The Lesser Evil, or the Greater Good?

When I was in high school we had chapel services (I attended All Saints Episcopal of Tyler, TX). Of all the homilies that we heard, there is one that for some reason stuck with me more than the others. If I remember correctly it was delivered by our chaplain, Father Bill Dickson (the man who taught me Koine Greek). The underlying question was: how do you make decisions when your alternatives all seem morally problematic? How do you choose between two options that are both bad but in different ways?

I think a lot of American Christians are asking this question as we draw nearer to Election Day. Neither of the candidates for the two major parties comes without significant baggage, baggage that in any past election would have disqualified the candidate. It is really easy this election to beat up on “the other guy”, but it is also remarkably difficult to wholeheartedly defend whichever of the two candidates you may have decided to support. Both major candidates have done things that are indefensible and that, really, ought to keep them out of public office entirely. To vote for either one may not make you complicit in their past, but it does make you complicit in whatever they do in the future, and their past is our main guide to predicting their future. I cannot think of another election in American history where the two major candidates were both so cripplingly flawed and presented the American populace with such a lose-lose situation.

So what do you do in a situation like this? What Father Bill taught us in that chapel lesson years ago is that there are essentially three ways to approach a moral quandary. First, you can deny the moral quandary. You can say that no such quandary exists or even can exist. You might think that God wouldn’t allow it, or you might just have convinced yourself that there is not really any moral problem in one of the options. Either way, this is denialism, and it is not the path to wisdom or righteousness. Moral quandaries do happen, and Christians face them every day.

The second approach is to choose the lesser evil. Look at your options and pick which one does the least damage. The problem with this approach is that it is based on fear. You choose which option makes you least fearful, least uncomfortable, least anxious. But God has not called us to respond to the complexities of life in fear. What does 2 Timothy 1:7 say? “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (NET). It is not the Spirit of Christ that motivates us by fear. It is the spirit of antichrist, the prince of the power of the air, that instills fear. Why? Because fear makes us easily manipulatable. It makes us easy to pit against one another, and it makes us short-sighted. We have difficulty seeing the bigger picture when we are focused on those more immediate things that we think can harm us. So to make difficult decisions based on which option represents the lesser evil is one way to try to resolve moral quandaries, but it is not the best way.

The third approach is to choose the greater good. Which of the options before us has the potential to do the greatest good? Rather than being based on fear, this approach makes decisions based on hope and love. When we act in hope and love, we are not ruled and manipulated by those in positions of power whose main intent is to retain power. Rather, we are energized and motivated by the Spirit of the King of the universe, and we act in accordance with the principles of his Kingdom.

This was the lesson that Father Bill taught us, and it has stuck with me, because it is a simple but powerful concept. The way we can navigate the complexities of life is at every point to try to make our decisions based on hope and love rather than fear and anger. It is the way of the world and of the flesh to move and act in fear, but the way of the Kingdom of God is to move and act in love.

I would supplement this old chapel lesson with one other observation: the options presented to you rarely are all the available options. When presented with a lose-lose situation, we should look to see if there is actually a third way that represents an even greater good. In the present election, it could mean voting for a third party. Do you think that small government represents the greatest good? You could cast a vote for the Libertarian Party. Do you think that environmental responsibility is the greatest good? You could vote for the Green Party.

Sometimes, however, the third way may actually be inactivity. The strategy of the spirit of antichrist is to motivate us by fear, present us with a select number of options, and tell us that we need to act quickly before it is too late, that we NEED to choose between these options. Every part of this strategy threatens to usurp the kingship of God in our hearts. The third part of that strategy is clearly seen at work in the American Church, where it has become common to hear things like “It is your Christian duty to vote” and “Despite the problems with candidate A, what candidate B represents is far worse.” To explore all that is wrong with these statement would require a totally different post, maybe more. But here I simply want to say this: it is neither your Christian duty to vote, nor will your refusal to vote for one of the two major parties constitute a vote for the other major party. Why should my refusal to vote be construed as a vote for candidate A rather than a vote for candidate B? It is specifically supporters of candidate B that tell me that my refusal to vote constitutes a vote for candidate A, while supporters of candidate A would say that my non-vote is an implicit vote for candidate B. Neither is correct. Both are examples of the spirit of the world attempting to manipulate me by fear.

I refuse to be ruled by fear. I assert my independence from the world and my exclusive allegiance to Christ in this way: whatever my choice is, I will make that choice based upon what hope and love tells me to be the greatest good rather than upon what fear tells me is the lesser evil. The greatest good may be to sit by, do nothing, and trust God.


  1. Lara says:

    Another option that you haven’t listed, is to get out there and change the parties themselves. This isn’t something you can do in this election, but perhaps this election might wake people up to start working to change the system entirely and eventually. Action to change the choices entirely is an option even though most people have no confidence in what one truly motivated person can do.

    1. BSEadmin says:

      That certainly is an option, if it is motivated by hope and love rather than by fear. A lot of our political activism in the USA, however, is motivated by fear of what the other guy is going to do to me. I think that before Christians are going to be able to transform political discourse on that level, they’re first of all going to have to back away from political involvement completely and recenter themselves on Jesus and his Kingdom.

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