Saturday, April 18, 2015



          This a study of good versus evil.  It uses two factual examples of evil, one of which was historical, and the other one contemporary, as real-life symbols of depravity. The historical example comes from Nazism, and focuses on the Nazi death camp that was set up by the Nazis near the Polish village of Auschwitz.  The contemporary example is ISIS, (abbreviating "The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria"), also called ISIL ("The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant").  We will portray the nature and character of evil in these two factual examples. We will then consider the role that goodness played in opposing the historical example of Nazi evil, and argue that the power of goodness displayed in history against this evil should be used against our contemporary example of radical evil, or ISIS.  Wit respect to Auschwitz. we find that the essence of goodness was defined and displayed most powerfully in the life of a canonized saint, Father Maximilian Kolbe, as we will discuss in more detail toward the end of this article.

Defining Evil

          If we are looking for a working definition of evil, we can conclude from Scripture that evil is that which opposes life and light, and is bound up with death and darkness, as depicted in John's Gospel:. 

                    "[T]he light came into the world, but people preferred
                    darkness to light, because their works were evil.  For
                     everyone who does wicked things hates the light...But
                     whoever lives the truth comes to the light so that his
                     works may be clearly seen as done in God."
                     (Jn. 3:19-21).                 

          Evil has to do with killing, but not just with killing the body.  Evil is also that which kills spirit.  Thus evil is that force residing within human beings that seeks to kill life or liveliness.  And goodness is its opposite:

                    "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and
                     the curse.  Choose life, then, that you and your                                            descendants may live."  (Dt. 30:19 (b).
          Jesus preached that light and life are inseparable:

                    "I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will
                     not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
                     (Jn. 8:12 (b).
          The apostle Paul, when he was converted by Jesus on his way to Damascus experienced this light of life as so bright that it impaired his vision:

                    "[A]s I drew near Damascus, about noon, a great light
                     from the sky suddenly shone around me...I could see
                     nothing because of the brightness of that light...I saw
                     a light from the sky brighter than the sun shining around
                     me." (Acts 22:6,11; 26:13).

          Thus, while "light" refers to a spiritual reality, in certain cases it is not simply a metaphor for a "spiritual" light, as Paul learned, but an actual heavenly light that is perceptible by those who are given the grace to perceive it.
          Goodness is further that which promotes life and liveliness.  Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and that they might have it abundantly (or to the fullest)." (John 10:10). Yet Jesus, freely giving up his life at an early age, was not so much concerned with the length of life as with its vitality.  He focused his preaching and actions on the spirit of life and of liveliness.  And of Satan, the very spirit of evil, Jesus said, "He was a murderer from the beginning." (John 8:44).

          We would expect that many theologians have written on the subject of evil. In recent times, behavioral scientists have also laid a foundation that makes the development of a psychology of evil possible. Freud's discovery of the unconscious and Jung's concept of the Shadow are both basic to this effort. In other words, evil is now regarded both as a spiritual reality and a scientific reality. The Jewish psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, fled Hitler's Germany and spent the rest of his life studying the evil of Nazism.  He was the first and only scientist to clearly identify an evil personality type, to attempt to examine evil people in depth, and to suggest that they be studied still further. Fromm gave a place in psychology to evil that made it a serious disorder, such as schizophrenia, for example.

          In addition to Fromm's scientific approach to defining evil, the Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, distinguished between two types of evil.  One type concerns people in the process of "sliding" into evil.  The other concerns those who have already slid, "fallen victim" to and been taken over by "radical evil." For Buber, sliding into evil is similar to sin, whereas being taken over by radical evil is so totally powerful that it permanently locks evil into place -- as happened for example in the lives historically evil people such as Hitler and Stalin.

Evil and Sin

          We should draw a distinction between evil and sin.  It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people.  Rather it is the subtlety, persistence and consistency of their sins, and most of all, their refusal to acknowledge this sinfulness to themselves that characterizes evil people.  The Catholic Church has known this fact for two millenia. One of the greatest goods that the Church has provided to humanity is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a sacrament in opposition to evil, most powerfully, a haven for sinners to acknowledge their sins and to be absolved from them.

          When we acknowledge our sins in the confessional the Church is not suggesting that we are evil people, but just the opposite, as people who are seeking to keep evil, as Buber put it, from being "locked into place."  Sinning is defined in the Old Testament as "missing the mark," suggesting that sin is nothing less than being continually imperfect.  Because none of us are continually perfect, we are all sinners.  It was us sinners whom Jesus came to call to salvation (Mt. 9:13).

          Jesus called attention to the fact that human sinfulness is not evil when he said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." (Matthew 5:3).  By that he meant, in its later and fuller expression, "Blessed are you for having the sense of your personal sin and for acknowledging it to yourself and to God, and seeking God's forgiveness through the Church."  After his resurrection he connected this universal human sinfulness and its forgiveness to the ministry of the Church, when he told his disciples, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained,." (John 20:23).

