Over the years I have heard both helpful and not-so-helpful ways of thinking and speaking about evil. On the helpful side: In 1974 I interviewed the late Father Henri Nouwen about the writings of Thomas Merton on nonviolence. Nouwen was a teacher at Yale Divinity School at the time and had written a book about Merton entitled Pray to Live.
Father Nouwen said that Merton saw a close connection 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 would 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.”
Henri Nouwen, Remembered
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.”
The Perspective of Thomas Merton
Thomas 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. “The whole conversion experience,” said Nouwen, “begins with the recognition and confession that you are part of the problem. You are part of the evil in the world, and you can not simply point your finger at the evil world.”
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 Merton wrote in his New Seeds of Contemplation, “Instead of hating the people we think are the war-makers, hate the appetites and the disorders in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed, but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”
Words of Jesus
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 evil—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 would do well to reflect on Thomas Merton’s advice to hate injustice, evil, tyranny, and greed, but we must hate these things in ourselves first.
May the God of mercy, pardon, love, peace, and wisdom pour out these very gifts upon all of us in the human family who so desperately need them. May God’s Spirit come and teach us everything!