I first learned the saying as a boy. As a young adult I saw the images of three monkeys carved over a door at a shrine in Nikko, Japan, which gave it language: “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”.
We are seeing evil march through Ukraine and onto our screens and into our psyches; and if we turn on the sound we hear the explosions and the sounds of suffering, and some Russian leaders speaking what amounts to be evil rhetoric. I want to turn it all off, be free of it, and pretend – for a moment anyway, that it is not happening.
But it is. And it continues. And what I have learned over the years is that evil can beget evil. It spreads. It can become contagious.
I have been in situations – I am thinking of some very tense meetings when people were on edge –scared and angry and aggressive all at the same time, and evil showed up. It was like an invisible dust that somehow stuck to your skin. I couldn’t get it off. And it caused me to think and say things that were mildly – or wildly, out of character. Nasty. Vengeful. It was tempting to point to one person in the room and say that that he or she was the source. One person may have been the catalyst for an evil energy that is almost always lurking somewhere in the room. And that person can bring it out into the open.
Vladimir Putin is bringing that evil onto the world stage. Try as we might, we can’t escape it. I don’t believe that anyone is inherently evil, but there are people who can easily consort with it – move in and out of it, and spread it around as a contagion. To serve their own nefarious ends. The Russian leader has spent a lifetime honing this perfidious skill.
But not everyone succumbs to the evil virus. At least some of the time. There are an increasing number of reports of Russian soldiers who are walking away from the invasion. They don’t want to participate, because they see it as wrong, inhumane – evil; even though there could be a severe penalty for their abdication.
And then there are the Ukrainian people in general, and President Zelensky in particular. Evil has showed up on their country’s doorstep, and has breached the threshold, and threatens to take over, if not destroy, their entire national house; and they are saying no. They are saying no to evil; and they are doing so by saying yes to freedom and hope and mercy and justice. Their no – which comes from the confidence of their yes, is powerful and inspiring. Their collective No may not ultimately fend off the invaders, but even if defeated militarily, the people and their leaders seem steadfastly unwilling to succumb to evil. Because they are holding on to something more abiding.
Several years ago I visited Robben Island, located just off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. During apartheid, Robben Island was the site of a notorious prison for political prisoners. Nelson Mandela spent most of his twenty-seven years of incarceration there. Shortly after apartheid ended in 1991, the prison became a national park. Tours of the prison were conducted by guides who had once been locked up there themselves. Our group’s guide spent several years in the prison because, as he said, he wrote a letter to the newspaper that simply posed a question, but the authorities considered it to be an act of treason. Evil prevailed.
As the guide showed us around, and proceeded to tell us how messages were secretly received from the mainland, he said that a year before apartheid ended, the prisoners knew that apartheid was over. They knew in their bones that they had won. And he said that the guards knew it as well. Our guide said that he experienced freedom long before he was set free.
What that tour of that infamous prison taught me is that evil cannot be sustained. Evil can ruin lives and countries. It may last for a long time – slavery in this country endured for 242 years; apartheid reigned for 43, German Fascism lasted for 12. But evil will be defeated. Goodness, hope and justice will prevail.
Yes, evil is contagious. Yes, evil can be horrific – and cause those of us who are some distance from it to want to close our eyes, and cover our mouth and ears. As long as we hold on to the yeses of faith and hope, evil will never be the last word.