The Evil of Ordinary People – The Stream

EDITORS NOTE: For a slightly different perspective on the war in Israel, we offer this take from a Stream contributor living in the region. It’s interesting to contrast Peter’s opinion with that of Dr. Brown in his latest article and notice how they both conclude with the necessity for love, even if the route they take is vastly different. 

This week, people have been handing out free sweets on the streets of the city where I live.

Why? In celebration of the Hamas attack on Israel.

It isn’t just a few extremists with sweet-tooths. This city is majority Palestinian, and Hamas is very popular. On Tuesday, thousands of people gathered downtown to demonstrate in support of Gaza.

The upwelling of support for Palestine throughout the Muslim world (and certain American subcultures) has horrified and astounded a lot of observers. I think it has shaken some people’s faith in humanity. You might be one. What sort of people, you may be asking, rejoice at mayhem and slaughter? What sort of people laugh about civilians killed in a music festival? What sort of people celebrate the murder of women and children?

Well, I have lived here for years, so I can answer that question.

Ordinary People are Evil

What kind of people celebrate murder and terrorism?

Ordinary people.

Ordinary people with wives or husbands, parents and children. People who smile, and go to work, and come home, and watch TV. Nice people, in many cases, who are pleasant to strangers, and polite to people who disagree with them. People indistinguishable in their day-to-day lives from ordinary Americans.

How is this possible?

The answer is simply that evil is ordinary — or rather, that “ordinary” people are evil.

This shouldn’t be a shocking statement. It a tenant of the Christian faith, after all. We say, don’t we, that every person is deserving of Hell. Well, only evil people are deserving of hell, right?

The only hope, then, is not in ordinary, the natural, or the normal, but in the extraordinary, the supernatural, the abnormal.

But although we say we believe this, I think we sometimes don’t take it seriously. We still think that the “bad guys” out there are fundamentally different from ourselves and the ordinary people we encounter in everyday life. We think that when John said that anyone who hates is a murderer, he was indulging in hyperbole — he didn’t mean a murderer murderer!

If that’s how we feel, we aren’t looking deep enough. Imagine what would happen to your average, ordinary person if you took away every superficial trait that keeps him from being outwardly evil. What if, instead of an easy, pleasant life, he had lived a life full of suffering at the hands of his enemies? What if, instead of a timid personality, he had a bold personality? What if he were brave and not a coward? What if he lived in a community that would celebrate him if he committed murder, rather than condemn him? What if you gave him the opportunity to take vengeance, and promised him that he would be rewarded?

How many people we know would end up murderers under those conditions? How many people would end up celebrating murder?

I don’t think that any of us are as far from evil as we think. If you think that celebrating civilian deaths is different, a line crossed, something out-of-reach for normal, decent Americans (non-leftists), then just scroll through some internet comments advising Israel how to response to the attack. Many conservatives seem downright gleeful about the idea of nuking an entire city of civilians (whether it be Gaza or Tehran) into oblivion.

The Nature of Hatred

The fact is, to murder people from a hated group, or to rejoice over their murder, is ordinary human behavior. Humans are fallen. When a fallen human suffers at the hands of another person, the natural thing is to hate that person. And when you hate someone, you naturally desire to make them suffer as much as your imagination allows.

And before Jesus, this was how people lived. The ancient world was brutal. Killing woman and children was ordinary behavior, not a “war crime,” when the Israelites first came to Canaan. Rape, torture, enslavement, and so forth were the expected result of victory.

People from Christian-influenced nations rediscovered that fact when they began exploring and colonizing the pagan world a few centuries ago. For many pagan tribes in the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific, the sadistic torture of captives was ordinary behavior. The kind of thing I’m referring to is this: cutting off your living captive’s bicep, roasting it over the fire, then eating it gloatingly in front of him. That’s a real example, and I could list many more. It was ordinary treatment of enemies throughout the entire world. They made you suffer; now it’s your turn to make them suffer.

This was the “the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors” that Peter referred to. This was what Paul was talking about when he told Titus: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.”

But that did not mean that the pagans were bad people in everyday life. On the contrary, they could be quite pleasant. Because, as Jesus said: “Even sinners love those who love them.” The ordinary way of life is to love those who love you, and hate those who hate you. Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This is the way of all mankind.

