On the 27th August 2020 the New Zealand’s High court brought down the judgement of imprisonment for life without release on Brenton Tarrant the Australian terrorist who attacked two Mosques in New Zealand on March 15th, 2019. He shot and killed 51 people and seriously injured 40 others with semi-automatic weapons. This terrible tragedy struck at the heart of the way New Zealanders think of themselves, as tolerant and inclusive people. Many of the victims were relatively recent immigrants to N.Z.
This event raises many questions for us: Is the perpetrator, a self-confessed member of the extreme ‘alt -right’ and a ‘white supremacist’, part of a growing movement that will further stress our democratic liberal societies and how do we counter that? Given what appears to have motivated this act how can we survive the pressures being created by the massive people movements around the world, the clash of cultures and the xenophobia they produce? Can we reign in the spread of these toxic ideological viruses on the ‘Web’ that seem to be the way many like Brenton Tarrant are radicalised?
There are deep tensions in Europe as they have coped with several large waves of people fleeing the violence in North Africa and the Middle East. Some countries have reintroduced border controls in spite of the EU’s policy on free movement. The Pandemic has added to existing tensions, and the financial and unemployment pressures it brings will increase these. It also raises the question of the disturbing link between ultra-right-wing and extreme nationalist politics and religion. This includes for example; Hindu nationalism in India, Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and Islam and extremist violence in Pakistan to non-Islamic groups. All public figures on the political left or right, and particularly religious leaders, need to take great care with their rhetoric in these dangerous days. Christians need to remember “that they will know we are Christians by our love.”
But in addition to these socio-political questions another ancient question raises its head once more. It is a question we prefer to keep at bay till another atrocity hits our screens. It is the reptile we keep locked away in the cellar of our minds – the reality of evil.
Our writers have turned to metaphor to name it and the paradox of its presence alongside human goodness and beauty. It has been called “the worm in the rose” and “the maggot in the breast”. Alexander Solzhenitsyn made the point most elegantly when he wrote, “the line dividing good and evil goes right through the heart of every human being.” In its larger mystical sense St. Paul described it as “the mystery of iniquity” and Conrad as “the heart of darkness.”
But however we name it we must face it if we are to defeat it, both in our societies, our nations and ourselves. Optimistic Humanism wants to deny it. Scientific Naturalism wants to explain it away as the blind indifferent and brutish survival process of evolution. Secular sociology and psychology want to explain it sociologically or chemically.
But we all know this will not do. These explanations are inadequate and reductionist. When confronted with the beast we instinctively feel its malevolent spiritual reality. It may be that the reason that our first response is either to deny or rationalize it is because we do not want to face its presence in ourselves and the challenge it presents. But face the challenge we must, or the darkness will overpower us. When Bonhoeffer faced the darkness in the form of the German Nazi party in the 1940’s he wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Of the many horrors of the 20th and 21st C that one could recount I chose two reflections by people who were actually present when the beast got off the chain. I chose them because they reveal in a very personal way that when intelligent and sophisticated people are confronted with rampant evil, they can only describe it in terms that reveal their intuitive sense of its malevolent spiritual reality.
In 1993/4 General Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian army officer was appointed the Commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. Due to an inadequate force size and the negligent unwillingness of the UN to make decisions, in spite of his repeated appeals, he was unable to prevent the deaths of 800,000 people in the intertribal mayhem and murder that erupted over a period of 100 days. In his heart-rending book “Shake hands with the Devil” he writes: “This book is the account of humans who were entrusted with the role of helping others taste the fruits of peace. Instead we watched as the devil took control of paradise on earth and fed on the blood of the people we were supposed to protect.” Later haunted by the experience he was driven close to suicide.
The second reflection comes from the experience of a young German lawyer, Sebastian Heffner who fled to England in1938 to escape the Nazi regime. There he wrote a description of Germany’s seduction and corruption by Hitler entitled “Defying Hitler.” In an icy passage he describes the evil he sensed in Hitler well before it took expression in ‘the final solution’. “For a moment I physically sensed the man’s odour of blood and filth, the nauseating approach of a man-eating animal – its foul, sharp claws in my face.”
So, is the New Zealand terrorist a deeply psychologically disturbed person or a mad man, or is he madness in the service of evil? Is he a racist, a religious and political fanatic, fanaticism in the service of evil? When and where was the point he stepped beyond reason, morality and reality, surrendered to the darkness and was overpowered?
When we ponder the reality of evil other questions leap forward. Can it ever finally be overcome, not just personally, but universally? Who calls evil to the final accounting? Will there be an ultimate universal Hague, a final court of justice for the unnamed victims of history? Will there be a final judgment for the monsters of ancient as well as modern genocides? Is there another kingdom, a kingdom of light that can and will overcome the kingdom of darkness?
