Naming Evil for What it Is


I did it. When I wrote last week 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, Satan.

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.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Thank you for pointing out the rub in Christian theology, that we are both sinners and sinned against. Being both exalted and humbled at the same time is so confusing that it’s easier to opt for the black-and-white thinking that the social justice agenda requires. Oppressed against oppressors… how’s that for Manichaean? Marx’s vision of class struggle… finding identity in a group rather than your own soul… These all seem so contrary to the teachings of Jesus that perhaps the current popularity of these ideas rather than church attendance are Christianity’s real problems.

  2. Confusion reigns. If you think evil lurks in the heart of men, you’re still taking the same superstitious framing and just mixing it differently.

    People commonly disagree on what’s “good”, and that’s natural. To understand the world and decide on a course of action, you have to come up with your basis for judging something to be “good”, because everything that may happen has its cloud of consequences that may fall to one side or the other of what you’d like. Take the furor over gender issues in recent years – if you’re sure there’s a clear win everywhere in that mess, you can bet there are reasonable people who can bring valid points in disagreement.

    So you decide what’s “good.” Is whatever acts against it, “evil”? It isn’t, right? There’s a considerable range of, let’s say, wrong headedness, that falls short of what anyone would call “evil.”

    So we get past all the wrong but not really evil stuff, and what do we find? I submit that we find here a combination of wrong headedness, and sociopathy. The latter being a fairly broad term, but it’s a start.

    In the current troubles, what we might broadly call sociopathy is partly cultural.

    Putin, perhaps, is sociopathic at some clinical level, but does Russian culture play a role here as well? Wouldn’t doubt it.

    In the middle east, self respect has a different basis than in the west. I’m not making this up. See discussion of guilt/shame/fear cultures, just because that’s easiest to find, but the point is, in that part of the world, your public honor is all you have, and you’re personally responsible for maintaining it. These are the cultures where fathers kill their children. Evil? Ask Allah, I guess, but it’s a useless way to look at it in any case. The culture, the individual’s psychology, these are real. Good and evil, are in your head. If you want to bring a case across all those differences, and tell someone out there that what they’re doing isn’t as good of an idea as they thought, you have to work with more useful framing.

  3. Asking whether Hamas is evil or not is an interesting question but maybe it’s secondary. (To me it’s obviously evil since it is trying to kill me.)

    Maybe the question should be
    “Do you honestly think you know enough about the history of the region to be able to offer an educated or useful opinion?”

    Be honest.

    • Maybe the rhetorical question should be: “Do you think only YOU are allowed to offer an educated or useful opinion?”

  4. OF course the actions of Hamas were evil. So too are the actions of Netanyahu and the Israeli military, in refusing to accept the humanity of those they brand as their “enemy” …. and claiming to have exclusive, firsthand knowledge of your enemy’s sinfulness. And, using that as an excuse to continue their relentless bombing of civilian targets. Evil is Israel’s intensified air strikes that they KNOW are killing innocent children and parents.

  5. How beautifully Nicolas Kristoff puts it in the New York Times’ : We Must Not Kill Gazan Children to Try to Protect Israel’s Children.

    “The acceptance of large-scale bombing of Gaza and of a ground invasion likely to begin soon SUGGESTS THAT PALESTINIAN CHILDREN ARE LESSER VICTIMS,, devalued by their association with Hamas and its history of terrorism. Consider that more than 1,500 children in Gaza have been killed.
    (emphasis mine.)


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