Blog post written by Joel Stegman
Note: This is part 1 of a series of blog posts dealing with the issues of social justice, racial reconciliation and violence that has burst upon America the last few months. Stay tuned for more!
Dominating all spheres of life right now is the violence taking place in America and abroad. Particularly, for us in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the video and story of Philando Castile being shot and killed by a local police officer in Falcon Heights demanded the attention of what can many times be a numb and disengaged country, shocking them into tense observance of what is fast becoming a major issue in America. Or, at least is shocking us into the realization that a problem exists and has existed for some time. The issue is one that at times seems to be narrow, in relation to specific incidents like Castile. At others, it can seem very broad, permeated by fear of violence and lack of safety.
Like a messy car wreck that you drive by on your way to work, we have no choice but to face the events – specific and broad – and respond to them. After the initial shock (a place I think we’re beginning to arrive), we make a move to a place where we desire two things: an explanation and justice. Where was and is God in this all? And what is He doing about it?
Shows of solidarity on Facebook and other social media has been the response of many, though solidarity with whom varies person to person. Quickly, this conversation becomes about which group of people to blame:
What about those radical Islamic terrorists, you know, the ones whose parents read them the really violent parts of the Qu’ran while they’re still in diapers? Or how about those obviously racist police? Hold on – what about the oppressive American government? Actually, those thuggish black people are the problem.
Regardless, we’ve drawn a clear line in the sand and said that those whose hearts are filled with “hate” for the good are the ones who’ve perpetrated our circumstances. Those on the wrong side of the line need to be shamed into submission (and of course, we conveniently always find ourselves on the right side of the line). These are all sentiments that have made the rounds on cable TV, expressed themselves in political speeches and have wiggled their way onto our Facebook feeds.
In explaining the real issue at hand, I submit that these are easy, lazy and reactive answers, founded in raw emotion.1 Why we struggle so much to answer the question that these answers are in response to – the question of “Who is responsible for causing me to feel unsafe, or causing society to be in such upheaval” – is that, as a society, we have no robust, reasoned concept of evil. It’s the kind of thing that has been marginalized, apparently only existing in third-world countries, Marvel movies or in our imagination. There’s an easily identified “big bad” who is making clear overtones that they want to ruin the world for everyone else.
This being our concept of evil, when something awful happens, we try to quickly and clearly identify the person or group who is to blame. However, the bad guy isn’t always easily identified; rarely do we get someone giving us the villainous monologue that we’re used to seeing in superhero movies. So we come up with those lazy answers I mentioned above, blaming a whole group for the problems of society.2
When we single out one group as the problem, it means that the opposite is also true: the group on my side of the line is innocent, and is perhaps the saviors. As Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has said, “In addition to inflicting harm, the practice of evil keeps re-creating a world without innocence. Evil generates new evil as evildoers fashion victims in their new ugly image.”3 One group may perpetrate evil toward another, but because we live in an economy of evil, the oppressed cannot be innocent either.”4
If that can’t be the answer, where can we place blame for the events in Falcon Heights, Orlando, Dallas, Paris, 9/11 and so many of the other horrific events we’ve endured lately?
The writers of the Old Testament devoted much ink to the same questions we ask: “Why? How? What?” Like us today, the Israelites were quick to assign blame to people groups: false gods and the ethnic group tied to them, evil nations and their kings, etc.
We never get a real clear, easy statement of what evil is:
“The fact that one cannot really understand evil is itself … a demonstration that evil is an intruder, a force not only bent on distorting and destroying the good creation but also on resisting comprehension. If one could understand it, if one could glimpse a framework within which it ‘made sense,’ it would no longer be the radical, anti-creation, anti-God force it actually is.” 5
But with the ambiguity, hope sprung eternal. Throughout the whole of the Old Testament, we get hints that God was planning to come and sort everything out on His own. And in Jesus and on the cross, we see a clearer picture of the problem and the solution.
Thus, the whole of Scripture leads to the cross. Jesus himself talked about it quite a bit before he was actually nailed to it, and it was clear he saw it as the final solution to the problem of evil laid out in the Old Testament. Take this passage – including perhaps the most famous verse in the whole Bible – from John 3:14-19:
“‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’ For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
When Jesus speaks about condemnation happening on the cross, he brings into view the idea of a court scene that unfolds on the cross itself: those who turn to Him, hanging on that tree, will live, but those who will not turn to Him are condemned. Since humans and their status are linked to the creation itself,6 then anything associated with those people who do not turn to him – be they institutions, philosophies, governments or whatever – stand condemned and guilty of sin. Therefore, justice occurs on the cross in that it renders guilty and under judgment anything that does not turn to the one who has come to save the world through his own death. Jesus takes all of the sin of the world – not just your sins – on himself so that it can be judged and named as the evil (evil being forces, people and institutions that are anti-God, anti-creation) that it is.
