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Can a word defeat evil?


Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 07/20/16 - updated on 06/07/17

Holy heroism will require many tools, including reasoned words and charitable deeds

“Are you trying to make the stupid people think again? That only annoys them and frustrates you. How many times do we have to talk about this?”

So began a short story to illustrate the “Rationalist Fallacy” which states: “If only I explain myself clearly enough, people will understand and agree with me.” That’s a fallacy because of two assumptions: 1) we are as clear as we think we are; 2) people are as reasonable as we need them to be.

Resolving disputes with reasonable words is hard and often frustrating work, even among rational people of good will. So what chance do reasonable words have to turn away hate and malice? Can we really imagine that there can be a good outcome of a conversation that begins with, “The reason you shouldn’t shoot random strangers is….” or “The reason you shouldn’t run down children with a truck is…” People who would need to be “reasoned with” for contemplating such crimes aren’t just mistaken—they’re evil. And bloodthirsty evil cannot be reasoned with.

Some acts are so heinous that they cannot be accounted for by human motivation alone. Jesus said that some demons can only be cast out with prayer and fasting. What turns men into monsters must be confronted with the cross. And it is not enough, as the hymn says, “to lift high the cross of Christ”; we must take up our own cross as well. Lives of prayer, penance, vigilance and sacrifice are called for, to protect the vulnerable, to proclaim Christ to his enemies and to defend the honor of God and the Church.

Such holy heroism will require many tools, including reasoned words and charitable deeds. Be sure that words contrary to reason and deeds opposed to charity are opposed to God Who revealed Himself through His Christ as Truth and LoveDietrich von Hildebrand, exhorting his fellow countrymen against the Nazis, opposed irrational hatred in words and deeds as contrary to Christ; they are, in fact, forms of anti-Christ:

“The soldier of Christ is obligated to fight against sin and error. His battle against the Antichrist is prompted by his love for Christ and for the salvation of souls; he fights this battle for the salvation of those who have gone astray. His attitude is one of true love. But those who flee from the inevitable battle and treat irenically those who have gone astray, obfuscating their error and playing down their revolt against God are, fundamentally, victims of egoism and complacency.”

To counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant and admonish the sinner (all forms of the spiritual works of mercy) are works of reasonable words and charitable deeds. Willful and violent evil can and should be resisted using both sacramental and natural means, using spiritual and practical tools to confront a spiritual and practical problem. We need to use those same resources—spiritual, reasonable, practical and charitable—to support those who labor and struggle on behalf of God’s truth inscribed in nature and revelation.

A faithful priest told me, “I know Jesus said, ‘the Gates of Hell shall not prevail,’ but I’ll tell you that pulling guard duty at the Gates of Hell can be exhausting and terrifying.” Here’s where the power of words can be most effective in the battle against evil—not in the wishful thinking that uses words like ‘dialogue’ as  magical incantations capable of making evil reasonable—but in its power to encourage those striving to stand firm against wickedness.

The prophet Isaiah said, “The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might sustain with a word those who are weary.” What a grace to pray for! When the world seems to bring to us daily fresh horrors, when, as Yeats said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” it is easy for even the most faithful and brave to tire, to waver, to doubt. We might reason with those in error; we cannot reason with diabolical malice; but we can surely speak truthful and even beautiful words of encouragement and hope to those living in stormy times like ours. We can refresh them with the words of the Apostle Paul, that “affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Yes, reasoned words, and above all the Word of God can overcome evil and hatred. That Word must become flesh in our own lives, through good works, prayer, fasting, and courageous discipleship.

When I write next, I will speak of the pain of disillusionment and the loss of heroes. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Practicing Mercy
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