Edmund Burke, one of the foremost political speakers of 18th century England, said: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." We hear this quoted so often that it may be that we are deaf to the actual meaning of the words. (Often quoted as simply "evil prospers when good men do nothing").
So what does it mean? It seems to say that evil grows not only because people carry out all kinds of awful acts, but simply because good men sit back and do nothing about it. In other words, apathy breeds evil. The natural tendency of society, if left to itself with no force for good acting upon it, is a downward slide into depravity.
If that sounds a bit of an extreme view then just take a few minutes to ponder the rise and fall of just about every civilisation that has been recorded in the history books. Chaos, disorder, lawlessness and the breakdown of family and society seem to be the hallmark of every failed system that has gone before us.
Recent history thankfully has at least one glowing example of good triumphing over evil, when the disastrous threat of Nazism was thwarted by a nation pulling together, making tremendous personal and community sacrifices in the cause of freedom and the continuance of Christian civilisation (as Churchill himself said). Many commentators have said that it was precisely 'good men doing nothing' in the twenties and thirties that allowed the Nazi threat to become so real. It was a costly apathy, and we need to honour our grandparents and great grandparents for their years of sacrifice, which is almost unimaginable in our comfortable times.
In our great city of Plymouth we are blessed with TV, Radio, Newspapers and Magazines which, for the most part, enjoy freedom of speech and can campaign for the good of our communities. We can encourage social regeneration, highlight problems and ways to overcome them, and reward community heroes with good publicity.
Yet that same media can also feed the selfishness and apathy of our human nature, lulling us into a state of entertained numbness where we do not feel the pain of others, and so have no compulsion to do anything about it. We can so easily become like the ostrich with its head in the sand, only we usually have our heads in the TV. Meanwhile, in many parts of the world, people are literally in a living hell for the want of just a little compassionate help. Closer to home, it can even be that we do not know how our next door neighbour is faring, good or bad.
Well, as Bob Dylan said in the sixties, 'times they are a changin'. The credit crunch looks set to bring some adversity to all parts of our society. But rather than viewing the future with fear, we have an opportunity to approach the days ahead with faith, and a simple trust in God. It may be a cliché, but it does seem true that the British are at their best when they face troubles together. In the rare event of an inch or two of snow in Plymouth, which for some reason brings everything to a complete standstill, we do tend to see people more readily giving and receiving help from their neighbours. A community spirit, a shared zest for life in the face of hardship, seems to spring up from our hearts.
Let's hope, and pray, that the financial storms we are currently in will produce a similar result in all of us. We all know that necessity is the mother of invention, but we're about to discover, if we respond rightly, that adversity can be the father of character, hope, and an authentic faith that works out in acts of love and kindness. At least, that's what the Bible tells us.
This article was originally published in the Plymouth Shopper, a group of 7 localised community newspapers produced by Cornerstone Vision, reaching 62,000 homes every month in Plymouth. Each edition carries positive news stories and features, and provides local businesses, community groups and organisations with a very localised media platform to reach their own area.
Chris and Kerry speak at a number of national conferences on Christian lifestyle, marriage and culture.