Monday, May 31, 2010

The problem of evil

Over the years many much smarter and much more articulate people than I have tackled this topic. I don't pretend that I have anything new to add to those voices, but I've been thinking about this so much of late that I just need to get something down on paper. So here goes...

A while back I was invited to speak at a pretty large church out west. As I usually do when I'm given the opportunity, I talked about some of the immense challenges facing humanity, and the growing disparity between the global rich and the global poor, and the opportunity and obligation for the "church" to live faithfully and justly and simply and to be a prophetic witness in our world - to live out a "different" way - to be and to offer a creative and positive counter cultural movement.

As the congregants filed out after the service, one agitated man confronted me at the door with the question, "what do you consider to be the greatest injustice in the world?". Now I suppose that I should be well equipped for such a moment with a clear and confident response to this question. It's a reasonable question, after all. But still, it caught me off guard. My mind raced through possible responses and I don't remember exactly what I said but it was something about there being so MANY injustices and all of them serious, but so many of them rooted in power and economic disparity. Whatever I said exactly, I clearly failed his test. As it turns out I think that to pass his test would have required that I simplify the whole thing and identify abortion as the greatest injustice. But I don't want to talk about that here - that's a topic for another day...

The question (of the greatest injustice) has been lodged in my mind and I can't seem to find an answer that completely satisfies me. Since coming back from Rwanda recently, I seem to be more aware than ever of the many big and small ways that humanity abuses and oppresses the marginalized and the weak. But I'm also more aware of examples - large and small - of people who refuse to take advantage of their positions of power and influence to improve their own position. The stark contrast between beauty and hope and resilience and generosity on the one hand and meanness and selfishness and brutality on the other hand has me baffled. I look at individuals who, acting out of some deep woundedness and sense of vulnerability, lash out at those around them in all manner of destructive ways. I listen to the news and feel an immense sadness for people who are SO hurt and disoriented that they truly don't know how to live well. The sadness is profound.

And I'm frustrated when Christians are satisfied with trite responses to the pain and evil that is so pronounced in our world. Years ago when I helped with our AWANA youth program one of the verses that the kids had to memorize was Jeremiah 17:9 - The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? The older I get the more I see our capacity for wicked thought, wicked action, wicked intent... but I also see the possibilities to stare down our own wickedness and do something else - something good and right and just. We CAN train ourselves to resist the evil that comes naturally to us. Maybe the first thing is to acknowledge that wickedness and evil IS our default setting. If we do nothing to change it, we WILL act according to our base nature of selfishness and greed. But it doesn't have to be so. We CAN be different. And as we pursue a different path we become part of a movement that resists evil in all of its forms. As individuals we live in such a way that people not only feel safe around us, but may even seek out our company so that they can find some space to gather strength for their own struggles. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.

I think this is our first step - our Jerusalem. It's being light in the small sphere of our personal influence - our homes, our places of work and worship. It's no small thing. And I truly think that this is ALL that God asks of us. It's the only thing that we have to offer - our own life as we lay it down. What God will do with it beyond our Jerusalem is for him to decide. But as I've said before, this is not an invitation to apathy - rather, it's an acknowledgment that God is in control of ALL things, seen and unseen. He may use us in Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth, but if we haven't figured out how to live simply and justly and faithfully in our own skins and in Jerusalem, we won't be much use anywhere else.

Evil is real - no doubt. And we're not going to outsmart it or outmaneuver it or outrun it. But we can - and must - resist evil... and be part of communities that help one another in our resistance efforts - in our own hearts, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

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