Thus, the verdict is rendered for those who choose darkness over the light: they are guilty in the eyes of God. And, as the rest of the New Testament details, Jesus, following the cross, resurrection and ascension, will finally come back one day to finish the job and exact the “verdict” he’s already made on the cross. Justice in one sense has come on the cross; in another sense, it moves inexorably toward the world until it arrives when Christ comes back to render the final verdict for sin. The reason that we can even know for sure that acts or racism – and the racist and unjust system in which they are perpetrated – are wrong is because they overflow from a heart that seeks darkness instead of the light. This means that people looking for justice for those affected by violence or racism should look to the cross to find true justice for the evil done to them. We should start here before moving on and talking about justice in the here and now.
I know that in the moment, this may not feel like consolation. In the moment, when all we see is the evil perpetrated by those who seek out sin, it may not seem like much. But there is power in knowing that God sees, and hears, the cries of the oppressed and that his response is the cross. We can know God deems racial injustice evil because he has made that declaration in Christ crucified. Evil stands condemned. Justice will be served.
Arriving at the end of the passage, we see that light comes into the world, referring to Jesus and his own coming into the world. Those who come to the light are coming to it from darkness; they are those who do not stay in the darkness they’ve stumbled around in their whole life. The picture is clear: we start in darkness and move toward Jesus, the light. This means that it’s not just a certain group in darkness; for Jesus is speaking to a Jew, one who had been trained to think that the problem was outside him, found in a certain people group. Jesus’ answer is, ‘No, all humans are in darkness; thus, in humanity itself lies the problem.’
The idea of the darkness here seems to fit well with where we’re at as a society. Because we choose not to see the glow of the light of Jesus, we stumble through the darkness, bumping into each other, into hidden pitfalls, and we have no ability to truly articulate the problem because we can’t see it. How could we?
This is where the problem of evil finally comes to fruition: we are where the evil comes from. In theological terms, this is called the doctrine of “original sin.” The evil doesn’t lie in a people group. The evil lies in each and every human, and only by moving to the light of Jesus can we move out of the darkness. And to add one more thought on top of everything else I’ve just said, in the same way that one group of people are not the problem, one group of people is also not the solution. Instead of responding to police violence towards black people by by saying that one group of people – in this case, cops – are the “good”, and anyone against them is wrong, we’re in effect responding to one error with another. The doctrine of original sin means that one group of people can’t be the problem; they also can’t be the solution.
The light itself is cast onto everything else, showing us what it truly is. In the glow of this light, the lazy answers I listed above are shown to be just that: lazy. Those answers siphon one group off as the problem. Israel tried to do the same thing. We have to refuse the impulse to blame shift and call some group of people the problem. We need to go to the root as a church, like those seeing clearly because of the light. Thus, the answer can’t be shutting out entire groups of people from our country. It can’t be violence because that is not how God has chosen to deal with evil; He’s chosen to deal with it on the cross.
Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, because the death of Christ matters. It is what gives life to men. The cross is the place justice happens – and this is where God was in the midst of these events. Because of our ability to move away from what would have been our condemned status, we can have the freedom to be agents of reconciliation in the world, to be at the forefront of the efforts to reconcile groups to each and to Jesus, the true light.
Let’s make that infect our Facebook feeds and political discourse instead of the junk that’s filled so much of it recently. Let’s be agents of that light to the world.
1 This, of course, does not excuse the need for policy and practical responses to these questions. Questions of what the response of the government or practical, state-level answers to these problems–for example, questions of how to find and stop terrorists–of course need to take place. This, however, is not a place to focus on those policy questions.
2 Consider two extreme examples. The Nazi movement in Germany is an example of this happening to an ethnic group; Marxist revolution is it happening to the government.
3 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, pg. 81.
4 Volf goes on to say that, “From a distance, the world may appear neatly divided into guilty perpetrators and innocent victims. The closer we get, however, the more the line between the guilty and the innocent blurs and we see an intractable maze of small and large hatreds, dishonesties, manipulations and brutalities, each reinforcing the other.” Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, pg. 81.
5 N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pg. 742.
6 In Romans 8:20-21, Paul makes the claim that creation itself is tied to humans. The point is that humanity is the key to the problem of sin, death and decay in the world. Adam falls; creation falls. Humans are redeemed in Christ; the whole of creation is now likewise restored. It may be that is what Jesus means when he uses the word kosmos for world in 3:16, which can be used many ways and refer to the whole of creation.