On Complicity in Evil

Prophetic voices are always criticised. One cannot have a prophetic ministry or a watchman on the wall type of calling, and be free of critics. It simply goes with the territory. Whenever you speak out against evil and injustice, other folks will not like it.

And regrettably of course often the major source of criticism will come from God’s own people. They will be the harshest critics, and they will seek to silence voices they are unhappy with or uncomfortable with. Some are well meaning, while others simply do not like sin highlighted – especially their own.

But in either case, the criticisms will be never-ending. Many of these folks actually get offended when you point out the evils in the world or in the church, and get upset with you for daring to do so. And of course you always get the classic Wimpianity cop-out here: “Who are you to judge?”

The truth is, often the prophetic voice is stepping on toes, pricking deadened consciences, and rocking the boat. Comfortable churchians hate that, and never want to be disturbed. They want to be left alone to keep sleeping in peace – they sure don’t want to be roused to action, or told that they might even be responsible for all the mess we are in.

As I say, friends and foes alike make these complaints and objections to what others are doing. Sometimes they mean well, but they still need to be reminded of basic biblical truths. They seem to think that challenging others, calling for a response, and spurring people on to action, somehow may not be the Christian thing to do.

As but one example of many, I was recently speaking about a horrific social evil occurring in our day, and I said that those who know about it but prefer to keep their heads in the sand are no better than those who are committing such terrible acts.

When I make these sorts of claims I of course am using strong words to make a point and stir folks to action. But believers often take objection to this, and even ask you to provide some biblical backup for it. Well, there is plenty of biblical material which can be appealed to here.

One passage which immediately comes to mind is of course James 4:17 which states: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” Christian theology has long spoken about sins of omission as well as sins of commission.

What we fail to do, when we know we should do it, is just as sinful as actually doing what we know to be wrong. This principle is of course found throughout Scripture. Just what do we think the story of the Good Samaritan is all about? One of its main points of course is concerning the sin of omission.

The story, as found in Luke 10:25-37, speaks of three men who witnessed the plight of a mugging victim. Two who should have known better – a priest and a Levite – did nothing to help the man, while a Samaritan did. He was the true neighbour, and he was the one who obeyed the two great commandments about loving God and loving neighbour.

The truth is very straightforward here: those who stand by and do nothing, aware that evil is taking place, or that injustice has occurred, are sinning by omission. They are allowing the evil to occur, and they are complicit in that evil. We are just as guilty when we refuse to get involved, but choose instead to look the other way, as the two religious leaders were.

But those who work for righteousness and against injustice and evil are always criticised by others. Critics will always tell them to ease up, or to not rock the boat, or to not get so carried away. They say, ‘We need to just relax here a bit, and not always point out all this evil.’

Of course the same criticisms were levelled at folks like Wilberforce as he fought the slave trade, or Bonhoeffer as he resisted the evil of the Nazis, or people like Martin Luther King Jr as they challenged the evil of racism. They heard all these complaints as well, even from fellow Christians.

But they had little time for such unhelpful criticisms. They pressed on with the work God had called them to do. They ignored the critics who wanted them to go softly, to not make such a big stink of things, and to not be so melodramatic as they worked for change.

Not only is Scripture on the side of these prophetic voices, these reformers, and these men and women who stand up and fight, but so too is history. The three scenarios I mentioned above can be backed up with some stirring quotes by those involved in such battles.

Let me offer some words from those involved in all three great works of social reform and resistance to evil. As to the slave trade, Wilberforce of course was constantly attacked and criticised, even from other Christians. Indeed, many of these fellow Christians were slave owners!

But Wilberforce pressed on regardless: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” Others who resisted slavery took the same line. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Silence makes cowards out of the best of men”. Or as Desmond Tutu put it regarding apartheid in South Africa: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Related to the slave trade are the civil rights movement and the fight against racism. Dr. Martin Luther King certainly had much to say on the sin of omission and being complicit with evil. Here are a few of his memorable lines:

-“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

-“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

-“A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

Or take the case of resistance to Hitler and the Nazis. The same principle applies here as well: when those who knew better could and should have done something, but chose to remain silent instead, they were complicit in evil. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

And as Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

The more general principle here is of course nicely summarised by the very famous words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

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8 Replies to “On Complicity in Evil”

  1. Ezekiel 33:1-20 was a very sobering reading for me this morning. What a responsibility. But how can we stay silent?

    David French

  2. Thank you Bill for your concerns

    The Apostle Paul describes it very nicely as he has the wisdom and understanding I admire in him.

