Friday, August 22, 2008

The Question of Evil

Robert S. McElvaine, over at huffPo, has a good post called, "Obama vs. "Oh, Bomb 'Em" -- Who's the Christian?" I don't quite agree with everything McElvaine says, but he does bring up a good example of another loaded question that was asked of both candidates at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. It was the question about "evil." Rev. Warren asked Obama:

...let me ask you one about evil. Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?

There seem to be some missing options there. One of them would be to study evil scientifically, ask why people do such things and see if we can fathom it, then come up with strategies to deal with it and prevent it. However, we don't know what kind of evil Warren is talking about. Does Warren believe in the devil, in the demonic, in some metaphysical, supernatural version of evil?

If so, then that scientific option might seem pretty silly to Warren's world view.

Obama's answer was:

Evil does exist. I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely, and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, now, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God's task, but we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it.

Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for to us have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil's been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.

I like Obama's last few setences there. He almost repeats them here at the end:

... one thing that's very important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think that our intentions are good, doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good.

Tomás de Torquemada, the first Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition probably thought he was doing good, bringing people to Christ through torture. President Bush probably thinks he was doing good by authorizing torture.

Osama bin Laden probably thinks he too is doing good and he apparently thinks the West is evil.

What annoys me about Obama's answer is that it was coy. His idea of evil, so called, seems nuanced and relative, but you can't be quite sure. He doesn't lay everything on the line. To say "just because we think that our intentions are good, doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good," and then not fill that in with an example of some kind, like how president Bush probably is not doing good by continuing the war in Iraq, left the whole thing too vague and abstract. I got a sense he felt he had to hold back. He also doesn't clarify whether he shares Warren's possibly metaphysical view of evil.

Of course, neither did McCain. When Warren asked McCain, he used only slightly different wording:

How about the issue of evil. I asked this of your rival, in the previous debate. Does evil exist and, if so, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?

McCain answered:

Defeat it. A couple of points. One, if I'm president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. No one, no one should be allowed to take thousands of innocent American lives.

If McCain really knows how to get bin Laden, why doesn't he tell George Bush how to do it right now? I don't have much confidence in his answer. It's just bragging and bravado and it's not backed up by any evidence. It's not a brag you can credibly make when one of the biggest failures in this war is that we haven't gotten bin Laden after 7 years of trying using half America's military force.

McCain's answer contains the same hubris that President Bush used campaigning for his second term. It now seems ludicrous to believe it. Not when civil war in Iraq is still a possibility, when bin Laden is still free, when there has been little progress in restraining Iran's nuclear ambitions, when tensions between Israel and Syria are higher than before, and then add Russia's invasion of Georgia and we've got a mess. Nothing McCain said suggests he could do better than Bush with this mess, in fact all this bluff and bravado seems to make the problem worse.

McCain continued:

Of course, evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcended challenge of the 21st century -- radical Islamic extremism.

Not long ago in Baghdad, al Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled, and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and, by remote control, detonated those suicide vests. If that isn't evil, you have to tell me what is.

OK, the blowing up of mentally disabled women is "evil" of a sort in my eyes, but so was preemptively invading Iraq based on what seems to be cherry-picked intelligence that got it all wrong.

And we're going to defeat this evil. And the central battleground according to David Petraeus and Osama bin Laden in the battle, is Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq and we are winning and succeeding and our troops will come home with honor and with victory and not in defeat. And that's what's happening.

Another naked assertion not backed up by any credible evidence. Is the central battleground in the war on terror really Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq? I don't think so. I agree with what Obama has said before, it's that border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where the terrorists are still training.

And we face this threat throughout the world. It's not just in Iraq. It's not just in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people tell us al Qaeda continues to try to establish cells here in the United States of America. My friends, we must face this challenge. We can face this challenge. And we must totally defeat it, and we're in a long struggle. But when I'm around, the young men and women who are serving this nation in uniform, I have no doubt, none.

McCain's response was called, "crisp, immediate and forceful." It could also be called aggressive, paranoid and simple-minded asinine machismo. If our intelligence people tell us al Qaeda is still trying to establish cells here in America, then I need to see some arrests to back it up. I'd like to see more than just vague threats like this; "CIA Chief: Al Qaeda Infiltrators 'Look Western'" from the counterterrorism blog.

