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.