Why Palestinians Hate Israelis

Palestinians, of course, have their own specific reason to hate Israeli Jews and consider them their enemies. The hatred does not stem from some abstract or arbitrary antisemitism, but from bitter and tangible grievances that have built up over multiple generations in the last 75 years, throughout the course of a complex and bloody conflict.

Consider the person who orchestrated this attack: Muhammad Deif, the leader of the Hamas’ military wing. Deif spent about 20 years in an Israeli prison, where he claims that prisoners “are subjected to the most heinous forms of oppression, torture and humiliation.” He was released in a hostage exchange in 2011. In 2014, the Israeli government attempted to assassinate him with a bomb to his house, but only succeeded in killing his wife, infant son, and 3-year-old daughter.

You can imagine how this man’s hatred and bitterness would gnaw away at him over the years, until he just wants to make the Israeli enemy suffer like he has suffered: crash their party, put an end to their revelry, wipe the smiles off their faces once and for all.

Deif’s suffering was extreme, but not exceptional. He is a folk hero among Palestinians because they have also suffered, and therefore they also hate. They can point to many attacks on civilians and even massacres over the last 75 years as reasons for their revenge. Many Palestinians have relatives who have been killed by Israelis — yes, in some cases killed because they were terrorists, but in other cases simply because they were in the way. Furthermore, Palestinians feel humiliated, forced to live as second class citizens or multi-generational refugees, even though many of them know exactly where their family homes are located in Israel. They want to win and get their country back, but if they can’t win, they want revenge.

Vengeance is Ordinary

And of course, today, Israelis want revenge. It would be almost impossible not to. 

In ordinary human way of doing things, yes, Israel must take vengeance against Hamas. That vengeance will certainly result in countless dead children, as well as widows and orphans. The orphans will then grow up hating Israel with every fiber of their beings. They will be the ones plan attacks of vengeance on Israel in the future. They will consider it a matter of honor. They will get revenge, and Israel will then retaliate.

This is not mere speculation — it’s exactly what has already been going on for the last 75 years. Who started it, or who has behaved most wickedly, is not as important as the fact that Israel-Palestine is trapped in an endless cycle of vengeance.

And it won’t end. Having lived in this region for a while now, I am convinced that the only plausible scenario for peace in the region is the complete erasure of either the Palestinian Arabs or the Israeli Jews. Genocide, in other words. There are too many accrued blood-debts at this point for the violence to end in any other way. In the ordinary, natural, and normal way of the world, this hell will go on forever.

Jesus was Extraordinary

The only hope, then, is not in ordinary, the natural, or the normal, but in the extraordinary, the supernatural, the abnormal.

Extraordinary like Jesus, as he was being humiliated, tortured, and killed, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Or like his disciple, Stephen, who imitated his master as he was being killed, and prayed, while Saul of Tarsus watched: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Abnormal like Jesus was abnormal when he healed the servant of the High Priest who had come to arrest him, and rebuked Peter for his very ordinary, sensible act of defense, saying “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

Or the same Peter, transformed, no longer a Jewish nationalist with violent anti-Roman fantasies, telling his own disciples how to live:

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

This kind of behavior is entirely out of the ordinary. But it was real, not fictional. And it did not end with Jesus, or the apostles, or the early church. It was certainly not a mere tactic to suffice the early Christians until they could gather military power. That would have been despicably duplicitous, and pagan leaders would have been wise and justified in persecuting us. No, it was, as Peter said, how followers of Jesus are called to live, period. And it is what believers in Jesus throughout the heathen nations of the world have continued to do up until the present day. For the last 2,000 years, this kind of behavior has been the salt of the earth — small, scattered, invisible, but potent — shaming oppressors, softening hard hearts, creating light for the blind.

That kind of behavior is not ordinary, it is not natural, and it is not normal. But it is the only hope for reconciliation in Israel or Palestine. If the leader of Hamas saw an Israeli believer dying like Stephen died, if Israeli soldiers saw Palestinians demonstrating what it means to love as Jesus loved — then, perhaps, there could be reconciliation. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope.

Peter Rowden is a friend of The Stream living in the Middle East.