’ case, they spent time talking and practicing their faith, reflecting on Christ’s words that they’ll be “known for they way they love one another.” At face value, it’s an odd statement Christ makes. “Well, of course Christians are should love one another. They’re on the same team,” one would remark. But why mention such a rhetorical statement? Why remind your followers that the world will know you’re a Christian because you love a member of the same tribe? The answer, when revealed, drops like a bomb — Christ’s disciples are often enemies when they first join his movement. That they’re able to love one another shows something truly transcendent. We wonder how that’s even possible, but let us return to the horror of the Holocaust. There is an incident recorded where activist and survivor, Corrie Ten Boom, embraced a former Nazi guard implicit in the murder of her sister only to call him “brother” when he became a Christian.
When we look at Ten Boom’s example, it can offend modern sensibilities. Opponents of Christianity will always write it off as too forgiving, too intolerant, too easy, or too hard. “By forgiving your enemies and welcoming them as brothers and sisters won’t this continue abusive behavior?” skeptics contend. Where’s the justice? Christ is the only path to salvation? Too intolerant. What about everyone else? Any man or woman can find freedom, forgiveness, and right-standing despite the horrors of their actions? Too easy. What about repercussions? To become a Christian one must give their entire life and will over to Christ? Too hard. What about my freedoms? Yet, Christ’s movement is this great answer to evil in our world — that enemies becomes friends, reconcile despite the differences, seek to love one another, and — out of that love — love others who would call them enemy.
I often wonder if I’ll ever get to return to the lands in I which fought, much how Vietnam veterans return to old battlegrounds in search of healing. If so, I’d like to return to the small village with the rubble heap of a school. Perhaps while there I’ll meet a man implicit in the school bombing. For many years after the war I would have only seen him as the enemy, no matter how reformed or changed the man became. But let’s say on this occasion he explained he’s now a Christian. I know what my response would be, and is much different than chastising the man for his sins as I would have before. Instead, I would embrace him, call him brother, and then suggest we pick up bricks. He would ask why, and I’d respond, “We’re going to rebuild this school together.”
And our first order of business would be reassembling that crumbled doorframe.