Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror


We are still surprised by evil. From Auschwitz to the events of September 11, we have been shocked into recognizing the startling capacity for evil within the human heart. We now know 9/11 revealed that our country was unprepared in terms of national security, but it also showed we were intellectually and morally unprepared to deal with such a barbaric act. Our language to describe evil and our ethical will to resist it have grown uncertain and confused. Many who speak unabashedly of evil are dismissed as ...

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We are still surprised by evil. From Auschwitz to the events of September 11, we have been shocked into recognizing the startling capacity for evil within the human heart. We now know 9/11 revealed that our country was unprepared in terms of national security, but it also showed we were intellectually and morally unprepared to deal with such a barbaric act. Our language to describe evil and our ethical will to resist it have grown uncertain and confused. Many who speak unabashedly of evil are dismissed as simplistic, old-fashioned, and out of tune with the realities of modern life. Yet we must have some kind of language to help us understand the pain and suffering at the heart of human experience.

Author and speaker Os Guinness confronts our inability to understand evil -- let alone respond to it effectively -- by providing both a lexicon and a strategy for finding a way forward. Since 9/11, much public discussion has centered on the destructiveness of extrem-ist religion. Guinness provocatively argues that this is far from an accurate picture and too easy an explanation. In this expansive exploration of both the causes of modern evil and solutions for the future, he faces our tragic recent past and our disturbing present with courageous honesty. In order to live an “examined life,” Guinness writes, we must come to terms with our beliefs regarding evil and ultimately join the fight against it.

Guinness frames his study by exploring several questions:

  • Where does evil come from?
  • What are the questions raised by evil that we cannot ignore?
  • Has the modern world made evil worse?
  • How do the different ways of explaining evil affect how we respond to it?
  • What must we do to fight evil effectively?
  • What does the existence of evil tell us about our ultimate beliefs?

Addressing individuals as well as a traumatized culture, Unspeakable is an invitation to explore the challenge of contemporary evil, a call to confront our culture of fear, and a journey to find words to come to terms with the unspeakable so that it will no longer leave us mute.

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Editorial Reviews

Baroness Caroline Cox
“A ‘must read’ for anyone who wishes to explore the most fundamental questions confronting us all.”
Rome J. Hartman
“Guinness offers a brilliant ‘map’ to help us navigate and confront the difficult landscape of modern life, and modern evil.”
Peggy Wehmeyer
“An important book for anyone who doubts the existence of human evil or who has lost faith because of it.”
Dallas Willard
“Guinness’s incisive analyses gives us hope of being able to deal with evil. A great accomplishment!”
James Davison Hunter
“A brutally honest inquiry into the darkest realities of human history...a journey that leads back to ourselves.”
“Guinness eloquently draws the distinction between evil and suffering, then exhorts us to recognize that evil lies within our hearts.”
Christian Retailing
“...[Guinness] leaves the readers with a sense of hope, highlighting the importance of individual calling.”
Presbyterians Today
“[L]aced with compelling, heart-wrenching and illuminating stories...”
Publishers Weekly
Guinness, one of evangelical Christianity's few public intellectuals, matches his usual seriousness of purpose with exceptionally lucid prose as he explores the nature of evil-a topic he was scheduled to address at a dinner in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. That was not Guinness's first brush with suffering on a geopolitical scale: he was born in China to missionary parents, and while he and they barely escaped with their lives during the 1949 revolution, Guinness's two brothers did not. This personal dimension authenticates, but never dominates, the book, which focuses on seven questions that evil raises for those seeking to live "an examined life." The scope is ambitious, from the ancient "trilemma" of how an all-powerful, benevolent God can permit evil to the technology that makes us all witnesses to far more suffering than we can respond to. Guinness's answers are rarely predictable. He argues strenuously against the contemporary reticence to call evil by name, yet he also warns against the hypocrisy that sees evil only in others-singling out America's torture of prisoners in Iraq. His Christian convictions are evident, but he engages respectfully with those who do not share them. This book makes a compelling case for faith, and courage, in the face of evil's dark reality. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Bad things are afoot and ascendant, says Guinness, and "at a time when intellectual and moral responses to evil are weaker, more controversial, and more confused than they have been for centuries."Evil stalks the earth because humans do, it's part of the angel-and-demon dichotomy. Yet, Guinness (The American Hour, 1992, etc.) writes, evil casts an ever-larger shadow, and disturbing trends require us to rethink evil in our day: it has steadily increased in reach and scale in modern times; modern people don't know how to respond to it; and-contra those who see religious fundamentalism as an engine of intolerance and other unpleasant behavior-secularist regimes are the cause of the worst atrocities of the day, and secularist regimes are everywhere. Gore Vidal, who has lately been condemning monotheism, won't buy the argument, and neither will many other people with a memory for names such as Bosnia and the Taliban: set religious absolutism and nonreligious absolutism side by side, they might object, and you wind up with much the same bleak landscape of the soul, save that it's easier to get a drink in an atheist country. But no matter. Nominally ecumenical, Guinness soon gets around to the need for religious faith in the war against evil; nonbelievers, it appears, just aren't up to the job. "Freedom," he writes in a nicely circular turn, "requires virtue, virtue requires faith of some sort, and faith requires freedom." Moreover, against the ills of dualism and utopianism, Guinness posits that the Christian and Jewish "realism" is uniquely equipped for the fight; "Judaism and the Christian faith," he continues, "are now credited for keeping alive the dream of justice that transcends allwrong." Fans of the Dalai Lama and Gandhi may have objections there, but again, no matter; only faith, Guinness concludes, and presumably only of the Christian and Jewish stripes, "can provide the best truths to come to terms with evil."Of less appeal than Lance Morrow's Evil (2003), which covers much the same ground in a rather more inclusive and certainly more thought-provoking way; still, of interest to the choir.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060586362
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/1/2005
  • Pages: 242
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Os Guinness, an author and social critic, has written or edited more than twenty-five books, including The Call, Long Journey Home, Unspeakable, and The American Hour. A frequent speaker and seminar leader at political and business conferences in the United States, Europe, and Asia, Guinness has lectured at many of the world's leading universities and has often spoken on Capitol Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Table of Contents

