The "Rule of Three" For Confronting Evil

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It has surprised me in 2012 to see, in my quiet corner of suburban southern California, how many people have left their Christmas decorations up past New Year's Day. In a typical year, mine is one of very few households in which lights, candles, and wreaths continue to present a festive appearance all the way to January 6—the Feast of Epiphany and the twelfth day of Christmas. Some of our neighbors invariably pack away the lights and toss out the tree by January 2, but none have done so this year. During my pre-dawn fitness walks around the neighborhood, I see home after home still decorated.

I also see more American flags on display than ever before. There seems to be a determination—even a yearning—to affirm what average Americans traditionally believe in and find strength in. In my neighborhood, this means that people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds are flying flags and keeping Christmas decorations up, in a way I haven't seen since I was a small child. There is a sense of homecoming, of returning to roots, of digging in and waiting to see what a shadowy, uncertain future will bring.

In this environment, I imagine that some of the spiritual appeals I have noticed are being sown in fruitful ground. I see a commercial on TV inviting Catholics to return to the church, and web ads calling for "secular" Jews to embrace faith again. Politics also makes appeals to our yearning, uncertainty, and deepest beliefs. Commentators on the culture take it for granted that readers recognize there has been a "psychological change" in America: a loss of confidence in government and in the modern processes of communal life. Our most prosaic daily decisions are affected by a sense of apprehension and uncertainty, and a revulsion against hypocrisy and cynicism.

In a time like this one, it's more important than ever to know how to categorize and respond to evil. Secular Western philosophy has been, for some centuries, unconvinced of the reality of evil. This chary philosophical approach leaves us unprepared and disarmed. We sense the reality of evil—often powerfully and viscerally—but when the question is what to do about it, our minds run to vague, uncomfortable bromides.

In the modern West, we have actually thought of our social and governmental arrangements as methods of combating evil, as if we could organize ourselves to be immune to it. This mindset makes the untrustworthiness of government and government-centric ideologies all the more alarming. If democratic government turns against us, what measures can we take to ward off evil? What forms will evil come in? If evil is approaching us through the very laws we have respected and relied on, how can we know when to object—or resist?

I believe understanding evil is a project for which simple trust in and obedience to the Father are of supreme importance. Evil is something we must understand well enough to be prepared for it, but it is also something on which we need not and should not dwell. Our unregenerate minds will not naturally seek a healthy balance in that regard. But in a pragmatic sense, understanding evil is like understanding what could go wrong with the plumbing. We can avert problems and deal with them expeditiously if we bother to know enough about our plumbing systems, and if we don't pretend that nothing could go wrong—but worrying about the plumbing obsessively will only make us miserable and shorten our lives.

With that in mind, and in a year in which almost all prognostications range from cautionary to grim, I offer a few thoughts on dealing competently and professionally with evil.

The first and most important thing about evil is that it has been defeated already in Jesus Christ. It is not triumphant and cannot be. I suspect we are going to see just what that means to our lives in the coming days, and the spectacle will not be without pain and inconvenience. But Jesus said in John 16:33, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (all citations NIV.) In the New Testament, "the world" signifies the fallen world ruled by evil and sin, and Jesus' assertion is that he has already triumphed over it.

A second point to ponder is that Christians need not be confused or uneducated about evil and our relation to it. Evil is an open book. Paul calls the gracious love of Christ for the church a mystery, something we can intuit, perhaps, and understand obliquely through analogy and the renewing of our minds. By contrast, however, there is nothing the slightest bit mysterious about evil, and the Bible never suggests that there is. Evil is unimpressive, uninteresting, and starkly simple. To use the word famously applied to it by philosopher Hannah Arendt, it is perfectly banal. It is as recognizable to our consciences as spoiled food and contaminated water are to our bodies. We need not spend time theorizing about it; we know it when we see it, and Christians know God has instructions for how to deal with it.