The taint of evil

“Turn from evil and do good” (Ps 34:14). “The one who desires life … must turn away from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it (1 Peter 10-11).”

We celebrate Thanksgiving with a pall over the holiday. Once again, we have seen evil. Innocent people have died: blown out of the sky on a plane; shot to death in Paris streets and a Mali hotel, killed by suicide bombs in Nigeria.

It is hard to feel thankful as we struggle with what to do in the face of such evil.
There are many good ways to respond to those hurt by evil: lending aid; giving comfort; offering prayer.

But it gets more difficult when we try to respond to evil itself.

We can lash out, seeking revenge and that elusive thing called “justice.” Retaliatory air strikes by France against Syria took place on Nov. 15.

We try to lock evil out. Borders are closed and many want to turn refugees away.We speak out against evil. “The path of violence and hatred cannot resolve the problems of humanity,” Pope Francis said after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris.

We want to condemn. After all, isn’t someone who looks into the face of an unarmed person and shoots them evil? Isn’t someone who puts a bomb on a plane evil?

Yet, as Christians, we must hesitate to call anyone “evil” — despite our instincts. We are taught not to judge anyone’s heart; God does that. We can only judge actions — and these were evil actions.

But how does someone become so influenced by evil that they can do evil acts, torment and even kill? It is unlikely such people were born evil. It is equally unlikely they woke up one morning and said, “Today, I will become evil.”

More likely, the taint of evil happened to them gradually, a little at a time. Maybe this is what it means to “become radicalized” — that it unfolds incrementally, through a series of choices. Maybe, little by little, choosing to do evil leads one to be more and more tainted by evil.

If that is true — and there is an adage that says, “If you throw mud, you get dirty” — how do we deal with evil without becoming tainted by it?

At times, while watching responses to the Paris attacks, I have thought about the martyrs of our faith. Even when attacked, they refused to strike back, refused to call down fire from heaven, refused even to curse their tormentors. How were they able to do that?

Perhaps they realized that following the Lord’s advice — to turn the other cheek — turned weakness to strength. Perhaps, by turning from the temptation to do evil, they found a brighter path. Perhaps, by refusing to be tainted by evil, they touched a far greater power.

One video on Facebook shows that some people understand this better than I might.
The Nov. 18 video was made by a young father, Antoine Leiris. His wife, Helene, was killed at the Bataclan theater in Paris. Even though Leiris did call the attackers “dead souls,” he added, “I will not give you the gift of hating you.” Helene left behind their 17-month-old son, Melvil.

Leiris promised that Melvil would “insult” her killers “with his happiness and freedom” and that both he and their son would look forward to “paradise.” While angry and grieving, Leiris assured his wife’s killers that, “We are only two, my son and I, but we are more powerful than all the world’s armies.”

Is the power Leiris refers to the same one that Christian martyrs have felt? I don’t know. But by clinging to happiness and freedom, hoping in eventual paradise and refusing to teach his son to hate, Leiris has chosen to turn away from evil. And his example of how not to be tainted by evil offers one insight we can be thankful for this Thanksgiving.