The Problem With Calling Hamas “Evil”
I did it. When I wrote on Monday of the Hamas invasion and murderous attacks on Israelis — the horrifying details of which keep coming to light. I wrote, “I am sickened by the Hamas attack . . . It is evil and must be seen and named as such.”
When President Biden spoke on Tuesday, he did it. He too spoke of evil and of the Hamas attack as “evil.” The President said, “there are moments in this life…when the pure, unadulterated evil is unleashed on this world. The people of Israel lived through one such moment this weekend.” He said it again. “This was an act of sheer evil.” I am grateful for his clarity.
Many others, however, have resisted such language. They point to the larger context of the long and tortured Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some, many really, have described the actions of Hamas as justified by the suffering of Palestinian people and the violence of which they have been victims.
Throughout this week the debate has raged in the press, in the media, on campus, and in conversations. “Who’s to blame?” “Who are the real evil-doers?” “Were the actions of Hamas ‘evil’ and are they to be condemned? Or are they justifiable, or at the very least, understandable?”
Beneath this debate is a schism in the American left, liberal and progressive world. Some are unequivocal. What Hamas did was, as the President said, “sheer evil.” For others, it was if not justified, then it was not something they were willing to condemn, still less to term as “evil.” If the debate seems familiar, it is pretty much the same one we had after the 9/11 attacks.
I do not regret my words or view that the actions of Hamas — the brutal attacks on civilians, the beheadings of babies, the machine gun murder of concert goers, and so much more — were evil. It has been sickening and so, so sad to hear the stories of the brutalized, the murdered, and of those now made into human (hostage) shields.
But the good vs. evil framing is also a dangerous one.
To say why it is dangerous I want to introduce a theological term, knowing that in doing so, I may risk losing some of you. I’ll take the risk. The term is “Manichaean.” The Manichaeans were exponents of a dualistic (think black/ white, no grey) religion that spread far and wide beginning in the 3rd century. They believed the world is basically a battleground between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Even more, it was the battleground between two rival gods, one good and another, equally powerful, god of evil.
For the Manichaean, the task is to destroy evil and the evil-doers. Completely. Take them out. Eradicate them. Annihilate them utterly. Scorched earth. Shock and awe.
While you may never have heard before of the ancient religion of Manichaeanism, 21st century America is steeped in it. We do not see our political or personal adversaries as people with a different position or view, or as people with whom we can disagree and debate. Sometimes we don’t see them as “people” at all. The opposition, our enemies, are certainly not people with whom we can compromise. Compromise, as Kevin McCarthy found out, is anathema. The other side, the evil side, must be destroyed.
Restraint be damned. Distinctions be damned. It’s us or them.
I get it. But as a Christian I come from a different place and see the world differently. There is no absolute, clear and impermeable distinction between the good guys and the bad ones. We are all capable of evil. We all have a part in the evil that besets our world. The world has lived with “the Palestinian problem,” just as we choose to live with other things that are wrong but don’t directly affect us or affect us all that much.
Moreover, and as a Christian, I see evil not as another cosmic force which we, the good people or good religion or right political party, must destroy so that peace is ushered in and life made right again. I see evil as a distortion of what was once good. Evil is not to be destroyed, but redeemed.
The desire of Palestinians for a homeland, for legal rights and security is not bad. It is good. It must happen. But that good has been distorted, horribly, by terrorist groups like Hamas, who are as Manichaean as they come. For them, Israel and Jews are evil, and must be wholly destroyed, eliminated and wiped from the face of the earth. Have we forgotten how recently, and how disastrously, such a hideous “solution” was enacted?
Were we wrong, after 9/11, to strike back? Is Israel now wrong to fight back, to invade Gaza? I cannot say that. Self-defense is legitimate. Bringing criminals and evil-doers to justice is necessary.
But we are wrong — and dangerous — if we believe we have no part, as an old hymn puts it, “in the evils we deplore.” We are wrong if we think the evil is all out there, in some other tribe or party, and that we can surgically excise it or utterly defeat and eliminate it — if only we are determined enough, strong enough and brutal enough. We are wrong if we believe the world is essentially a battleground, and that the way to peace is to forcibly destroy and eliminate our enemies.
The God made known in Jesus Christ did not come to destroy us, but to redeem us, to heal us. That must be our ultimate goal as well. That said, right now redemption and healing seem difficult to imagine.
And, so, we pray . . .