Our Best Response

At a recent family dinner, somehow the topic of conversation turned to the horrific events of 9/11. As my family members attempted to explain to my young nieces what that day was like, we didn’t even try to grapple with the question of why people do such evil things. Who can know the answer to that question, after all? If we did know the answer, of course, the problem would have been rectified long ago. No, the question raised was not why there is evil in the world — and true evil can only be the product of human action — but what our response to it should be.

This is, naturally, a question which has been pondered throughout the ages. And the answer all too frequently boils down to various paraphrases of that hoary Old Testament injunction: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Indeed, even in 2015 in the United States, the death penalty is regularly enforced. A life for a life.

This is not the only possible response, however. The New Testament advocates a much different response, one which, it is worth noting, was foreshadowed in Eastern religious thought: Love your enemy. Bear in mind, we are not simply enjoined to forgive our enemies, but to actively love them. How can I love the perpetrators of 9/11? Is it even possible to love those who hate us?

Of course, it is possible, although it can be very painful. We can point to the example of Christ, but those who reject Christianity, for whatever reasons, will hardly be satisfied by that. So we can look at contemporary examples which are directly verifiable as a part of recent memory and hard, undeniable, historical record. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Malala Yousafzai all spring to mind in this regard. But what are we to do, you and I, being ordinary people in ordinary circumstances who enjoy only limited influence upon the world at large? We can actually do exactly what they did. The only difference is one of scale, not one of quality. And this is a case where quality counts for immeasurably more than scale, because it reinforces a moral solidarity in which, together, we all stand up and refuse to empower the embracing of evil.

This was my message to my nieces, in a nutshell: When someone does something evil, we can respond in any number of ways. Perhaps the best response is to do good to the same extent that the other person has done evil. When someone stains the world with hatred, it is then our job to cleanse it with love. When someone destroys beauty and goodness, it is our job to build beauty and goodness back up again. This doesn’t mean we have to change the fate of nations. This is something we can perform — a type of service we can render — wherever we are in life. If all people of good conscience act locally and simultaneously in responding to evil in this manner, goodness will, at the very least, give no ground. And there’s always the chance that it may win out over evil in the end. I’ll grant that it’s not our only possible response. But it is, arguably, our best one.