I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
~Mangled quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.
This quote has achieved instant fame/notoriety on the Internet in recent days because of the powerful virality of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.
It turned out, after some Internet sleuthing by various intrepid journalists, that one Jessica Dovey, a teacher based in Japan, had posted these words on her Facebook status update, expressing her own sentiments in the first sentence and then following with an actual quote from King. Others inspired by her words copied the paragraph in full as though it were all from King. And thus it spread.
Despite the mangled nature of the King quote, did it express a wise and compassionate sentiment even with respect to the world’s most notorious terrorist, a modern-day Lucifer?
This brief history is meant to be a light introduction to a heavy topic: Lucifer, the devil, Satan, evil. What do these words mean? Why is there evil? Is there evil?
Lucifer is, of course, the name used in the Christian tradition for a particular fallen angel, a powerful adversary to the God of the Old Testament. Lucifer was at God’s right hand until he fell out of favor and was cast out of Heaven by God. Lucifer has been waging war on God and the good ever since. (Interestingly, Lucifer means, in Latin, “light bearer” and was originally the Latin name for the Morning Star, Venus; it was only later that Lucifer became synonymous with the devil).
Very few people take this story literally today – we are generally more sophisticated than this. But the metaphor of Lucifer is still in many ways apt. Lucifer is more generally known as Satan today – conceived as not merely a fallen angel, but the powerful counter-balance to God’s goodness. Where there is light there must also be dark, so Satan, evil, is in some ways inevitable, according to many thinkers.
Satan, however, simply means “adversary” or “the accuser” in Hebrew. Satan doesn’t appear as the “devil” or as the embodiment of evil in the Old Testament at all.
Long before the New Testament was written, the Greek tradition shed some light on good and evil. Plato, in his most famous work, The Republic, was anxious to make his case that Zeus, the king of the gods in folk religion and also the single God in Plato’s philosophical system, could only be responsible for good and not bad:
“Then God, if he be good, is not the author of all things, as the many assert, but he is the cause of a few things only, and not of most things that occur to men. For few are the goods of human life, and many are the evils, and the good is to be attributed to God alone, of the evils the causes are to be sought elsewhere, and not in him.”
These dichotomies between good and evil have continued until the present day with discussions of the “problem of evil” in theology. If there is a God, why does he/she/it allow evil? I won’t delve into the many answers offered and will instead simply acknowledge that many theologians and philosophers agree that there are many things deserving of the name “evil” and that there’s no easy answer as to why it persists.
Let me shift gears here and bring these philosophical and theological musings back into the real world. Osama Bin Laden was recently killed by US Navy seals in a private compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, not far from the capital of Islamabad.
Was Osama a modern-day Satan or Lucifer? Was he the epitome of evil? What Osama did, or at least encouraged (his role is not clear), was horrific – let’s be clear on this. There is no justification for killing innocent civilians or encouraging such killing. Islamist fundamentalists seem to be focused on a dogmatic religious view of the world and accompanying morality that is more appropriate for the 7th Century than the 21st Century.
By the same token, there is no justification for killing innocent civilians as “collateral damage” when it is 100 percent certain that civilians will be killed through US military actions. The US has killed countless civilians in the ten years since 9/11, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and perhaps many other countries. Far more civilians have died at our hands than died at Al Qaeda’s hands in 9/11 or all other attacks they’ve perpetrated. Far more. Various surveys of civilian casualties in Iraq alone, since the US invasion, report deaths of 100,000 (news accounts and US secret documents revealed by Wikileaks) to one million (private surveys).
Increasingly, our preferred method of violence is the unmanned drone – known aptly and chillingly as Reapers or Predators. Every week or so a new tragedy occurs as US drones or other machines of war, guided by “pilots” based in the US, kill women, children, and other non-combatants.
Outside of these unmanned drones, there are the inevitable garden-variety errors using more traditional war technology. In March of this year nine Afghan boys were killed by NATO helicopter rockets while gathering firewood on a hillside. NATO (a proxy for the US) apologized for the mistake. Even more tragically, a number of US Army soldiers have been indicted for actively targeting Afghan civilians and killing them in faked gunfights. Rolling Stone reported in detail on the activities of a US “kill team” in Afghanistan; Jeremy Morlock, a US enlisted soldier who admitted to these activities on camera, was recently sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in March of this year. The kind of behavior that is condoned, if not officially approved, for US troops in Afghanistan, revealed through reports on these incidents, should shock the conscience.
How does Obama’s decision to wage aggressive and illegal drone warfare in Pakistan and Afghanistan, knowing with certainty that hundreds or thousands of civilians will be killed, truly differ from Osama’s role in 9/11 and other attacks on civilians? There is a difference, but it’s a very fine difference. Perhaps what could be called a “distinction without a difference.”
Obama’s actions have perpetuated the overly aggressive foreign policy of Bush before him. Bush, however, brought us back to a far older era when he told the world after 9/11 that “you’re either with us or against us.” There should be no room in the modern era for such an atavistic view of morality – just as there should be no room for the Islamist fundamentalist worldview. This approach perpetuates “evil” through its unreflective dichotomizing. It is more similar to Bin Laden’s version of morality than it is different. It is more similar to the attitude of foes of the US who label us the Great Satan than it is different.
Good and evil are simply labels we give to what would be more accurately labeled “things we like” and “things we don’t like.” As more and more people agree on things we like and don’t like, particular labeling of certain things as good and evil gains traction. There is nothing objective about this process.
Does this bring us to moral relativism? Yes. There is no objective morality. For those who believe in objective morality, it is generally grounded in “my holy book says” rhetoric. If one doesn’t accept the holy book at issue as authoritative, the moral claim will be equally lacking in authority – unless it can be based in more generally acceptable arguments. And it becomes very difficult to accept religious morality when, for example, a holy book like the Bible includes passages such as “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) alongside far more savage sentiments (Psalm 137):
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us —
he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
This kind of dissonance is why secularists are adamant that hope for the future should be placed on secular morality and not religious morality. One doesn’t have to be an atheist (I’m not an atheist) to be a secularist (I am a secularist) – all we have to do is witness the suffering caused by religious dogma over the millennia to see a brighter light in secular morality.
Secular morality generally doesn’t use terms like “evil,” because of obvious religious connotations. Secular morality makes arguments based on the common good. The common good is what most of us can agree are beneficial goals and outcomes, independent of any particular religious creed. Democracy, human rights, good jobs, being kind to your neighbor, are all examples of secular morality that may or may not be shared by any particular brand of religious morality. And there is nothing set in stone about secular morality: It’s always changing, always debatable. The debate itself is very much part of the common good.
There is no necessary conflict between secular and religious morality – it all depends on what the commonalities are. There are various types of religious or spiritual morality that can be entirely compatible with a secular morality. I will flesh out in later essays a “process theology” view on morality that shares much with the Vedanta tradition of the East. But secular morality doesn’t require any theological justification.
Violence is not a solution, as King stated so eloquently: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Even though King was a Christian minister his arguments did not rely on the Bible for authority. They relied as much or more on basic human decency, our secular sense of right and wrong. He reminded us, as did Jesus, that we should abandon the primordial “us versus them” mentality that gives rise to so many emotionally-driven conflicts.
We all have angels and demons within us, we all have God and Lucifer within us. By celebrating Osama’s death, we give in to those demons and stifle our better angels. Only through exalting our better (secular) angels will we be able to achieve a better world for all people.