Since the beginning of human history, violence and bloody warfare have been among humanity’s most common ways of eliminating those seen as enemies. And in recent decades, we have not found better methods, or so it seems, of eliminating these opponents. Our “enemies” are still there, despite the escalation of bloody conflicts, whether in our own neighborhoods or on the international scene. Consider, for example, the violent conflicts still raging or smoldering in the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Israel, West Bank, Gaza, etc.).
An approach that has helped me personally in struggling with the question of how to rid our world of evil began with a discussion I had long ago with the late Father Henri Nouwen in 1974. At that time, he shared with me in an interview some of Thomas Merton’s thoughts on nonviolence. Nouwen was a teacher at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, at the time and had recently written Pray to Live, a book about Merton.
Father Nouwen said that Thomas Merton saw a close link between violence and a faulty notion of evil. “If you see evil as something ‘out there,’ something outside yourself, sharply defined and irreversible,” explained Nouwen, “then the only way to deal with it is in the same way you deal with a malignant tumor —You cut it out, take it out, eradicate it, burn it away, kill it —which means you immediately become violent.” Father Nouwen pointed out how Adolf Hitler had identified Jews as “the evil thing” and believed that “once you take that away, there will be no more evil.”
Merton, a Trappist monk who had studied Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas on nonviolence, believed that the above way of thinking was an oversimplification. Thanks to Gandhi, said Nouwen, “Merton started to discover that the roots of all problems were in his own soul, too, that evil is not something outside himself that could be identified, but part of the whole human condition of which he was a part.”
Father Nouwen emphasized Merton’s view that the roots of all evil are in the human heart, and the first place to start converting or reversing the evil process is in one’s own heart.
To follow the wisdom of Thomas Merton, therefore, we should not only make a big effort to exterminate the evil outside ourselves, but first of all to diminish the evil tendencies within us: selfishness, pride, vengeance, hatred, violence. These impulses we hold in common with all humanity.
As most of us are aware, Jesus had already taught a similar way of dealing with evil when he said, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the beam in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the splinter from your eye, when you don’t even notice the wooden beam in your own eye” (Lk 6:41-42). In the same chapter of Luke, Jesus also teaches about loving your enemies and forgiving rather than condemning others.
Societies have a right and a duty to protect their citizens from terrorism—and to confront and bring to justice to those who commit acts of mass murder. It is not enough to look only outside oneself, however. It i s not fair to simply point to a country like Iran or Iraq as evil and at the same time to pretend that we are free of evil? Is our own national record free of all blemishes—we with our history of racism, violence and corporate bosses sucking the life savings from defenseless people lower on the economic ladder?
We do well to reflect on Thomas Merton’s advice to hate injustice, evil, tyranny and greed, but we must hate these things in ourselves—not only in those who are “out there” across the ocean.