There's a quote that's been dogging me for some years now. Often attributed to an Anglo-Irish philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the quote goes something like this: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing". It often appears as a tag line in emails from people who are very committed to a particular "cause" which they perceive to be unjust or immoral. Perhaps it's just me, but I've come to feel as though it serves as a wagging finger. The text of these emails has outlined a particular issue and the "triumph of evil" quote is a benediction of sorts - the ultimate raison d'etre for rolling up our sleeves and taking a stand against the forces of evil at work in our world.
So, I've been trying to figure out why this quote irks me. After all, it has a certain inherent wisdom, doesn't it? Slavery is often cited as an evil which was brought down by the actions of good men - most especially William Wilberforce, about whom a movie (Amazing Grace) has now been released to bring historical account to popular culture. Let me say unequivocably that I do not for a second wish to diminish the efforts of Wilberforce (or any other social or political activist) who has courageously taken a controversial stand and effected change in society. These men and women are rightly regarded as heroes. So, what's the problem?
Well, I guess there are two things. First, since we can never undo the intricate web of human action and inaction on any particular issue, we can't say with any certainty what the outcome would have been in the absence of the action or inaction of a certain person at a certain time. Had Wilberforce not challenged the British Parliament when he did, would the institution of slavery have persisted to this day? [As I say that, I'm quite conscious of the fact that the institution of slavery DOES exist today - in fact, National Geographic had a feature article on 21st Century Slaves a few years ago in which they reported: "There are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The modern commerce in humans rivals illegal drug trafficking in its global reach—and in the destruction of lives." (see http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0309/feature1/index.html?fs=www7.nationalgeographic.com for a taste of the article or go the library and look up the Sept. 2003 issue of the National Geographic). What would have happened if Wilberforce had not acted as he did? Well - we really don't know, do we. Again, let me stress that this is not a criticism of Wilberforce. Far from it! Rather, it's a plea for careful reflection.
The other thing has to do with this "triumph of evil" business. There are some details of my Christian faith that I'm not absolutely, totally, 100% sure about. I recently heard someone say that most of us might have our theology 80% correct. The problem is, we're not sure which 80% is right or, more importantly, which 20% is wrong!
What I want to say is this: the way I understand it - at the very heart of my faith - evil does not win, no matter how badly we behave or how inhumanely we treat one another on this earth. No matter how courageously we stand for justice or how meekly we watch injustices unfold. Certainly, if we do nothing when we could act or speak, we may fail to deliver someone from pain and suffering. But let's be clear on this one thing: Evil has already been defeated. Wasn't that the point of the cross? Really, if the only hope we have against evil is our (puny) efforts - our schemes, campaigns and strategies - we're in big trouble.
This is not a prescription for doing nothing, but a reality check. Let's not think of ourselves more highly than we ought. If we really want to be followers of Christ - disciples, apprentices - God doesn't expect us to save the world or even fix it. He does expect us to do the things Jesus taught us to do - to be faithful witnesses of the life that comes from obedience. To live according to the ethics of the kingdom and thus create a dynamic, life-embracing, counter culture. And then! When we Christians get this part down - and I mean, REALLY get this down, in spite of the push and pull of our culture of materialism and me-ism, then we will see what God can do with our systems and institutions of injustice!
The triumph of evil? I think not.