          In Jesus' day, those who lived evil lives -- such as many of the Pharisees -- did not feel poor in spirit.  They felt they had it all together, hated Jesus and killed him because he exposed their refusal to acknowledge their sinfulness. Unpleasant though it may be, acknowledging our sin is precisely that which keeps our sin from getting out of hand and sliding into evil.  Saint Therese of Lisieux put it succinctly when she said, "If you are willing to serenly bear the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter."

Today's Pharisees
          In our criminal justice system we have set up a recurring legal defense for evil people to avail themselves of, by allowing them through their lawyers to argue that, because of a "mental disorder," they are not guilty of a crime. President Obama takes the same position when he refuses even to use the phrase "radically evil Islamists" to describe ISIS murderers, incredibly blaming their evil deeds on the fact that they are engaged in vaguely innocent mischief because they are without work and are looking for "job training."  Yet he has no difficulty painting Christians with a brush dripping with evil.  As he put it in a press conference, Christians should get off "their high horse" for criticizing the actions of Moslem murderers and instead focus on the supposed evil that somehow percolates down to 21st-Century Christians from the eleventh-century Crusades.

          His misrepresentation of the history underlying the Crusades as the start of an evil epoch by Christians is abysmal.  European Christians undertook the Crusades because Moslems first took over Jerusalem and the Holy Land, killing and otherwise persecuting both the Jews and Christians inhabiting Palestine.  The Moslem murderers then moved to conquer the Greek-Orthodox Christian capital of Constantinople.  European Christians were urged on to stop the Moslem invasions of Christian centers of life not by a warlord, but by that era's most famous and peaceful contemplative saint, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).  St. Bernard was a monk and abbot of the Cistercian Order, and vigorously preached the need for a Crusade against Moslem evil.

          Let us turn now to the historical example of evil, which is best symbolized by the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz.  Then we can regard how the goodness growing from this horrible site of evil can be said to apply by analogy to undermining the evil caused by ISIS. 


          The death camp Auschwitz became the killing center during World War II where the largest numbers of European Jews were murdered by the Nazis.  One Christian man who died there became a martyr to Nazism's evil.  Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who died as prisoner number 16770. On August 14, 1941, when a prisoner attempted escape from the camp the Nazis selected ten others to be killed by starvation.  (In actuality, the prisoner's escape attempt failed, as the would be escapist drowned in the camp's latrine.)  One of the ten men selected to die was Franciszek Gajowniczek, who began to cry out, "My wife! My children! I will never see them again!"  At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place.  His request was granted.

          Kolbe was born as Raymond Kolbe on January 8, 1894, the son of a poor weaver near Lodtz in Poland. In his youth he had prayed to the Virgin Mary and asked her what was to become of him.  As he wrote later:  "She came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red.  She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns.  The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr.  I said that I would accept them both."

          In 1910 Kolbe became a Franciscan, taking the name Maximilian.  He studied at Rome and was ordained in 1919. He built a friary just west of Warsaw, which eventually housed 762 Franciscans. When Germany invaded Poland, he and the other friars organized a shelter for Polish refugees, among whom were 2,000 Jews.  The Friars shared everything with the refugees. Inevitably the community came under suspicion and was watched closely by the Nazis.  In May, 1941, the friary was closed down and Maximilian and four companions were taken to the death camp Auschwitz, where they worked with the other prisoners.

          Prisoners at Auschwitz were slowly and systematically starved.  When food was brought, everyone struggled to get his place and be sure of a portion.  Father Maximilian, however, stood aside in spite of the ravages of starvation, and frequently there would be none left for him.  At night, in the bunker where four men had to sleep together in wooden bunks, Maximilian moved from bunk to bunk, saying, "I am a Catholic priest.  Can I do anything for you?" 

          When Maximilian stood in the group observing the Nazis' selection of men to be killed because another prisoner tried to escape, he asked the commandant, "I am a Catholic priest.  Let me take his place.  I am old.  He has a wife and children."  The commandant stood silently for a moment, but then accepted Maximilian's request. Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man Maximilian saved, later wrote:  "I could only thank him with my eyes.  I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on.  The immensity of it.  I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me -- a stranger.  Is this some dream?  The news spread quickly all around the camp."

          Father Kolbe was thrown down the stairs of Building 13 along with the other victims and simply left there to starve.  The building was totally dark, with no places to sit or lie down other than the concrete floor.  No food or water was ever brought in.  Some men tried licking the walls to gain moisture from the humidity. Kolbe encouraged the others with prayers, psalms and meditations on the passion of Christ. A personal testimony was given by the Polish prisoner who was assigned to take care of the starvation bunker: "The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. At every inspection, when almost all the others were lying down on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing the the center as he looked cheerfully into the face of the SS guards.  One of the guards remarked, "This priest is really a great man.  We have never seen anyone like him."

          Father Kolbe outlived the others starving in the bunker. Eventually, however, the SS decided that they needed to kill Maximilian in order to put more men in the starvation bunker.  Father Kolbe was given an injection of carbolic acid, a poisonous solution that produced terrible pain through the body's cramping and being forced to curl arouind itself into a ball as death ensued.  When his body was taken to the crematorium the Nazis had to exert great effort to make his balled-upbody straight enough to insert into the oven.