The same blog tries to identify some of the problems we've had:

This remains the primary challenge to America in dealing with Jihad. Without defining Jihad's ideological basis, desperate governmental leaders and policy analysts revert to using outdated tactical measures that are focused on regional threats and Cold War statist measures. Without a strategy defining the ideological threat, government and policy leaders are confused, misguided, and frightened, and offer half-measure tactics.

In today's America, this combination of factors has resulted in the current ambiguous "war on extremism."

To effectively deal with the war of ideas that Jihad represents, American government and policy leaders must honestly and clearly define the enemy ideology, and reject regional and statist tactics that are designed for a different enemy than we are fighting today.

As I said above, there were missing options in the "dealing with evil" question, like studying it scientifically. Of course, we already do. You can even take a peak at Scott Atran's "TERRORISM AND RADICALIZATION: WHAT TO DO, WHAT NOT TO DO."

It sums up some research by Scott Atran and Marc Sageman done for the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. And who knows what tools have been developed by the CIA for more covert use?

Since we are dealing with a religious ideology it would seem that Dan Dennett's call for a deeper study of religion, outlined in "Breaking the Spell," has importance as a tool in our war on what McCain called "radical Islamic extremism." The problem with this approach is that there seems to be a lot of conflicting opinion on how to deal with terrorism and religion scientifically and you can see how Scott Atran got into it with Sam Harris and others at

McElvaine, on the other hand, looks at McCain's vow to "defeat evil" and asks in what gospel did Jesus say, "Shoot first and ask questions later"? To McElvaine the values of the Christian Right are deeply unChristian. What Jesus said on what to do about evil is almost the opposite of what McCain said: "But I say to you, 'Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.'" (Matt. 5:39) McElvaine then offers up a list of other biblical quotes, most about anger rather than evil, to support his case.

McElvaine, of course, has a book to sell, "Grand Theft Jesus," that blames the Roman Emperor Constantine for overturning the teachings of Jesus 1700 years ago. Constantine is said to have converted the Roman Empire to Christianity but McElvaine says that he really converted Christianity to the Roman Empire and turned the Prince of Peace into the Prince of War, an ally of the rich and the ruler. He thinks people like McCain and the rest of the "Christian Right" should be called Constantinians, not Christians. Maybe we should call the current Constantinians neo-Constantinians and then shorten that to neocon?

Alas, while I do think that McElvaine is on target when pointing out the differences between Constantinians and the intentions of the New Testament authors, I also think the answers provided by both the Constantinians and the Christians on how to deal with evil suck. It's no wonder that the Right rejected Jesus' teachings, they did it because those teachings don't work for them.

Can you imagine what would happen if we were attacked by another country and our president refused to counter attack? Sometimes it's the only way to protect us from more future attacks. Even if a president did it on the basis of the 'turn the other cheek' passage in scripture, by trying apply Christian doctrine to war, I suspect even McElvaine would want to vote him out of office.

There are only two cases where you should not resist evil, the first, when you're too weak to win the battle and surrender is the only way to survive, and second, when you're so strong that your enemy's strikes don't harm you. Otherwise, I think we are morally obligated to resist violent aggression in both ourselves and others.

The New Testament mindfuck offers believers a belief in both the strength and the weakness to turn the other cheek. The weakness comes from the fact that, according to the New Testament, the world is in the control of the devil. You are instructed not to love the world or anything of it.

"The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." 1 John 2:15-17 NIV


We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 1 John 5:19 NIV


For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Eph 6:12-13 NIV

The Devil offers Jesus the world during Christ's temptation in the wilderness. He took Jesus to a mountaintop and showed him all the kingdoms of the world saying: "All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me." Matt 4:8-9 NIV

You can't promise Jesus something that isn't yours. But the devil only has control of the world because people are in sin and the devil will lose control during the millennial reign of Christ when the new heaven and new earth are established.

A New Testament Christian's strength is his belief in a supernatural world where this material world can no longer touch him. His weakness is his defeatist belief that this world is hopelessly evil until Jesus returns. New Testament Christianity merely offers a compensatory fantasy and a beyond this world hope for those on the bottom of life's heap, it doesn't instruct its believers on what to do when they are in charge. They have to go back to the Old Testament for that. That's where you find the "gospel" of "Shoot first and ask questions later."

It's in the theocratic Old Testament where you find the warrior leaders that Bush and McCain seem to emulate. Think of the Old Testament stories of Gideon, Joshua and the warrior-king David. So, McElvaine can't really say all this macho bravado is unbiblical, it's just not a New Testament world for Christians any more. It hasn't been one since the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome.

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