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Life Arts    H3'ed 9/17/08

Open Letter to Pastor Rick Warren on Evil

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Message Diane Perlman
Dear Pastor Warren,

I am reaching out to you to open a new line of communication about evil, as tensions are escalating in various conflicts. I am grateful for the good you are doing and admire your commitment to civility and global issues. Your recognition of the science and morality behind climate change has elevated the Evangelical movement. Like you, I am a registered Independent and appreciate your efforts to heal destructive divisions in our country. Policies - based on beliefs - either increase or decrease cycles of violence. It is not about right and left, but life and death.

At your August 16 Civil Forum, you asked both presidential candidates whether they believed in evil, giving them four choices -- would they ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it. I humbly suggest more options, based on my purpose driven life's work on the psychology of evil, and invite you to dialogue.

Can we prevent evil? Can we transform evil? Can we draw energy away from evil towards a higher force? Might attempts to defeat evil unleash more evil? Are there creative ways to reduce, dissolve, and eliminate evil? Can evil people be redeemed? How? Are people born evil or do intolerable experiences drive them to extremes? Can "normal" people do evil things when swept up in overwhelming situations? Does the sin of omission create evil?

There is a rich body of scientific evidence on these questions. I wonder whether this knowledge is consistent with your theology. As you have raised the Evangelical position on climate change, might you similarly elevate the understanding of evil, recognizing contributions from social science? I invite you to a joint venture with psychology. After all, "psyche" means soul. Perhaps we can explore together the convergence between religion and social science on responding to evil and magnify our ability to prevent and transform evil before it escalates beyond control.

Can we transform evil?

One of my favorite stories, and how I discovered your book, The Purpose Driven Life, is of Ashley Smith, mother and widow, taken hostage by Brian Nichols, escaped rapist and murderer. Inspired by your teachings, she deployed compassion, intuition, and radical empathy to transform evil, help Nichols achieve redemption, and save lives. Her respectful responses, including asking permission to read your book, reached his humanity and calmed him down. She made pancakes -- as the Bible says, "Set a table before thine enemies."

Had she behaved differently, she'd have been killed. If Smith had a gun and shot Nichols, she would have been applauded for "defeating evil." Consider what lessons we would have lost.

Are people born evil?

Evil is fresh in my mind, reflecting on Nicole Dial's memorial. She was working in Afghanistan to release child soldiers. The Taliban killed Nicole and three colleagues. Where did the evil Taliban come from?

St. Augustine said, "Never fight evil as if it were something that arises totally outside of yourself." While defeating the "Evil Empire" we trained Afghanistan's Mujahadin to overthrow a superpower. Their children were orphaned, traumatized, and raised in authoritarian madrassas without women, girls or tenderness. Their villages, elders, and culture were destroyed. We abandoned the Afghanis to misery.

Does the Sin of Omission Sow Seeds for Evil?

Even Republicans have speculated about our failure to help the Afghanis after our "victory," using "our gold and their blood." We can be so gripped by the immediacy of our cause, and relieved after achieving our goal, that we forget the suffering we leave in our path. Our focus on might, power and winning overshadows the consequences -- trauma, vulnerability, and destabilizing asymmetrical dynamics -- that produce greater violence.

A ton of prevention is worth a megaton of cure. There is a lag time between childhood trauma and young adult evil. Are we now sowing seeds to be reaped later? We pay more for killing than healing, more for punishment than prevention. Our motto should be "Do no harm. No new trauma." Work now on healing, reconciliation, and reparations to "prevent the inevitable."

Can we reduce or reverse evil?

There exist effective, nonviolent strategies capable of reducing evil and producing enduring security.  Quick fixes backfire.  Psychology, conflict analysis and other social sciences describe what works -- addressing root causes, basic human needs, legitimate goals, just grievances and healing traumatized societies. These include identity, dignity, sovereignty, and safety. The Marshall Plan and reconciliation processes are examples.

Can we negotiate with evil?

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Visiting Scholar Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution George Mason University

Diane Perlman is a clinical and political psychologist, devoted to applying knowledge from psychology, conflict studies and social sciences to designing strategies and policies to reverse nuclear proliferation, to drastically reduce (more...)

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