United Nations secretary general and Nobel peace prize winner Kofi Annan opened Trinity Institute's 35th national conference May 2 to a capacity crowd at New York’s Trinity Church, Wall Street, speaking on the notion of evil in the contemporary world and highlighting the importance of faith in daily life.
This year's conference, entitled 'Naming Evil: an Interfaith Dialogue,' welcomed keynote speakers from the Abrahamic faiths--Jewish, Christian and Muslim--to discuss and reflect upon the concept, nature, meaning and ascription of evil; "to name the evils that afflict us today;" and "to seek to understand their origin and to withstand their power."
Trinity Institute, a continuing education program for clergy and laity, was founded to provide theological renewal for clergy in the Episcopal Church and has since become "a think tank for exploring pieces of the post-modern puzzle and trying to make sense out of a new epistemological model," according to the Institute's web site.
The Ghanaian-born Annan, a veteran of more than 30 years at the UN, said that it made him feel uncomfortable referring to humans with the term "evil."
"There is something about the word, when we apply it to another human being, and more especially to a group of human beings, that makes me uncomfortable," he said. "It is too absolute. It seems to cut off any possibility of redemption, of dialogue, or even coexistence. It is the moral equivalent of declaring war."
He explained that when we think of other people as evil we are on a "slippery slope" that can lead to violence and murder, but stressed the difficulty of avoiding its use when confronted with genocide.
Annan faced such questions when he headed the UN's peacekeeping operations during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which Hutu extremists slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. He described how difficult it is to determine at which point violence becomes so deliberate and systematic that to continue dialogue achieves nothing. "There are times when the use of force is legitimate and necessary, because it is the lesser of two evils," he said. "But the lesser of two evils is still an evil, and we should not forget that."
Annan suggested that it is helpful when using the word "evil" to apply it to actions rather than to people. "Of course, it is tempting, when someone commits many evil acts, to say that that person is evil in himself or herself. But I am not sure that it is right," he said. "I do believe, very firmly, that people must be held responsible for their actions...But to say that any human being is irredeemably evil in himself, or herself--that is a different matter."
Intolerance, exclusion the 'true evil of our time'
As a Christian whose faith is a crucial guiding force in his work, Annan told the conference that he does not have the right to make such an absolute judgment about any of his fellow human beings, however evil the acts they may have committed. "I tend to think there is some evil even in the best of us, and some chink of light and hope and human feeling even in the worst of us," he said. "But what I am sure of is that, whatever we think about individuals, we must not allow ourselves to generalize, and attribute evil characteristics to whole groups of people."
Warning of the anti-religious sentiments caused by sweeping generalizations and reactions, Annan said that "we must learn to see each other as individuals, each with the right to define our own identity and to belong to the faith or culture of our choice."
"Tolerance is essential, but it is not enough. We must be curious about each others' traditions, anxious to find what is positive in them, and what we can learn from them," he said. "As I understand it, that is precisely the objective of your Abrahamic Program, and I salute those of all three faiths who are taking part in it."
Revisiting the conference theme, Annan suggested that "if we are intent on 'Naming Evil'... then let us name it as intolerance. Let us name it as exclusion. Let us name it as the false assumption that we have nothing to learn from beliefs and traditions different from our own.
"That, I believe, is the true evil of our time, and I urge you all to join forces against it."
Role of faith stressed
Responding to questions after his address, Annan said that the international community must not give up hope but persevere and come together to confront such challenges as terrorism, poverty and HIV/AIDS. "You would be amazed, when an individual tries to reach out, what a difference they can make," he said.
Asked about the situation in the Darfur region of the Sudan, where stories of 'ethnic cleansing' have been reported recently, Annan told the conference that several teams have been sent to the area to see how assistance can be provided to the people on the ground. "It is difficult and deplorable," he said. "We will try and pull together men and women from other areas. We are dealing with a covenant to ensure that we can work out a political agreement."
Annan again stressed the importance of faith in informing and guiding his work as secretary general of the UN and explained that it makes a difference when, during his travels, people say that they are praying for him.
The Rev. Margaret Rose, director of women's ministries for the Episcopal Church, asked Annan about the role and voice of women in some of the contexts he portrayed. "They are often the ones who care for the children and they suffer a lot," Annan replied. "They often have a lot to say and it is important that they are integrated into the peacemaking process. If you are going to reconcile at the national level you need to bring in the women. They have a different attitude to men. Their influences and voices are extremely important. They bring equality and a dimension to the discussion that men cannot."
Not whether, but how evil exists
Following an acknowledgement of the Rev. Dan Matthews' 17-year ministry as rector of Trinity Church, Wall Street, Trinity Institute’s director, the Rev. Fred Burnham, spoke briefly about the conference's context and its exploration of evil. "Evil remains one of the most pervasive, unpredictable and enigmatic forces in human life," Burnham said. "It's not the reality of evil that is in question but the way we use the word. It's not whether it exists but how it exists that we need to question for us to fully understand. Evil is a concept that needs to be carefully parsed. Let us pray that our conversations together may contribute to a national dialogue that could lead to a new and constructive global consciousness."
Finally, Dr Joan Brown Campbell, director of Chautauqua Institution and former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, spoke about the importance of interreligious dialogue in a broken world. "How can we expect there to be world peace when our religions are divided?" she asked. "We need to reunite as the family of Abraham."
Other scheduled speakers included Michael J. Sandel, professor of government and teacher of political philosophy at Harvard University; Jon D. Levenson, professor of Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School; Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and one of the world's leading authorities on Islam; and Joan D. Chittister, a widely published author, columnist and lecturer who has been a leading voice on spirituality for more than 25 years.
The full text of Kofi Annan's address can be found at: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2004/sgsm9286.doc.htm