Preface : no stranger to evil
Ch. 1 Evil and the examined life 1
Ch. 2 Brief as a candle, fragile as an eggshell 19
Ch. 3 What a game of chance life is 26
Ch. 4 Our greatest enemy 34
Ch. 5 Why me? 49
Ch. 6 Where's God? 58
Ch. 7 How can I stand it? 67
Ch. 8 Ordinary people, extraordinary evil 81
Ch. 9 Freedom's tilt toward evil 94
Ch. 10 Nirvana is not for egos 115
Ch. 11 I do it my way 125
Ch. 12 People of the crossed sticks 136
Ch. 13 The problem with the world is me 157
Ch. 14 The politics of the second chance 170
Ch. 15 The courage to stand 182
Ch. 16 Don't know, don't say 197
Ch. 17 "Goddamnit!" and other unwitting prayers 211
Ch. 18 The rainbow through the rain 222
Conclusion : but not through me 229
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First Chapter

Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror

Chapter One

Evil and the Examined Life

"Where was God when the towers fell?" The ABC reporter's question to me, only two days after the horrific slaughter of the innocent thousands in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, went straight for the jugular, and it was meant to. Or as a National Public Radio interviewer asked me the same day, "I saw a woman running through the acrid smoke crying, 'God, are you here?' What should I have said to her?"

With television making the atrocity a local event for untold millions around the world, questions like that must have been asked in countless ways that day -- sometimes with heartbreak, sometimes with anger, and sometimes with mute incomprehension. But the concern was surely the same. On a clear blue, peaceful Tuesday morning, the deadly terrorist strike laid bare the two deepest issues of human life: the raw evil of the inhumanity of humanity and the agonizing question of the place of God in human suffering.

These two issues, and the piercing questions they raise, are the central theme of this book. Together they lie at the heart of our human existence. Each requires the other for an adequate response, and both are surrounded by a dangerous ignorance and confusion today. The first can be expressed as: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" And the second: "What does it say of us as human beings that the worst atrocities on planet earth are done by our own species -- in other words, by people like us?"

