This has been a bad year for the world's bad guys. As we started 2011, brutal dictators and plotting terrorists were comfortably in power. But by the end of the year, a number were dead, defeated, or defiantly opposed by the people they sought to rule. It reminds us that evil is very much a part of our world, and the battle against it extends from the dictator on high into the depths of every human heart.
The Arab Spring kicked off this bad year for the bad guys in Tunisia. Less than a month after a single activist began the protests, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned, setting off revolutions throughout North Africa. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. And in Libya, "madman" Muammar Gadhafi was killed by his own people in October following a short civil war.
This year also saw the deaths of Osama bin Laden and a fellow jihadist, the terrorist recruiter and mastermind Anwar al-Awlaki, who inspired the Fort Hood murderer. These people will no longer wage their war against human life and freedom.
More bad guys may look back to 2011 as the beginning of the end of their reigns of terror. Joseph Kony, who has led a horrific and vicious rebellion in northern Uganda, is under increased pressure. Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad is losing support from the international community as he brutally represses protestors of his regime.
It was indeed a bad year for the bad guys. As we look into the year to come, we can be thankful that many people have the freedom to choose their own future, to take peaceful action to change the direction of their countries.
However, while some bad guys are gone, evil still lurks. Freedom House, a democracy advocate, says the number of truly free countries is on the decline, while authoritarian regimes have increased their repression. In Iran, for example, the country's rulers continue their quest for nuclear weapons. And it remains to be seen if the overthrow of Hosni Mubark in Egypt will lead to greater freedom for all Egyptians. Christians in Egypt have faced church bombings even after Christians and Muslims supported one another in prayer during the Cairo protests.
I take two lessons away from this year's defeat of the bad guys.
There truly is evil in this world, and we must fight against it. We often think of ourselves as kinder, gentler, and more enlightened than people of previous generations. One famous Harvard professor recently published an eight hundred page book arguing that we are getting better and better. Stephen Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, says that the world today is less violent than ever before. Of course, the scale and systematic nature of the violence in the 20th century--from Hitler to Stalin to Hiroshima to Pol Pot--is proof enough that evil continues to haunt humanity.
Still, Pinker may be right about an overall decline in violence, but a significant reason is that modern states restrain an individual's violent tendencies. In many places today, government control is absent, and violence and evil are the result. In Somalia, armed groups prevent famine relief efforts, forcing millions into starvation. Areas of the Congo without government control are frightfully dangerous. Every minute another woman is raped in the Congo.
Another form of evil lurks when 21,000 children die every day of preventable causes, while most of the world ignores their plight.
This wouldn't surprise the writer of Ecclesiastes, who wrote, "The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil ... and madness" (9:3). The Christian idea that we are all sinful is not popular these days, but the lesson of history hard to ignore. As the English writer G.K. Chesterton said, the doctrine of original sin "is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved."
That is why we battle the evil that exists in all of us. As the political philosopher Edmund Burke is quoted as saying, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." This brings the battle between good and evil right home.
We best resist evil not by ordering drone missile strikes. The best weapon against evil is good. It is a battle we wage daily by choosing love and kindness toward others. When we stand up for the rights of others and when we sacrifice our own comfort for the sake of another person, we side with good over evil.
At Christmas we remember that the baby born in a manager would later confront horrific evil on a Roman cross. As Bruce Cockburn sang, "Redemption rips through the surface of time / In the cry of a tiny babe." The lesson of Jesus is not that evil has been wiped out--as if Jesus were a Navy Seal--but that God has the power to ultimately defeat evil and that when we struggle against it, God is on our side.