Why We Need To Stop Calling Our Opponents 'Evil'
There's a worry across the world that political extremes are taking over. From the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin in Russia to concern over Donald Trump's administration, from the Shia autocrats of Iran to their Sunni foes in Saudi Arabia.
In a not unrelated point, there are as many extremes in theology as there are in politics. At the milder end of this divide are the battles over sexuality and gender in mainline denominations.
Yet there are more radical manifestations of polarisation. Think about stories Christian Today has covered this year of church ministers who don't believe in God, and extremists like pastor Steven Anderson and his horrific statements about gay people.
When this politically and theologically extreme polarisation is united, the results are ugly and have been seen this year – especially in the presidential campaign.
I was put in mind of this by an excellent lecture this week by the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. Speaking at St Mellitus College in London, Prof McFarland's lecture was entitled "The Problem of the Problem of Evil." As well as being the first non-Anglican to hold the Regius Professorship for hundreds of years, Prof McFarland is American – giving a fascinating insight into the issue of evil which seems to have raised its head over the past few months.
McFarland, among other themes in his lecture, wanted to stress to the audience that we have a tendency as Christians to categorise the world too easily into 'good' and 'evil'. While recognising that moral evil does indeed exist and that Christians must oppose it, he aimed to show us the risk – namely that we tip over from being Christians into being more like Manicheans.
The Manicheans were a religious group which began in ancient Mesopotamia and flourished from the third to the seventh centuries. The core belief was the absolute division of the world into good (spiritual things) and evil (worldly things). Despite the faith having faded away and many of its teachings lost, the phrase 'manichean' remains with us to describe an overly simplistic division of things into good and evil.
What has this got to do with the election? Well, let's look at some of the following headlines: "Alex Jones Says Hillary Clinton And Obama Are Real Demons", "Evangelists: Obama 'paving the way' for Antichrist", "Why So Many People Think Obama Is the Antichrist". According to one of those reports, one in five Republicans think President Obama is indeed the Antichrist himself. Trump, during one of the TV debates, actually called his rival, Secretary Clinton, "the devil".
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It isn't just liberals in the firing line, though. Although with nothing like the same ferocity or frequency, those on the other side of the aisle are also accused. Again the headlines tell a story: "Are Republicans Evil?", "The GOP is Unrepentantly Evil and This is Why", "For the GOP, Donald Trump may be evil incarnate — literally".
There are, of course, sober and serious commentators who believe Trump's election represents an existential risk to the republic. We must also pay heed to those minority groups who feel genuinely afraid about the prospect of a Trump administration. However, I wonder whether this Manichean use of language in the debate actually helps.
McFarland's lecture brought to mind CS Lewis' famous maxim. "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils," wrote the celebrated apologist in the preface to The Screwtape Letters. "One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them."
Lewis here describes the problem we face very well. If we dismiss the very real existence of evil (and the possibility that evil is present in policies and politicians) then we will be far too feeble to resist it and challenge its advance. However, if we see evil in every single move our opponent makes, it also weakens us. We can be overwhelmed by the thought that the White House (or any other political power base) has been irrevocably seized by demons.
This latter belief is not only theologically unjustifiable, it's also politically useless. If you want to oppose injustice, then get out, organise and persuade the electorate of your case. What you shouldn't do, is suggest that your opponent is the actual devil. It's as demotivating to political activism as it is far-fetched.
Let's be wise like Lewis – neither seeing the devil around every corner, nor dismissing real evil when we see it. That way, we'll be able to hold our own 'side' accountable – as well as our opponents.
Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy