Animals can be brutal, but only humans can be rationally cruel… Only humans can be evil. – James Orbinski; An Imperfect Offering, Humanitarian Aid in the Twenty-First Century
I’ve struggled with the concept of evil a number of times in the past. Recently I was confronted with the question again while reading James Orbinski’s “An Imperfect Offering; Humanitarian Aid in the Twenty-First Century.”
Dr. Orbinski is the past president of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) and in the mid 1990s was one of the few westerners who remained in Rwanda during the most brutal and complete genocides ever recorded.
For those of you who don’t remember or the details are foggy. In the space of just a few months during the spring and summer of 1994, tribal warfare in central Africa claimed more lives than the Nazi death camps of World War II could claim in over 5 years. Millions of men, women and children were simply slaughtered by whatever means seemed most convenient at the time. The lucky were shot but most were hacked to pieces with machetes or burned alive. Many were tortured and raped in the process. Why? For no other reason than an accident of birth, they were of the wrong tribe.
During his time in Rwanda Dr. Orbinski had a front row seat to evil on display and reading his book has been a very unsettling experience. More than once I have had to stop and collect myself.
I have long held that true evil is beyond human understanding. It is not a human trait that is possible to understand from a human perspective. Evil is a spiritual concept. What makes a man do unspeakable things to another man? It is the evil of the spiritual world that grabs a hold of him and takes over his conscience. To put it another way, evil is not a human trait and contrary to what Dr. Orbinski says in the above quote, it is not possible for a person to be evil.
I realize that ‘s a pretty bold and inflammatory statement but hear me out …
As a Christ-follower I strongly believe in the innate goodness of all creation. Indeed in the creation story of Genesis God declares all things good not just once but six times. Evil doesn’t enter the story until chapter 3 and the entire rest of the bible is a story about people bowing to the temptation of evil while God begs and pleads with them to return to his perfect example of righteousness.
Christ followers are called to be peacemakers. In that calling we need to look beyond the evil that people are prone to and see them with God’s eyes, as children of creation, deeply loved as only a father can love. You cannot make peace with an evildoer but you can make peace with a misguided person and show them a better way, if you take the time to see them as an innately good human who has been led astray by the spirit of evil. In acknowledging their humanity you can also help them to see your own humanity and the humanity in everyone else.
I firmly believe that if the perpetrators of genocide could see the humanity in other people they would be incapable of killing simply due to an accident of birth.
That being said if someone remains blinded to their part in all this we also need to be able to walk away and leave them to their own destruction. But that’s a discussion for another time. For now our job is to love with a heart of compassion both the victims and the perpetrators of violence, because all humans can be children of God if they turn from their evil ways and follow him.
And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right— 15 if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil—that person will surely live; they will not die. 16 None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live. [Ezekiel 33:14-16]