Why do we unleash evil even when we pursue the good?
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 largely ended the terribly violent period of Irish history in the North known as “The Troubles.” For some, however, it introduced an ageless moral quandary. If evils are perpetrated to obtain a greater good, do they have any justification if the pursuit of that good is later abandoned?
Consider Dolours Price. As a young woman, she participated in a peaceful protest march, whose members were brutally beaten while British officials turned a blind eye. That injustice was pivotal in her decision to join the Irish Republican Army.
Dolours was arrested in the wake of the first I.R.A. bombing of London targets. She spent eight years in a British prison, enduring both a hunger strike and forced feeding, both of which nearly killed her and permanently affected her health. Moreover, during her time with the I.R.A., Dolours assisted in a number of killings—several of them were I.R.A. members adjudged to be traitors—and all of them were carried out in the name of a free and united Ireland.
If evils are perpetrated to obtain a greater good, do they have a justification if the pursuit of that good is later abandoned?
As Patrick Radden Keefe points out in his new history, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, a number of former I.R.A. foot soldiers felt betrayed by the peace agreement, which abandoned the violent pursuit of a united Ireland. Why was that? Because they had perpetrated great evil in the pursuit of what they considered to be an even greater good. Dolours was one of them.
She had set bombs and robbed banks and seen friends die and nearly died herself. All those awful things—and for what? As she herself put it in an interview, “I was often required to act contrary to my nature.”
If evils are perpetrated to obtain a greater good, do they have a justification if the pursuit of that good is later abandoned? The same question was posed to U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam. But it applies much more broadly. War always unleashes terrible evil. How often does it fail to create a good sufficient to justify its atrocities?
Unless we remove all of the people, we will never produce a sinless church, one that pursues the good without also perpetrating some evil.
This moral dilemma is not limited to war. One can fervently believe that police should be supported, but this doesn’t mean that as humans they do not sometimes perpetrate unjustified evil. Yet can we abandon policing, until we get it right?
At the other end of this moral spectrum, consider the parent who must correct an errant child, only to realize that the tone of voice chosen seemed to convey real resentment of the child rather than loving concern. Humans cannot help but allow some evil in the pursuit of a greater good. This will always be the case for us because we simply are a mixture of good and evil.
And then there is the church. The Catholic Church should never—can never—cease to purge and purify her structures and her people. But unless we remove all of the people, we will never produce a sinless church, one that pursues the good without also perpetrating some evil.
The one without sin will not become our accuser. He will be our savior.
A woman is caught in adultery. Lots of lessons here: that the powerful oppress the weak; that men oppress women; that justice is not blind. Where is her partner?
But St. John goes deeper than all of that. Even when we humans fight against evil—and adultery is surely an evil—we cannot fail to infect the pursuit of the good with our own evil. John wants us to know that we are irretrievably caught in a web of evil. We perpetrate evil even as we try to extricate ourselves from it.
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7).
John’s story tells us why we need a savior, why someone not caught in the ever-twisting, ever-tightening skein of sin must come to our assistance. Here is a glimpse into the fathomless depths of the Gospels. Each scene, especially this scene, reveals some measure of what the cross and resurrection mean.
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (8:10-11).
The one without sin will not become our accuser. He will be our savior. He will mount the wood of cross, tied there by the tangle of our sin. And then the innocent one, only the innocent one, will set the good free from all that is evil.