Friday, January 5, 2007

Holding Evil In The Light

It is our right to hate an evil man for his actions, but because his deepest self is the image of God, it is our duty to honor him with love. --Rav Kook

When Saddam Hussein was executed this past week, I experienced no sense of joy or satisfaction. It’s not that I feel any particular sadness or sorrow at his death. Even when all the propaganda about him that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq by the United States is factored out, the evidence seems rock solid that he was a plain and simple rat bastard.

Even before I stumbled into the Quaker faith a decade ago I struggled with the meaning of evil in the world, especially when very powerful people do very horrible things. I had a therapist once who interpreted this struggle to be a reflection of unprocessed primal wounding I undoubtedly experienced as a child. I fired him.

In 1998 I wrote an essay about the death of Pol Pot that has languished in my computer ever since. Looking at it now I find that many of the sentiments I wrote then remain relevant to me. So I’ve decided to post it with only a few very minor revisions. To help anyone unaware of the term, “holding a person in the Light” is a Quaker phrase that translates closely to praying for someone.

The death Pol Pot, leader of a regime that methodically murdered well over a million Cambodians in the 1970s, presented me with an unexpected spiritual dilemma. Am I able to hold Pol Pot in the Light? Can I experience compassion for such a man?

Previously, I’d given almost no thought to a man who was singularly responsible for the devastating impact of sanctioning the systematic genocide of an entire country. Now that he is no longer a danger to anyone, I find myself troubled by how to respond to him.

Three arguments for the necessity of holding Pol Pot in the Light have emerged for me. The first is similar to an argument used against the death penalty. Whether Pol Pot is a person who deserves to be loved is irrelevant until I establish whether I deserve to be the one to withhold love from him. Am I sure that I’m not partaking of a portion of evil, even ever so slightly, when I condemn rather than love?

This is a difficult line of inquiry for me to pursue. Surely I must denounce and disown anyone who embodies such evil, for such a person has lost the right to be considered a worthy member of the human race. Therefore it’s hard to escape the conclusion that I am in effect condoning his reprehensible behavior by recommending him in my heart to God.

And yet, where do I draw the line? Do I damn the murderer of a thousand men as much as I do the one who murders a million? What about the murderer of a single man? Shall I then forgive or renounce the person who merely assaults another? How do I stand toward the one who intentionally cuts me off or insults me in traffic? As ludicrous as it seems to compare a perceived slight with the extermination of millions, where is the cutoff point that exists somewhere between the two extremes, and who puts it there?

For some people, that point is more easily reached when the perpetrator of a wrong sincerely asks for forgiveness. The contrite, the humble, the remorseful surely deserve more love than the arrogantly unrepentent. Therefore, I could more truly determine my stance to Pol Pot if I could glimpse into his deepest heart at the moment of his death. But this approach requires the capacity of infinite perception and understanding only God possesses.

The second reason for holding Pol Pot in the Light is reflected in the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s been conjectured that any person, given the proper circumstances, is capable of almost any act. I was born who I am through no choice of my own. I could just as easily have been Pol Pot. The fact that I escaped such a fate is not grounds for scorn and judgment as much as for deep gratitude and humility. It’s hard as a Quaker to look deeply into anyone and not see a part of myself.

The third reason for holding Pol Pot in the Light is that to withhold what there is of God within me from any person is to provide nothing that is transformative to humanity. The act of manifesting love and compassion is a means for God’s presence to nurture the world, and by doing so I can help transcend rather than merely resist evil. In this way I am able to add a measure of love and subtract a measure of hatred in the world . If the Earth is healthier with more love and less hatred, then holding Pol Pot in the Light is an act of ecological healing.

If both the world’s “eco-logy” and my personal “ego-logy”are brought even a little closer toward Spirit by my willingness to even try to love a murderer of millions, then so I must love. I am only fleetingly able to hold to such a standard, but the alternative for me seems increasingly intolerable.

Can the unfathomable atrocities undertaken during the rule of Pol Pot be perceived as anything less than evil? What meaning can these horrors have other than as testament to how cruelly mankind still treats itself, how woefully short a path we have traveled in our evolutionary journey?

May the cruelties of a tyrant serve God?

To paraphrase Victor Frankl, perhaps it’s time to move past the notion that meaning exists outside of ourselves. We have spent countless generations asking the heavens to reveal the meaning of our suffering. The question remains as important as ever, but perhaps its direction has changed. Heaven is doing the asking, and we are the ones now required to derive meaning out of evil and suffering. Maybe human beings exist to assign meaning as emissaries of God.

Consider the death of a child. In grief, a parent struggles to find meaning, purpose, benevolent spiritual force or presence. If that parent descends into unabated despair and casts off all hope and purpose in life, then truly there is no transcendence to that incalculable suffering. If that parent finds a way to dedicate his or her life and actions to the spirit of that deceased child, however, then in some mysterious way this same tragic loss can serve a higher purpose. It stands then that the responsibility of mankind is to assign meaning to events that will allow the horrors of this life to fuel transcendent behavior.

I have a responsibility to seek to transform myself and my world. The meaning of cruelites large and small is not fully determined in my absence. If I dedicate an act of kindness or compassion to those who have suffered evil, then I am giving their fate meaning. If I can take the next step and dedicate that same compassion to those who pepetrate evil, I am capable of changing the ultimate meaning of their despicable deeds.

The sin, then, is not just to murder. The sin is not to give meaning.

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