From inception Watershed has sought to put justice at the forefront of our mission. Whether embedded into the themes of pop culture artifacts or real life events in our city, nation, and world, justice has become a hot topic. Pastor of Justice Cedric Lundy has been conducting a blog series aimed at unpacking our understanding of justice and why it’s fundamental to our community. This post is part 5 of that series.
What distinguishes injustice from evil? As discussed in the previous blog post in this series at the root of injustice is the fundamental question of “what is enough?” When we either individually or corporately sense we are less it often results in us taking more, which often leaves others with less, and a crazy cycle ensues often resulting in entire systems and institutions of injustice. Evil then is when shame and or blame has led to a complete dehumanization of an individual or group of people.
While injustice is often times the slow cooker of evil it doesn’t require institutions or systemic injustice to function. Evil is a direct and often overt action that can be perpetrated against someone whom the evildoer has so fully dehumanized that their actions (in their mind) are completely justified. There is no limit to the amount of shame and blame that can be leveled on their victim.
I recognize this framing of evil may not line up with the accepted dictionary definition, but for our purposes I’m attempting to place evil within a theological framework that isn’t as simplistic as pointing to sin. I believe this is important because just calling it sin functionally excludes anyone who doesn’t align with a historically Christian or “biblical” worldview, and if we’re really to address the problem of evil in a way that includes everyone then we’ve got to work within a framework that is accessible to all.
The problem of evil has always plagued mankind. At times it seems as though it’s not going anywhere any time soon despite the fact that history would show the world as a whole is becoming less violent and more peaceful than at any time in recorded history. Which is especially hard to believe when the headlines recently have been filled with multiple terrorist attacks (several of them in London alone) in less than a month. Even with the gradual downward trend of violence (not that violence is the only measure of evil in the world), what are we to do about the problem of evil in the world? Many would refer to this gradual downward trend as progress, more specifically human progress. Which is why when something horrifically evil happens many living in first world comfort will declare that they have “lost faith in humanity”. The doctrine of progress has declared certain things unacceptable in modern times due solely to the fact that mankind has progressed past them.
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright in his book Evil and the Justice of God points out three characteristics or flaws in the Doctrine of Human Progress approach to dealing with evil. One, we ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face (read: it doesn’t affect us or others like us). Second we are surprised when it does hit us in the face. Lastly we, in large part due to our shock, react in immature and dangerous ways.
We sit in the comfort of our first world privileges insulated from regular exposure to real evil able to not simply ignore it, but orchestrate life rhythms void of any dissonance. Thus not only are we surprised when it does hit us in the face, we are deeply offended. Is it possible that due to our shock and surprise when evil hits us in the face that we take it too personally? I’m not sure, but it would make sense of why our reaction to evil is often immature and dangerous.
Nowhere is that immaturity better seen than when our response to evil is to enact the very acts we condemn on those who wielded it to begin with. When our response to evil is to make evildoers suffer or destroy or eradicate them we’ve fallen into the same trap of dehumanizing them. An eye for eye makes the whole world blind. A bomb for a bomb leaves the whole world a heap of rubble.
Without getting into all the history of the drug war in America, much legislation was passed over a great many years that criminalized drug use and sought to perpetually penalize drug users as felons rather than rehabilitate them. The power of addiction shouldn’t be underestimated, however when one’s ability to re-enter society and become a contributing member of it are severely limited due to the penalties that curtail one’s chances of employment and higher education, the chances that an individual will go back to doing drugs or worse increases.
Perpetually penalizing as a solution to evil just doesn’t work. In fact many attempts to solve evil by punishment not only fails to provide a real solution but actually perpetuates evil.
And therein lies the great mystery of Jesus dying on the cross.
Often times the question has been asked “why did Jesus have to die?”. However, that question reframes the narrative of Jesus’ death. It is blind to the fact that Jesus didn’t simply die one day, he was killed; Jesus didn’t have to die, he was killed. He was arrested on bogus charges supported by false testimony and then executed. Practically speaking there was no need for Jesus to die. On the other hand Jesus, who had openly criticized the sacrificial system as broken and too often a perpetrator of the cycle of evil it sought to appease, became its target. The sacrificial system was meant to provide a solution to the problem of evil, and it saw Jesus as a threat.
It has been surmised that Jesus’ willingly allowing himself to be killed was in fact an act of submission to the powers of evil and letting them do their absolute worst. From this his proclaimed resurrection is seen as a victory over evil and the key to solving the problem of evil. It is the theological equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s infamous “rope a dope” tactic. For you non boxing historians, the “rope a dope” was Ali’s tactic of leaning up against the ropes of the ring in a defensive posture using his arms to protect his head and core, allowing his opponent to wail away on him. Ali famously employed this tactic on one of the most powerful hard hitting heavy weights who ever lived for seven rounds just waiting for Foreman to exhaust himself. As Foreman tells it he hit Ali as hard as he could only for Ali to peer out from behind his gloves and say, “Is that all you’ve got?”, to which Foreman said, “Yup that’s it.” He says that he knew at that moment he was going to lose. The difference being that Jesus doesn’t hit back to knock evil out, he rises, and at that sight evil knows it has nothing left. He shows that the way to defeat evil, to really solve the problem of evil is to allow for evil to literally wear itself out.
It is that approach to solving the problem of evil that was employed by Ghandi and his followers to overcome British imperialism in India. That is the approach to solving the problem of evil that was employed by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with their willingness to allow the angry mobs to do their worst. It is said that the tide was turned in the Civil Rights Movement the day a national audience saw negroes getting beaten to within an inch of their lives on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
And therein lies the true problem of evil. Not that we don’t know how to overcome evil but that it comes at a tremendous cost most of us are not willing to take. Are we truly willing to let evil do its worst? Are willing to let evil take our lives in order to overcome it? Too often the answer is no. We’d rather fight fire with fire. We’d rather have vengeance than peace. We’d rather feel justified than be crucified.