Religious Scholars and Writers Gather to Challenge "Evil"

( [email protected] ) May 22, 2004 09:36 AM EDT

NEW YORK – Scholars and writers representing the three faiths – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism gathered for a conference, co-sponsored by the Trinity Institute and the Chautaugua Institution, in the early May and discussed further into the topic of evil before the world heard about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by the U.S. soldiers.

Because of the Iraqi prisoner scandal and the ongoing debate about the Iraq war, the 35th national conference of the Trinity Institute of Episcopal Church, which took place at New York’s Trinity Church on May 2, a couple of blocks away from the site of World Trade Center tragedy was a very meaningful gathering and a moment in which Trinity Institute Director Frederic Burnham described as “one of the most pervasive, unpredictable and enigmatic forces in human life.” The meeting was held with the theme, “Naming Evil.”

According to Jewish scholar Jon Levenson, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, the meeting explored questions of evil's very existence: "Why is there evil, why is there suffering, why is there adversity in the world?"

"It's not the reality of evil that is in question, but the way we use the word," Burnham said at the start of the conference, "Evil is a concept that needs to be carefully parsed.”

Christian author Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, said she has tried not to forget the lessons of Jesus.

In words clearly addressed to fellow Christians in a nation at war, Chittister said: "At a time when the then-imperial government was absorbing and breaking and intimidating people everywhere, the challenge Jesus the liberator gave from the top of that mountain was not to flee the field in the name of distant, insulted innocence, and not to hide behind our good intentions."

"The challenge," she said about Jesus' example, was to "stay in the midst of the struggle, as he did, and speak a prophet's speech, as he did, as the old world crumbled around him and the new one struggled, struggled, struggled to rise.

"They call that moment now the giving of the Beatitudes, and they plaster it over with pious platitudes. I call it the 'Constitution of the Good in Confrontation with Evil.' "

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., criticized of intolerance he sees both among Muslims and some Christians.

Noting Trinity Church's location near the World Trade Center site, Nasr said a number of Muslims angry over Western domination and "totally exasperated that they could not carry out ordinary political action through elections and government, (resorted to) extremist acts - the worst of which is just a couple of blocks away."

While condemning "the great tragedy that occurred in September 2001," Nasr said he was equally critical of Christians he called "missionary evangelical preachers whose hatred against Islam is exactly like what was written in the 10th and 11th centuries” and said they must have forgotten the Sermon on the Mount and put themselves in a very dangerous situation of the “abosolutization of my norm, my laws.”

Other keynote speakers such as Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, questioned the usage of the word “evil.”

"There is something about the word when we apply it to another human being, and more especially to a group of human beings, that makes me uncomfortable," Annan said. "It's too absolute. It seems to cut off any possibility of redemption, of dialogue, or even co-existence. It is the moral equivalent of declaring war.

"When we think of other people as evil, we are perilously close to denying them any rights, and releasing ourselves from any obligations towards them. We are poised at the top of a slippery slop that leads to violence, murder, even genocide."