The responses posed range from Nihilistic despair that says that life is absurd and without meaning and so there is no reason why anything cannot happen in a meaningless random world. To the Optimistic Humanists who, in spite of all the evidence, believe more education and social engineering will solve the problem. They seem unaware of the naiveté of their position in the light of the fact that it was the most sophisticated, highly educated and aesthetically aware nation in Europe that designed and permitted the Holocaust.
Then there is the Existentialist response of heroic decision in the absence of no ultimate meaning, purpose or values. Like the hero in Camus’ novel “The Plague”, Dr Rieux, who works courageously on fighting the plague knowing all the time he cannot finally win but who finds his meaning in his actions. Of course this is ultimately no different from the disillusioned young men in David Fincher’s film “Fight Club” who find meaning in the visceral violence of bare knuckle fighting, or Hemmingway’s meaning in action, “Nobody ever lived their life all the way up except Bullfighters.”
The above are modernist responses, what would a Post-Modernist say? With its rejection of all grand narratives of meaning and the embracing of moral relativism they are driven inward to individual subjectivity – what feels good or right to the individual. This leaves them at the mercy of their own thin personal resources distorted by their internal disfunctions and limitations. Ironically within their rudderless world there may be a seed of hope as their subjectivism may lead them to rediscover the core of their humanness – “made in the Image of God.” But the journey will be fraught because they will also meet the darkness and dysfunction within themselves as well.
Then there is the current Western flirtation with Eastern Mysticism and its concept of peace through disengagement from that which it claims produces evil and suffering – attachment, desire, individuality and difference. Leave desire, individuality and the self behind and merge oneself into the cosmic sea of universal oneness. Transcend the illusory world of difference. To critics of EM this is just the ultimate escape, the destruction of the self, a kind of mystical suicide. In the end these mystical and mental gymnastics will, I think, prove uncongenial to Western individualisms preoccupation with personal autonomy and self-interest. In fact it is mostly ‘EM light’ that’s flirted with in the West. Historically it has a bad track record of indifference to social and structural evil. Despite their Constitution the iniquitous cast system is still alive and well in modern India. [i]
But there is someone who offers another way, the way of redemptive suffering, someone who suffers with and for us. Who neither denies, nor withdraws from evil but engages with it to defeat it. His actions take him into the heart of suffering caused by evil and to a final, terrible but triumphant confrontation. This one is ‘The Christ’, crucified and risen, “the lamb of God offered for the sin of the world”, God who becomes one with us in our humanness in his incarnation in Jesus.
Johns Gospel describes him in this way: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Although to his friends on that dark night when they came for him it seemed that it had. When the police and the betrayer arrived to arrest Jesus at night, he said to them “This is your hour, when darkness reigns.” Yes! Like every oppressive regime before and since this is when the secret police always arrive, at night in the darkness. There is a deliberate play on words here by Jesus. As he said on an earlier occasion “men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil”
But evil overplayed its hand; in attempting to destroy him it destroyed itself. Its cunning, its overweening pride and will to power overreached itself. It precipitated a final showdown with God and his sovereign will and his absolute power, justice, and mercy. There is only one outcome in such a contest. And so, on the cross Jesus bears all that evil can do, not only in its destructive violence and blood lust, but also through its primary goal, the separation of humanity from God and then people’s alienation from each other. So, he identifies with us in our suffering, but also suffers for us by bearing justices’ penalty for our willing participation in evil. He suffers death and then defeats it in his resurrection. The cross reveals how implacably opposed God is to evil and how unrelentingly for us is his love.
How are we to live now in the light of all this? As Christians we understand that we live now in the tension between the two kingdoms. The kingdom of light has broken in with the coming of Jesus, the decisive battle has been won but the final surrender and the consummation of the Kingdom of God is yet to come. It is like the situation in Europe as WW2 drew to its close. The decisive battle with Hitler’s army had been fought and won late in 1945, the Axis forces were routed and in retreat. It was now only a matter of time before the final surrender and the enemy laid down its arms. But of course, if you were in an allied infantry group on the front line there were a dozen more small but deadly battles and skirmishes to survive before you reached Berlin and the formal surrender. That is the Christians position now in the world. God has won the decisive battle on the cross; the end is now decided but we are still exposed to the crossfire of evil and each day we must act both personally and socially to confront and defeat it. [ii]
As a Christian I also need to remind myself that Christians have sometimes betrayed Jesus by also descending into religious fanaticism that has led to division, discrimination, and violence. This is a tendency that lurks in our fallen natures and we must guard against it constantly. Only by submitting to Jesus’ commands to love our neighbour and take up our cross daily and follow him can we defeat evils seduction to partisan and sectarian destructiveness.
[i] For a fuller description of these responses see Chp’s 4-9 in “The Universe Next Door” by James Sire IVP 2004
[ii] Some elements in this article first appeared in a different form as a response to a similar tragic event in Norway in July 2011in which a lone terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, with a similar profile, killed 77 people.