The quick answer is that we seldom think about evil. If we do, we mostly projected it upon others. We almost never think about evil as something that our own nation does. No, if evil surfaces in our country, it is some horrible individual act. And even then, we sanitize evil by blaming pharmaceutical impairment, psychological deficiency or cultural deprivation.
Now, of course, some Christians see a devil behind every bush. But most of us never give evil much consideration, and we should.
N. T. Wright takes on the topic in a beneficial way. He explores evil analytically and directly in his new book Evil and the Justice of God, where he identifies three things that characterize “the new problem of evil.”
First, evil is something we ignore “when it doesn’t hit us in the face.”
Wright says, “We live in a world where politicians, media pundits, economists and even, alas, some late-blooming liberal theologians speak as if humankind is basically all right, the world is basically all right, and there’s nothing we should make a fuss about.”
Second, evil surprises us, “when it hits us in the face.”
The bishop of Durham observes that when violence strikes innocent children in trusting communities we are shocked. Not only that, but we don’t have the “categories to cope” with things like genocide and tribal warfare. He writes, “We like to fool ourselves that the world is basically all right.”
Third, when evil hits us in the face, then we react in “immature and dangerous ways.”
Here Wright references 9/11. While he labels the actions of Al-Qaeda as “unmitigatedly evil,” he identifies the official American reaction as “the kind of knee-jerk, unthinking, immature lashing out which gets us nowhere.”
The United States was not “a pure innocent victim” and the world is not neatly divided between “evil people (particularly Arabs) and good people (particularly Americans and Israelis) with the latter group having the “responsibility now to punish the former.”
Wright states that we can neither eliminate evil with high explosives, nor with philosophical arguments.
On a personal level, we see the immature reaction of evil in our culture of blame.
“It’s always everyone else’s fault, it’s society’s fault, it’s the government’s fault, and I’m an innocent victim. Claiming the status of victim has become the new multicultural sport, as people scramble for the moral high ground in which they can emerge as pure and clean, and everybody else is to blame,” Wright argues.
In a good twist, Wright also rejects the culture of blaming oneself for everything wrong. Blaming our own culture for 9/11 is “immature and inadequate,” something that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson did when they blamed liberals for terrorist attacks.
Evil is “a four-letter word, but we don’t have a clue what to do with it or about it,” concludes Wright. “And … ignoring it isn’t an answer either.”
After skipping across the way Buddhists, Marxists and Muslims think about evil, Wright proposes three elements that will help Christian make headway in thinking about evil.
One element is the recognition that Western democracy “doesn’t actually solve the problem of evil.” We, Westerners, mistakenly think that our way, the way toward assumed progress, is the right way for every society.
A second element is a psychological one, the supra-personal, supra-human forces which may reside in the soul of corporations or governments or ideologies. Even though modernism, postmodernism and Christian theologians don’t care for this approach, it must be taken seriously.
A third element has to do with the way we divide people between good and evil. “The line between good and evil runs through each one of us,” warns Wright.
We dare not water down evil or pretend it isn’t real or press it upon others.
Wright doesn’t leave the reader alone with evil, however. He concludes with a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer: “Deliver us from evil.”
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.