Essay by William Jefferson

Evil” Itself—Our Greatest Foe

The horrific beheading of American journalist James Foley by radical militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces civilization to face its greatest foe—evil itself.

On August 19, a four-minute, forty-second video titled A Message to America was streamed online via social media networks and was swiftly routed around the globe. The malicious intent of the ISIS video was undeniable, and the careful crafting that produced it added a sense of stealthy eeriness to its message.

A Message to America stunned the international community. British Prime Mister David Cameron denounced the video as “brutal and barbaric,” while US Secretary of State John Kerry described Foley’s murder as “ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil.”

World leaders and media outlets grapple with words to describe A Message to America. Adjectives and nouns are strung together in carefully prepared texts. Yet, despite the horrific nature of the act, some media sources are loathe to interject the language of good and evil in describing terrorist activity.

A case in point is an op-ed published in The New York Times on August 22 titled “The Problem With ‘Evil.’” The article was written by Michael Boyle, an associate professor of political science at La Salle University.

Boyle argues against the use of moralistic language in denouncing foes. “Condemning the black-clad masked militants as purely ‘evil’ is seductive,” he contends. He fears what he calls “a disturbing return of the moralistic language once used to describe Al Qaeda in the panicked days after the 9/11 attacks.”

The argument is not without substance or merit. Boyle has a point, but the point Boyle presses would be far more sensible if evil did not exist. Evil does exist. Evil itself is our greatest foe.


The word “evil” cannot suddenly be ripped from the pages of human history as if it were a universal typo. The presence of evil, in its many forms and faces, is part and parcel of the human narrative. A Message to America is, in and of itself, a four-minute, forty-second testament to evil’s existence. Labeling it something it’s not only abets evil’s message.

It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who said, “The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” Solzhenitsyn’s words lose no resonance when applied to the current hour. Rather, they serve us well in ponderous times.

An ancient proverb says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” That truth, spoken by Jesus Christ, lacks no ambiguity regarding the reality of evil. Consider also the prayer Christ taught his disciples. It, too, sheds light on evil’s presence, concluding as it does with the line “Deliver us from evil.”

Today, as every day, millions of people on every continent pray that prayer. Jim Foley no doubt prayed that prayer, for Foley was a Christian as well as an American journalist. Some might even suggest that martyrdom enters the complex matrix of James Foley’s demise. After all, there is so much to ponder with respect to evil as our ancient foe.

It’s reported that US forces tried to rescue Jim Foley, but the mission failed. In the end, Foley was delivered from evil, but only through death.

“Deliver us from evil.” Four words they are and no more. In Latin, they number the same—sed libera nos a malo. These chosen words have been around a very long time: “evil” and malo, “deliver” and libera.

The words say so much, with such brevity. “Deliver” speaks of hope and light, while “evil” warns of darkness looming. Collectively they address the human condition with a mood of humbling sobriety.

Certainly, it’s our privilege to wish the words away, or to downplay the evil’s spectra, but why? The reality we face is all too real.

Clearly, A Message to America warrants an appropriate response. Perhaps we should begin with the words—“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Pause, and then pray, “Deliver us from evil”—our greatest foe.


William Jefferson is author of Messages from Estillyen: A Novel of Redemption and Human Worth. Jefferson holds an MTh in Theology and Media from the University of Edinburgh and an MA in Communications from the Wheaton Graduate School. He writes from a Civil War-era cottage in the Missouri Ozarks.