Consider the question
Can we justify evil if the end intention is good?
This must be one of the mostly debated questions ever asked. Its range is huge, from small white lies to modern day questions around nuclear warfare.
And as when we are faced with a rising threat of nuclear action today, many people will likely remember the frenzy of the Cold War, when it felt that at any moment it could become nuclear. During that time, the ethics of this question must have crippled Christians.
Gun’s in the bomb shelter!
In his book ‘The Root of War is Fear. Thomas Merton’s advice to Peacemakers’ Jim Forest uses the Cold War to demonstrate the depth of this problem.
He describes how fear led people to deny not only their international neighbours but also their literal ones. Explaining that many Americans built shelters for their families, where they were encouraged by the government (and sometimes the Church) to shelter during air-raid strikes, with guns at the ready, to protect them from neighbours who might look to join them.
He notes two different responses to this dilemma by Christians at the time;
“If a man builds a shelter for his family, then it is the family that has the first right to use it. The right becomes empty if a misguided charity prompts a pitying householder to crowd his haven in the hour or peril, for this conduct makes sure that no one will survive.” – Father L.C McHugh
“This is true war–madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world… on all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in their shelter with machines guns with which to prevent their neighbour from entering.” Thomas Merton
Who is our neighbour?
When asked about the Greatest Commandment Jesus said;
“Love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12: 30-31
It is so often our ‘love of neighbours’ that justifies our desire to go to war, to protect ‘our’ people. But in Forest’s example, we see how the corruption of war and violence, can equally lead us to deny ‘our’ literal neighbours in favour of a reduction in our love for only our very nearest and dearest.
In this reductionist spiral, there will never be any ‘neighbours’!
How far does this go?
It seems to me that evil always generates further evil, just as fear so often leads to further fear. In these cycles, an evil consequence can never truly lead to a ‘good end’.
For example, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often justified by the fact that they brought about an end to WW2. But not only did an unimaginable amount of death and destruction occur to bring this ‘victory,’ but it also placed the world into a frenzied nuclear arms race.
So, at the end of the day, the answer may well be found in our perception of what is truly good. For one man’s good ending, may well be his neighbours bad. And there will always be a bigger picture, where a supposed ‘good’ now, may actually mean death and destruction in the future.
Jesus taught us that a cycle of evil cannot be ended by further evil, but only be good. This is why, no matter how hard Jesus’ laws of love are, they are the only way to truly ‘Good Ends’.
As Merton said;
‘It seems to me that at this time… instead of wasting our time in problematic ways of saving our own skin, we ought to be seeking with all our strength to act as better Christians, as men of peace, dedicated wholeheartedly to the law of love… we must strive, then, to imitate Christ and His sacrifice, in so far as we are able.’
This blog was inspired by the wonderful book The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, (Orbis Press, 2016) by Jim Forest.