    For Your obedience is come abroad unto all men. I am glad therefore on your behalf but yet I would have you wise unto which is good and simple concerning evil.
    Rom: 16:19
    Robert Seghers

  3. Thanks Robert. Of course Paul also said we are not to be ignorant of Satan’s devices (2 Corinthians 2:11). We dare not hide our heads in the sand. That is the whole point of the parable of the good Samaritan.

    Bill Muehleneberg, CultureWatch

  4. Thanks Bill for the sober reminder! Yes, how can we say and do nothing when it is in our power to at least do something? And especially when those, for example (which you have written much on) are being systematically torn to pieces in their mothers womb — behind clinic doors, not far from the churches we attend.

    Trevor Grace

  5. Speaking of sobering readings …

    The one who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys. (Proverbs 18:9)

    Thank you Bill for your calling us to diligence.

    David Catchpoole

  6. Well Said! As Ezekiel 33 says, it’s on my head if I don’t say anything in warning if I know that something is evil. You described the role of the watchman perfectly.

    Sharon Stay

  7. Sins of omission, apart from not stopping evil also provide ammunition and excuses for those who like to do the sins of commission.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  8. From a year ago – http://www.garynorth.com/members/10297.cfm

    Pesidential Voting and Understanding American History
    Gary North
    Nov. 7, 2012

    We had an election yesterday. Some people thought the outcome would be important. It may be, though not for the reasons they think.

    Not many elections have mattered much. In the days before the Civil War, the American government was so weak, and had so little money to spend, that the President was peripheral. Everyone knew this.

    It mattered in 1860, but it mattered mainly symbolically, and only for the South. The outcome was a symbol. The issues had been the same a year before. The South would have been equally justified — or equally unjustified — for seceding.

    Bryan’s election would have mattered, but not much domestically. His speech at the convention mattered. It mattered more than almost any presidential election has ever mattered. He debased the political currency. He led the revolt against Cleveland’s Democrats, who had dominated ever since Jackson. The election that really, truly mattered is the one no one remembers. I have said this before. The election of 1904 sealed the doom of liberty in this nation. It wiped out the Cleveland faction. Bryan saw this, and he rejoiced. It was the end of two-party politics that mattered. Alton B. Parker was the last of the Old Democracy.

    The four-year election is a form of liturgy. It is an act of national civil covenant renewal. It says, “The forms of civil government are still with us, as they were in 1789.” They are our link to the founding. They are our link to the coup that replaced the original Constitution of the United States of America.

    From that day until this, historians cannot escape. No matter how trivial the differences there are between the candidates, the population thinks the outcome matters. And then, three weeks later, it’s back to business as usual.

    What can you tell me about America from 1700 to 1757? Nothing? That’s because there was no United States. There was no voting for President. There was no national government. But there was peace. There was enormous liberty. There were hardly any taxes. There was almost no state or local regulation of the economy.

    What matters is the form of civil government. We still vote. Whether the digital voting machines are rigged remains a question. I assume that they are. They can affect close elections, which are becoming more common. But as long as the form is maintained, almost no one cares about rigged machines.

    What matters most today are the unfunded liabilities of the federal government. This will lead to a Great Default. Politics will determine who loses less than others. No one will win.

    What matters is the content of the textbooks that educate our children — which hardly any parent bothers to read. Parents trust the judgment of the authors. They do not personally read the textbooks. They do not think through their truth. Was the Constitutional Convention of 1787 a coup? Of course. Does any parent discuss the implications of this with his child? No. It is just too shocking. It overthrows too many myths. It forces too great a re-thinking of our history. So, we let sleeping texts lie.

    What really matters in American history are issues like these: (1) inventions and marketing, (2) family structure, (3) church activities and creeds, (4) job markets, (5) men’s confidence in ethics, (6) men’s confidence in the future, (7) the entertainment people enjoy, (8) the books people read, (9) textbooks in school, (10) war and peace.

    Of issues settled by presidential elections, only war and peace are part of the campaigns. Men in times of peace always run for President on a peace platform. Then some of the victors take us into war. The voters must figure out which candidate is lying. They never do.

    Voting is important, but not for outcomes nationally. Voting is important because it says that we do not face bloody revolution by disgruntled factions. Voting says we will get four more years of judicial continuity.

    The revolution takes place within the form. But if we lose freedom slowly and by stealth, we can take it back when the Great Default forces the re-thinking of the welfare state. Voting says that we have time to do our work, a little at a time.

    I vote, because I celebrate a victory: “Four more years!” Within the form, I can do my non-political work. So can you.

    Over time, this work will bear fruit. Why? Because bad policies always fail. This gives us a chance to replace these policies, as well as the philosophy that produced them.

    That’s the hope that good men need to keep on working.

    Voting buys us time. It does not buy us electoral victory.

    Phil Ellery

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