I’m wanting to spend some time this week with a much-repeated phrase: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I mentioned yesterday that the quote has been used ad nauseum to promote this action or that one (often conflicting actions, with both sides claiming to be the “good” side). I say that not in condemnation of the quote, but as justification for spending several days looking at it.
While I’m still unconvinced of the worth of the saying itself, I will admit what others have said: much of my angst in this situation comes from the misuse of this quote, particularly by Christians. Vern commented yesterday: “It’s probably better to limit the quote to the political/social arena and not apply it at all to the living of Christians.” Much of my distress comes from the fact that the “all that is necessary” saying is frequently used to move Christians into the political/social arena! The quote is used to say, “If you aren’t active in this arena, you aren’t doing anything.”
And, in the midst of our prolonged back and forth, Nick made a couple of key statements:
However, (and I’m certain Tim will talk about this later in the week), the quote is rarely used to criticize people who are, in fact, doing *nothing*. Literally, truly, nothing.
It is used to criticize people who aren’t following the quoter’s recommended course of action. Ask any pacifist how often they’ve been rhetorically bludgeoned with this quote. Anyone who thinks that pacifism (or even QUIETISM, for crying out loud) is doing nothing has a painfully shallow view of spiritual warfare.
Sometimes, doing nothing is precisely what is necessary for one person. But that’s completely different from the idea that all men and women made good by the blood of the cross and the power of the Spirit should choose to do nothing against the forces of evil.
What I look forward to in the coming days is the shredding of the assumptions typically driving its use. Not a call to ACTION, but a call to a specific – typically nationalist – course of action. Actually, I find that is isn’t typically used as a call to action at all, but as a pejorative against indirect action, compassionate responses, and non-violence.
Nick could see where I was headed with some of this. Tying in with yesterday’s post, I want to talk about the idea that “merely” praying is “doing nothing.” (Just typing the phrase “merely praying” makes me gag a bit) That’s definitely our culture talking. Dan Bouchelle posted something the other day, quoting an African Christian who said, “You Americans sure can sing, but you don’t know much about how to pray.”
In general, we don’t believe in the power of prayer. I saw an extreme of this a few years ago. I was participating in a Church of Christ Internet group, and one member wrote something like: “We pray because God commanded us to. We know that it’s not going to change anything.” Wow! How sad.
Those who don’t believe in the power of prayer will often use phrases like “sit around singing Kum Ba Yah.” Don’t know why that poor song carries the brunt of their wrath, but it’s come to characterize someone who believes that God can and will intervene in this world… even if it’s not in the way we would want.
Maybe that’s why I’m troubled by the lack of God in this quote. It feeds that worldly mindset that says, “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done. God certainly isn’t going to do anything.”
Prayer is doing something. It is action. The problem is, relying on prayer takes more courage than most of us have. It requires a loss of control. It requires patience… some prayers in the Bible weren’t answered for decades. Decades! It requires us to accept God’s plans, rather than stepping forward and shaping our own story.
Prayer is not the only action Christians should take against evil. But it is by far the most significant. When someone says, “All we can do is pray,” it doesn’t mean all hope is gone. It means that we still have our greatest weapon.
All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to stop relying on God’s power.