“So apparently something happened at the Boston Marathon this morning.” My wife scrolled down on her phone. I flipped on the tv, frustrated because I can never remember where the 24-hour news channels are in the lineup. Since I’ll be running my first (and probably last) marathon this year, I was curious: did some Kenyan runner break a record? was there an inspirational story? did someone else try to shave a few minutes off their time by taking the subway to the finish line?
You know the real story. Two bombs had exploded, killing multiple people and injuring over 100.
By most standards, killing innocent bystanders like this would be labelled “evil.” Now, generally in our culture, “evil” is not a word that tends to be thrown around. In this culture, our civil religion tends to emphasize the inherent good in people, and holds up an ideal of universal tolerance and harmony. “Evil” tends to throw a wrench into that worldview. It just seems kind of negative and divisive.
In part, our reluctance to use the term “evil” is a response to poor definition and application of the term. As I understand the term and the Bible’s use of it, “evil” is neither narrowly individualistic nor some medieval superstition. Evil is a spiritual reality that can manifest itself overtly and discretely, in individuals and systems, cooperatively and unilaterally, in “spiritual” ways and biological ways. Evil is not restricted to individual choices individuals make, but as something that impacts the world on many levels.
But the result of our avoidance of the term is that, when we open up our internet browser and things like the Marathon Bombing, or the Kermit Gosnell trial, or poisen-laced letters to the President pop up, we are surprised. I mean, if everyone is really good, “How could something like this happen?” and “How could anyone do such a thing?” We are shocked, flummoxed, bewildered. Then we obsessively tune in to every new detail, searching for the key that will prove that we were right about human beings and the world all along; this was just an exception.
As I mentioned after the Newtown shootings, however, Christians should be anything but surprised. Not that Boston-marathoners should have somehow seen this specific terrorism coming. But when it comes to the general reality of evil, the awful potential of human beings, and the deep-seated divisions of this world…we should not be surprised. In fact, as I discussed the marathon bombing with people, rather than expressing surprise that something like this could happen, I found myself expressing amazement that things like this don’t happen more often. Perhaps that’s too cynical. But let me tell you why evil doesn’t surprise me:
- Because it’s so ridiculously common. Any worldview (overarching view of the world) that makes evil actions an exception fails to take into account a huge chunk of human and societal experience. It’s kind of like saying, “The Cleveland Browns are one of the most successful NFL franchises of the last 50 years.” You can only say that by dismissing a whole slew of real-life evidence. (You’re welcome, Lions fans. If I were feeling less humble, I could have gone another direction with that analogy.) Philosophically, it’s difficult to hold to both a) the amazing intellectual and technological potential of human beings and b) human free will without also holding to c) the incredible potential for evil done by humans.
- Because I see it in myself. We’re often afraid of using the term “evil” because we feel like it’s judgmental, self-righteous, and divisive. And it can be, especially if we reserve it only for others. But the Bible speaks of evil as something all of us can encounter intimately by looking into our own souls. I know that I am accountable in thought, word, and deed for actions directly opposed to God and love; and I know that I am accountable for ways that I am complicit in systems and patterns that oppress, demean, and harm both human and non-human aspects of God’s good creation. I know that I often act in unloving ways to get what I want, when I am under stress, and when I feel attacked or helpless. Thus, evil of various extents does not surprise me.
But here’s the kicker. While many of us avoid talk of “evil” or “sin” because we think it will lead to better people and a better world, I disagree. And I think this is why talk of sin and evil is so prevalent in the Bible. Let me offer three ways being open and honest about evil sets us up for human flourishing and for love:
- We can let go of control. The next step after surprise in the face of evil is often an attempt to control and prevent. “How can I make sure this doesn’t happen to me?” Well, you can’t. It’s not wrong–in fact, it’s good–to seek healing and shalom in our world. But often that very task puts you MORE at risk to be harmed by evil rather than less. Just look at Jesus. If we would recognize the pervasiveness of evil in our world, perhaps we could just let go of acting like we can prevent it from happening to us. I would far rather say with Paul, “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” than live my life afraid of death and evil.
- We can go deeper. We only experience God as deeply as we are willing to allow God into our souls. I hear people all the time say, “Well I haven’t killed anybody or cheated on my wife, and I don’t steal.” But Jesus goes deeper. He says that at the root of murder is anger harbored against another; adultery is the fruit of the tree of lust, truth-telling goes beyond “not lying” and love goes beyond caring for your family. Rather than dismissing a character failure as “out of character,” we must be ready to admit that most everything we do is actually in character. Only when we acknowledge the evil woven into ourselves are we ready to experience forgiveness, healing, and redemption.
- We can seek true healing and reconciliation. Failing to acknowledge evil leads to shallow souls and worthless relationships. Acknowledging evil only in the “other” leads to war and oppression. It is only a robust understanding of evil’s pervasiveness that allows us to connect deeply with others as fellow “sinners in need of grace.” That actually could sum up Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul unites all of humanity first as creatures fallen short and in need of God’s mercy, and only then does he move us as a united community into our unity in Christ. And check out the complexity of Psalm 139: known intimately by God, hating the evil of others, then quickly asking God to root out the evil he sees in himself as well. We dare not skip any part of that Story. Personally, I don’t think “good person” sums me up in any meaningful way. I am a complex tapestry of God’s image and sin and hope and failure and evil and grace. We can only begin to connect if we acknowledge all of who we are and put them into the life-giving grace-lavishing world-restoring hands of our loving God.
Not being surprised by evil does not mean we seek to be calloused, stoic cynics. The appropriate response to evil–in ourselves and in the world at large–is sorrow. It is humble prayer for mercy and healing. It is to boldly and lovingly to enter into the specific brands of evil and brokenness God has called us to for the sake of healing and reconciliation, knowing full well the risks and knowing full well our own need of restoration. Jesus’ own worldview seems to be one that is at times brutally honest, yet at the same time deeply compassionate. May we have the same mindset of Christ Jesus: the courage to humble ourselves before God and one another.