Needless to say, these issues and questions are far older and have far wider application than the events of September 11. For one thing, while thousands died at Ground Zero, thousands of others across New York and hundreds of thousands across the world also died that day -- of cancer, stroke, hunger, accidents, murder, AIDS, suicide, and for many other tragic reasons, not to mention old age. Each of these deaths was accompanied by its own grieving family and friends, and each was a dire event that, for them as individuals, was as bad as the terrorist strike was for the United States as a whole.

A basic fact of life is that any of us may suffer and all of us will die.

For another thing, while a televised attack on two of the world's most famous buildings was shockingly extraordinary, and designed to be so, far more people in the world suffer today under the heel of grinding evils that are numbingly ordinary and will never make the newspaper headlines or the television news. Few of us, for instance, give serious thought to the millions of young girls forced into prostitution, to the women abused by their husbands, to the widows driven from their homes and their rightful lands, to the men convicted and imprisoned without justice, or to the millions of families kept for a lifetime in bonded slavery.

Another basic fact of life is that countless human beings live in abject daily fear of evil and the brutal people who abuse power and oppress them. For much of the world, evil is -- and always has been -- a daily fact of life.

The Lisbon Earthquake of Our Time

These two ancient issues are dark and difficult enough in themselves. But there is a modern twist to the discussion that makes it harder still. The events of September 11 hit America and the West at large at a time when intellectual and moral responses to evil are weaker, more controversial, and more confused than they have been for centuries. Put simply, we no longer have a shared understanding about whether there is any such thing as evil. Some even question whether it is proper to speak of anyone as our enemy. The consequences of our uncertainty damage us on all sorts of levels.

Thus, whether September 11 was viewed as a disaster, a tragedy, a crime, an act of war, or a symbolic spectacle on the grandest scale -- "the greatest work of art of all time," as the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen put it -- the force of the hijacked planes hit the Western intellectual world as damagingly as it did the World Trade Center. The lethal challenge of evil at the beginning of the twenty- first century exposes the core confusion of modern thinking just as the Great Lisbon earthquake in 1755 challenged traditional European views in the eighteenth century -- but in the opposite direction.

In the mid-eighteenth century Lisbon was the capital of the far- flung Portuguese empire and one of the most powerful and beautiful cities in the world. But on November 1, 1755, it was devastated by a triple shock: an offshore earthquake lasting ten minutes that was felt as far away as France, Italy, Switzerland, and North Africa; a gigantic killer wave that unleashed a fifty-foot wall of water pounding across the city; and a series of fires, set off by the tremors, which devastated what was left of the city. The combined death toll of all three disasters was more than 60,000 people, and the shock and horror were felt right across Europe. To the eighteenth century the mention of "Lisbon" was the equivalent of the mention of "Auschwitz" today.

The parallels between New York 2001 and Lisbon 1755 are evident at once: an autumn day; sudden, total, and appalling devastation; buildings destroyed; skies dark and thick with dust; thousands hideously slaughtered; heroic human responses; civilized life drastically disrupted; weeks following filled with a lifetime's worth of grief and funerals; and intense intellectual debates set off around the centers of the educated world.

But the difference between 1755 and 2001 is crucial too. The outcome of the Lisbon earthquake, as interpreted by Voltaire and others, was to weaken traditional faith in God and providence and strengthen the new confidence in Enlightenment progress -- God is dead and the future of humankind is one of our own making ...

Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror
. Copyright © by Os Guinness. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2005


    Evil may seem to be an old fashioned word in this relativistic age where the only absolute truth, many contend, is that there is not absolute truth. It is that attitude that lets evil spread. Using the past as illustrations, Mr. Guiness confronts our attitudes about evil. Correcting them is the key to dealing with evil in the best possible way. By asking seven incisive questions, he takes readers on a journey that will lead them to an apprehension of this enemy and, hopefully, to make a difference in their own hearts. ............................................ **** Yes, the book is slanted towards a Christian world view, but he does present other views as fairly as it is possible for a committed Christian to do. Though the answers are staunchly Christian, they are presented logically enough that it is hard to imagine that a non Christian reading this would be offended. Reading a book won't cure the evils of life, but it might help you face them better. ****

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