          He died on August 14, 1941, at the age of 47.  The heroism of Father Kolbe spread throughout the death camp.  One survivor wrote that Father Kolbe's death was a "shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength.  It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp."  The cell where Father Kolbe died is now a shrine.  He was beatified as Confessor by Pope Paul VI, and canonized as martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1981.

          As for Franciszek Gajowniczek, whom St. Maximilian Kolbe saved from execution, he was evetually released from Auschwitz by victorious troops.  His wife had survived, but his two sons were killed in the war. He died in 1995 at the age of 95, 53  years after St. Maximilian saved him from certain death.  Every year on August 14 he returned to Auschwitz to pay homage to St. Maximilian, honoring the man who died on his behalf.

          We can conclude from our study of St. Maximilian Kolbe in his imprisonment at Auschwitz that his saintly goodness played a role in weakening the evil of Auschwitz.  No, his sacrifice did not bring an immediate end to Auschwitz.  But his goodness affected everyone in the camp, from the SS guards to the other inmates, and from that influence on the camp St. Maximilian brought the spiritual force of holiness to bear on the existence and operation of the camp. His life and light blunted the evil and darkness of the camp.


          Today's equivalent to Auschwitz is ISIS.  ISIS (or ISIL) follows an extreme interpretation of Islam, promotes religious violence, and regards those who do not agree with its interpretations as infidels or apostates.  ISIS aims to return to the early days of Islam, rejecting all innovations in the religion, which it believes corrupts its original spirit.  All of the most influential jihadist theorists are criticizing ISIS, calling its self-proclaimed caliphate null and void. They have denounced it for its barbaric crimes, such as beheading of journalists and captured military opponents. In addition, ISIS combatants have crucified and otherwise murdered Christians, carried out sex crimes against women, including selling them as sex slaves, buried children alive and burned prisoners to death within cages, routinely videotaping all of their crimes because they seek publicity for their evil.  The United Nations, European Union, United Kingdom, United States and dozens of other states have declared ISIS a terrorist organization that is committing war crimes and genocide.

          Christians living in areas under ISIS control who want to remain in the "caliphate" face three options: converting to Islam, paying a religious levy ("jizya") or death.  Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of war crimes and genocide being committed in the Iraqi war zone.  ISIS has implemented a school curriculum based on sharia, or Islamic law, which bans the teaching of art, music, national history, literature and Christianity.  After capturing cities in Iraq, ISIS issued guidelines on how to wear clothes and veils.  ISIS also engages in public and mass executions, sometimes forcing prisoners to dig their own graves before shooting lines of prisoners and pushing them in.  ISIS' ongoing crimes and destruction of cultures and religions in the areas of their prominence are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves.

          Needless to say, ISIS is the basis and foundation -- the very core of evil.  There is nothing the Nazis did during their period of criminality that exceeds what ISIS is now doing. What can be done to end the ISIS evil, outside of a massive military invasion of their inhabited territories and the destruction of their entire system by force of arms?  Such a solution would seem to be called for, in accordance with the same spirit that animated the Crusades of the Middle Ages. However, in this article we have seen how St. Maximillian numbed the evil of his SS guards simply by doing great goodness, not by stirring up an attack on the guards by his fellow inmates, or otherwise pursuing violence to blunt the camp's evil.  If evil can insinuate itself into a system that is essentially good, then by the same token good can insinuate itself into a system that is essentially evil.

          There is no quantifiable measurement that we can make of "how much" evil a good and holy person can strip from an evil system like Nazism or ISIS.  Suffice it to say that the effect of St. Maximilian on Auschwitz spread into the concentration camp's evil core through the saint's life and light. There were no angels singing. Nor did the camp's commandant convert to Christianity.  If it is easier to see evil than good, it is because the effect of good on evil is often subtle and unsubstantial.  But consider how the man whose life St. Maximilian saved responded to the holy goodness spread into Auschwitz by St. Maximilian. For fifty-three years, on the precise date of Maximilian's death, August 14th, Franciszek Gajowniczek made a pilgrimage to the very place that he hated intensely in order to honor the effect that the saint's holiness and goodness had on him. No doubt Maximilian's holiness affected everybody at Auschwitz -- both prisoners and guards -- to some extent. 

          Such goodness is desperately needed to bring down the evil of ISIS.  It is likely that there are saints, or potential saints, among the victims of ISIS' evil.  As with Auschwitz, if there are such saints, we can't expect them to overthrow ISIS by force.  But, as with St. Maximilian's good and holy deed at Auschwitz, which stayed hidden from the outside world for years, the power of human suffering inflicted on innocent people by ISIS would be a butress against ISIS' success in spreading its satanic evil crimes throughout the world.  This would be so if such suffering was accepted similarly to St. Maximilian's reliance on divine providence at Auschwitz, where he submitted to his suffering and death as God's will.

          Absent the United States' leading the world's armed forces in a military campaign against ISIS, which will not occur because of the acceptance of ISIS as a normative Islamic-religious movement by this country's Moslem president, sainthood seems to be the only force left to bring the life and light of goodness into the hellish pit of barbarism and radical evil upheld by ISIS.
--Tony Gilles