A Sorry State of Moral Illiteracy

 Os Guinness’ Unspeakable is one of the best books on evil and suffering that I’ve read.  Here are what Guinness calls four troubling facts which make up the challenge to rethink evil and suffering in our times.  Many people today have a distorted view of evil, so these things give us cause to pause when we think about evil and suffering.

“First, the scale and scope of evil has increased in the modern world.  To anyone who thinks deeper than the morning headlines, the atrocity of  September 11 forms part of the wider record of the dark catalog of human evil in modern history and pales beside the worst of the evils.”  For example, consider the Ottoman massacre of one and a half million Armenians in WWI, or the Rwandan and Sudanese massacres in the 1990s, or the Ukraine terror famine, Auschwitz, the rape of Nanking, the Burma railway, the Soviet Gulag, the Cambodian killing fields, etc.  “Leaving aside the one hundred million human beings killed in the century’s wars, more than one hundred million more were killed by their fellow human beings in political repression, massacre, and genocide.”

“Second, modern people have demonstrated a consistently poor response to modern evil.  Part of the uniqueness of our time is that we are the first to live when it is possible to know of almost all the world’s atrocities as they happen.  Yet a sad feature of the horrendous evils of the last century has been that strong leaders and decent people knew what was happening when it was happening, but did little or nothing.  More than we like to admit, we are all bystanders now.  We often know enough to know that it is better not to know more.”

“Third, modern people have shown a chronic inability to name and judge evil and to respond effectively.  Deeds such as the terrorists attacks of September 11 caught the Western world as much off guard intellectually and morally as they did in terms of national security.  An act that was flagrantly evil – exposed the paralyzed confusion of many who were uncertain whether it was evil, or how to say so, or at least how to justify their saying so in public terms. …A combination of forces over the past century did their damage and created the sorry state of moral illiteracy and intellectual cowardice in which we find ourselves.”

Fourth – and most controversially – the worst modern atrocities were perpetuated by secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals and in the name of secularist beliefs.  This fact runs directly counter to today’s ruling orthodoxy in educated circles in the West.  Many actually make the opposite claim.  …More than one hundred million human beings were killed by secularist regimes and ideologies in the last century.  Secularists, and particularly secularist intellectuals and opinion-makers in the press and media, owe the public debate a larger dose of humility as well as candor” (p. 4-9, 42).

Obviously these points are part of Guinness’ larger discussion about evil, suffering, goodness, and God.  I’ve edited them a bit to keep them brief.  If you want to read the entire argument, and if you’re looking for a thoughtful, historically informed, and biblical reflection on suffering and evil, get this book: Unspeakable.

shane lems
hammond, wi