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This article was written at the request of the editor of a Baptist journal shortly before the beginning of the war on Iraq in March 2003. In the event it was not published. I am not sure why, but Fr Geoffrey of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Belfast suggested it might have been because it was too 'apocalyptical'.
Evil as 'Revelation'
Many of us in Britain and the USA experienced the events of September 11th 2001 as a direct, personal revelation of the reality of evil - a revelation that there are people in the world capable of doing such things. For myself, this revelation (we must never forget that 'revelation' is the meaning of the word 'Apocalypse') had occurred twelve years earlier, at the time of the war on Iraq - which we call the 'Gulf War', forgetting that it immediately followed another, even more terrible, war in the Gulf, the ten year war between Iraq and Iran.
At the time, in 1990-91, I was living in France and the rather tortuous course of my own spiritual and intellectual yearnings had brought me into the fold of the Baha'i World Faith. To cut a very long story very short, the revelation of the war against Iraq was one of the elements that brought me to Christianity, specifically Orthodox Christianity. I remain very well-disposed to the Baha'is I know; I salute the courage of those Baha'is who are living under persecution throughout the Muslim world; I owe the Baha'is a very great debt of personal gratitude. But I was forced to the conclusion that their understanding of the nature of evil was superficial. There was nothing in their voluminous scriptures that corresponded to the enormity of the situation, nothing that could compare with the book of Isaiah.
For me, then, the war on Iraq (which is still not finished. Iraq has been under siege ever since, and a siege, a total embargo, is, in any normal understanding of the term, an act of war) has, unmistakably, a theological dimension. It is this that I wish to develop in this article. It is separate from the political question. The political question comes down to this: was the evil that we did and are still doing to the people of Iraq necessary to prevent an even greater evil? Was the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, right when she said, in an interview given in 1995, that the death by slow starvation and disease of 500,0000 Iraqi children was 'a price worth paying'?
It happens that I think she was wrong, but for the purposes of this article I could almost regret the fact. Perhaps I should use a less contentious example. We won the Second World War by outdoing the Germans and Japanese in brutality (the thousand bomber raids on Germany; the firebombing of Tokyo). Most people - even most modern Germans and Japanese - believe that this was necessary. Perhaps it was. The point I want to make is that, necessary or not, it was still evil. It is still Sin and requires, to use a rather Protestant terminology, to be washed in the Blood of Christ.
And this, I would suggest, is a distinction to be drawn between Christianity and the Baha'i World Faith (and its parent religion, Islam).
Islam and the Baha'i faith are religions of law. They envisage the possibility of a just society, meaning a society that lives under social principles revealed by God. Christianity is not a religion of law. The solution it proposes to the evils of the world is not a political solution. It is not even an earthly solution: 'My Kingdom is not of this world' (Jn. 18,36).
The problem is laid out in what Christians call the Old Testament, which is the story of a failure: the failure of the Jewish people to build a political society pleasing to God. The problem is expressed in many different ways but most centrally it is symbolised by the failure to establish a legitimate kingship. Kingship was legitimised by anointing - chrismation. The word 'christ' in Greek, 'messiah' in Hebrew, means 'the one who has been anointed'. In the Psalms, David insists on his own status as the anointed one, the christ, because, unlike Saul's, David's anointing (by Samuel) was carried out in secret. It was possible not to believe in it. After Solomon, the kingdom was divided and the succession was in dispute until the Babylonian captivity. The prophets are dealing with a situation in which the Jews are powerless before Babylon. The assumption was that the problem would be resolved by the appearance of a king whose legitimacy by anointing would be unquestionable - the christ. In the event, Christians believe, the Christ turned out to be something quite different and altogether more terrible.
So in the Christian scriptures, the law, political society, acquires a tragic character. It is marked by loss, failure and great violence. The triumphs are all too temporary and always followed by defeat. The struggle with the other peoples of the area are unending. In the Christian understanding, at least from the time of Origen, this is representative of the struggle of the soul with the passions. The Amorites, totally destroyed in one chapter, reappear with redoubled strength a couple of chapters later, as is the way with the passions. But though this is a legitimate and necessary way of reading it we should not lose sight of the political interpretation. The hope that runs through the Old Testament is, or seems to be, political, and it is always crushed and disappointed.
By the time of the book of Isaiah, the Jews have lost the ability to form a political society and politics takes the form of something that is alien to them - Babylon. Babylon, as we know, is in modern Iraq, and Saddam Hussein takes great pride in the ability of his predecessors to defeat the Jews. But in the prophetic books it should be noted that Babylon is not regarded as an unmixed evil. The holy adolescents in the Book of Daniel were, after all, like Daniel himself, senior civil servants in the administration of Nebuchadnezzar. And Nebuchadnezzar himself, under the pressure of events, is willing to glorify the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Dan.3,38-4,3). When the prophets are not denouncing Babylon for her evils they are appealing to the Jews not to oppose her. Above all not to enter into alliance with Egypt to oppose her - as those of us who see the United States as the centre of the spiritual principle 'Babylon' in our own time might have been tempted in the past to enter into alliance with the USSR (or radical Islam. But radical Islam for the moment does not want us).
But if Babylon is not herself the principle of Evil, she is described in the Revelation of St John as the prostitute, fornicating with Evil. And, in the course of a magnificent description of Babylon/Rome, clearly identified as a principle of economic might - the principle that today might be called 'globalisation' - we hear the voice: 'Come out of her my children' (Rev 18,4). The call to the desert, to the monastic life.
Babylon is not the principle of Evil. She is the harlot who fornicates with the principle of Evil. Evil is not a human energy. The evil suggestions that come into our mind do not originate with us. Where do they come from? I quote from one of the great English poems of the twentieth century, John Betjeman's Original Sin on the Sussex Coast, about a boy who has just been attacked by a gang of other boys on his way home from school:
Now over Polegate vastly sets the sun;
Dark rise the Downs from darker looking elms,
And out of Southern railway trains to tea
Run happy boys down various Station Roads,
Satchels of homework jogging on their backs,
So trivial and so healthy in the shade
Of these enormous Downs. And when they're home,
When the Post-Toasties mixed with Golden Shred
Make for the kiddies such a scrumptious feast,
Does Mum, the Persil-user, still believe
That there's no Devil and that youth is bliss?
As certain as the sun behind the Downs
And quite as plain to see, the Devil walks.
Shortly before the Crucifixion, Jesus said to His disciples: 'Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.'(Jn 14,30). The world is ruled by a principle which is not Christian, has nothing in common with Christ. The logic of the world, the logic of politics, is the logic of a fornication with Satan. It is the atmosphere in which we are born and our interaction with it, our acceptance of it, starts at a very early age.
For most of us in the United Kingdom it is experienced as participation in an economic system that separates us from direct awareness of its most obviously evil manifestations. The Gulf War was for me a 'Revelation', not of an evil done by exotic beings from another culture, beings that were totally alien to me; but of an evil that was an extension of my own life. This is what my society is capable of doing - the society that formed me and is necessary to my own material wellbeing.
I was not persuaded that it was necessary, but if I could be so persuaded, then the point - that the world is under the domination of the Prince of the World, that we are subject to a logic that is deeply and terribly anti-christian - would only be reinforced. We could only defeat the Nazis by outdoing them in brutality. We killed hundreds of thousand of people and put Europe to the torch on the pretext of freeing Poland from Hitler. We finished by handing over Poland to Stalin. This was our finest hour, and we need to beg God to be forgiven for it.