I don’t know what it is about this particular winter, but it seems to be the season for finishing a number of books that I’ve started in previous years.  Three and a half years ago I started reading Unspeakable: Facing up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror by Os Guinness, and I made it to within forty-six pages from the end.  As of this evening, those forty-six pages are now water under the bridge. 

Why did it take so long to finish?  I’m not sure, but God’s timing is impeccable.  It’s only recently that Amy and I have become intensely aware of the reality of modern-day slavery and human trafficking, not to mention abortion, and have been moved enough to become involved more than we have been in the past.

Just this afternoon we were discussing how we can help others in need, more than just giving money to organizations that are actively involved in areas we care about.  We’re concerned about slavery, but we haven’t seen any evidence of slavery where we live in South Dakota, though we’re keeping our eyes open to the possibility.  The closest abortion clinics that we know about are several hundred miles away, but we do know that women from our area travel to those clinics to have abortions.  One look in the local yellow pages under ‘Abortion Providers’ confirms this fact, as do the reports we receive from our local Pregnancy Care Center.  And it’s no coincidence that Andy’s sermon this morning was on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.

Then, to top off the day’s thought process, I pick up Unspeakable and finish reading it.  Guinness’s book reads at times like a catalog of the human capacity for evil through the centuries, along with his analysis of evil and his attempts to help the rest of us comprehend the magnitude of it all.  Rather than attempting to write a review of what I read over three years ago, I’ll share some paragraphs from his conclusion.

Has there ever been a time when it was more urgent to face up to our human capacity for evil?  With all the shameful record before us, no longer can we say we do not know.  No longer are we living on the far side of ignorance and nonresponsibility.  Pleas of innocence have lost their grounds.  Each time evil has surfaced, certainly since World War II, most of the world knew well enough what was going on and still turned away.  The unimaginable and unbelievable has become believable and routine.  With the few grand exceptions, we have all been bystanders, the liberals among us as well as the conservatives, our activist governments as well as our passive fellow citizens.  More than 100 million human beings have been murdered, and most of us have “passed by on the other side of the road.”

After twenty-five years in Soviet jails, an Estonian dissident was released into the care of his only surviving relative, his sister.  Picking him up, she warned him that the family knew nothing of all he had experienced and that she did not want him to bring politics into their family affairs.  Aghast, he ordered her to stop the car, got out, and said: “You don’t know me and I don’t know you.  Good-bye.”

“The struggle of man against power,” the novelist Milan Kundera wrote, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”  But clearly our problem is more a moral issue than a matter of mental recall.  One writer sardonically summed up the sorry parade of broken commitments and public indifference in the last century: “‘Never again’ might just as well be defined as ‘Never again would Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.'”

Is religion the problem or the solution?  Is secularism the problem or the solution?  Guinness writes:

At the very least, we must shed Enlightenment prejudices about religion and consider the facts more objectively.  We must reject the hoary myth that “religion is the problem,” as well as the fallacious idea that the answer is a public square denuded of all religion.  As we have witnessed again and again, religion of one kind or another has provided a rationale for evil, but so also has its opposite.  The quality and tone of public discussion would improve immeasurably if secularists were to acknowledge that their faith is one faith among others and talk openly of their own failures — on the one hand, directly inspiring utopian evil, and on the other, failing to provide humanistic values strong enough to resist modern evil.

Finally, he offers “three lessons on a personal level.”  (italics are his)

First, we must come to grips with the nature of our own humanity and the evil evident in our hearts and in our world.  Those who do evil, from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib, are the same species as we are, and an unavoidable lesson of the past century is that we cannot afford to entertain utopian views of human nature that ignore our human capacity for evil.

For all the glory of humanness, we human beings also have a problem.  We do not always seek the good of our fellow human beings, all too often we have clear intent to do harm, and sometimes we must acknowledge an uncontrollable hate and even a shameful love of dominance and cruelty.  What Nietzsche called “the festival of cruelty” is a feature of the human, not of the animal world.

One of the most remarkable claims of concentration camp survivors is that they became aware of the ubiquity of evil.  Though surely this group above all would angrily reject any notion of moral equivalence between perpetrator and victim, this was not the case when it came to their view of humanity as a whole.  As Solzhenitsyn came to realize, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Or as Elie Wiesel reflected after Auschwitz, “Deep down . . . man is not only executioner, not only victim, not only spectator; he is all three at once.”


Second, we must each consider our own response to the evil of our times.  Are we who live in the more developed parts of the world to retreat into a cocoon of privilege while the storm rages elsewhere — for the unfortunate people in Burma or the Sudan, for instance?  Can we excuse ourselves with talk of compassion fatigue because we now see far more than we can do anything about?  Are we to join those who flee the horror of what they know by taking refuge in apocalyptic fiction and fevered end-of-the-world speculations?  Are we to live in idleness because we can rationalize our rejection of the failures of idealism and do-goodery?

And this is where, for him, the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and potential answers for the questions I asked in the opening paragraphs are given.

My own conviction as a follower of Christ is that we each walk the earth to fulfill God’s call.  We are therefore entrepreneurs of our lives, and each and every one of us is responsible for making the most of our talents and resources, exercising our callings, engaging fully in making a difference in our spheres of influence, and doing our utmost to help our neighbors in their need — including relieving their suffering and taking a stand against the evil that oppresses them.

As such, within our definite limits we are each responsible.  None of us can save the world, and to try to do so would be to flirt with despair.  Our tiny circles of influence are limited, some less so than others, but for all of us that influence is significant.  And when we each exercise our responsible significance, and the significance of each of our callings overlaps with those of others, the ripples we make together can spread far and wide. 

So we can help more suffering people than just those we can help face to face.  We can give to causes we could never visit.  When we do not have the money to make such contributions, we can write letters, we can vote, and in a myriad of other ways we can influence events.  And both first and last, we can pray for people and places we could never afford the time and money to visit and could never touch in any other way.

That is the only way I know to emulate the citizens of Le Chambon and be “always ready to help” and to follow Solzhenitsyn in daring to say, “But not through me.”  That is the only way I know to measure up to Dostoyevsky’s challenging maxim: “We are all responsible for all, and for all men before all.  And I more than all the others.”  Whatever others do or do not do, whatever the opposition, whatever the cost, we can each make our own stand and declare in our own way, “But not through me.”


Third — and most importantly of all — we must each decide for ourselves the faith by which we live, and the faith by which we understand and respond to evil and suffering.  Rarely has evil been so powerful, so blatant, and so destructive as in our modern world.  And our language to describe evil and our ethical will to resist it have rarely been so uncertain and so confused.   At a time when there has never been as much intellectual prejudice against an open discussion of the full range of possibilities for a truly “examined life,” Edmund Burke’s admonition remains timely: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

One comment on “Unspeakable

  1. […] a good question, and it ties in well with several posts on this blog as of late, such as this one, this one, this one, this one, and this […]

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