Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston and Evil: A Christian Perspective

Yesterday, as I watched the unfolding events in Boston, I was struck by a common theme enunciated by countless commentators: what we witnessed was evil, pure and simple. The clear assumption was that this is what evil looks like, and we must come to grips with it, as shocking and disconcerting as it may be. Another assumption: the "we" who must come to grips with this evil, the mass of common (and uncommon) folk who witnessed the carnage and its aftermath, are not evil.

Of course, President Obama had articulated this narrative on Tuesday, when he contrasted that "heinous," "cowardly," and "evil" act of terrorism with the response of the "good people of Boston" to the tragedy. Compounding the problem were the (to be expected) responses of partisans of the left and the right to the terrorist act. Many on the left were convinced, before any evidence had been presented, that the bomber(s) were Timothy McVeigh wannabes, socially dislocated right wing, anti-government fanatics. Many more on the right were convinced, a priori, that the perpetrators had to be "Islamist" extremists, whether associated with Al-Qaeda or not. And when a Saudi national, straight out of central casting, was taken into custody as a "person of interest," they thought themselves vindicated. Of course, when it turned out that the bombers, though Muslim, were from the Caucasus, legal immigrants with no clear history of radicalized Islamist beliefs—i.e., the reasons for their act have yet to be determined—the ugliest xenophobic tendencies of the American populace manifested themselves aplenty. Immediately, xenophobes such as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) claimed that this week's events should derail the immigration reform that even George W. Bush supported. Prejudice, it seems, can often cloak itself in the pieties of pragmatism and "national security." Yes, radical Islam presents a very real and serious problem for the West. But not every, or even most, Asian Muslims are potential terrorists, and so paint-with-a-broom stereotyping of them in this way is both unhelpful and unjust [one also wonders whether or not they realize that terrorist acts are not the sole province of Muslims: witness such white, European/American terrorists as the home-grown McVeigh, the IRA, or the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik]. It simply is easier to brand such people as the "Other" and, hence, to justify treating them with contempt and setting ourselves up as paragons of rectitude.

At times like these the shell-shocked community regularly calls for "justice" to be meted out to the perpetrators. However, it is a particular type of "justice" that is desired. It certainly isn't the type of restorative, social justice called for by such Hebrew prophets as Amos. Indeed, many who are calling for "justice" in Boston want nothing to do with that type of justice, considering it, despite its biblical basis, a "liberal" notion. No. What they want is retribution. What they desire is vengeance. They want nothing less than summary execution of the offenders. They want them—I have heard this with my own ears—to "rot in hell" for eternity.

My concern is not for the world's reaction to the evil we witnessed in Boston on Monday. It is for how we Christians respond. Sad to say it has not differed substantially from that of the populace as a whole. Fundamental to any genuine Christian response is the recognition of our own complicity in the evil that wracks the world. Perhaps the best illustration of the optimal response I have heard comes from a (possibly apocryphal) story about G. K. Chesterton. As the story goes, The Times of London once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking them, "What's wrong with the world today?" Chesterton supposedly wrote back in his typically pithy way, "Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G. K. Chesterton."

I have never been able to verify whether or not the great Chesterton ever wrote this. Nevertheless, the sentiment expressed in the story is exactly correct. Skeptics may forever raise the issue of evil as an argument against theism. Believers may try valiantly to answer their skepticism with philosophical arguments valid or invalid. But unless one recognizes that the evil that has disordered God's world runs like a fault line through the core of each of our persons, any response is doomed to failure. Indeed, one of the rediscoveries of biblical truth associated with the work of Martin Luther was St. Paul's offensive teaching that God justifies the ungodly through faith solely on the basis of what Christ achieved in his death and resurrection on their behalf (Romans 4:5). In other words, the terrorist and I really are no different from one another. We both stand on equal footing as sinners before the judgment seat of the sovereign God. It is, therefore, illegitimate to act as if he is "evil" and I am "good." If I am to be "saved," it emphatically has nothing to do with what I bring to the table, for, as the prophet graphically says in another context, "All our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag" (Isaiah 64:6). That means, of course, that the church does not consist of "respectable" or "good" people, no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise, usually to the detriment of our public witness.

This brings me to one further point. I understand the shock, horror, disgust and, yes, anger at what the bombers did on Monday. Just seeing pictures of the faces of little Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi, and Krystle Campbell brings tears to my face and anger to my soul at the senselessness of promising lives cut short by sinful violence. But, as a Christian, I do have control over how I respond to my innate reactions. I have heard and read too many Christians in the past week who have emulated the response of the world at large. In effect, such Christians are behaving like the crowd gathered for the execution of the "witch" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, calling enthusiastically for her to be burned. Yet our Lord said that we must love our enemies and pray for our persecutors in imitation of our merciful Father in heaven (Matthew 5:44-45). We, of course, dutifully pray for the families of the victims and for the city of Boston as a whole for healing in the wake of this tragedy. But have we prayed for the bombers? Or do we deem them unworthy of the saving grace of God we are eager to accept for ourselves? Do we zealously call for "justice" to be done even as we are thankful that God has forgiven us, having substituted himself in the judgement we had coming for our sins? Have we lost faith in ultimate justice, the justice that recognizes that, as God himself said, "Vengeance is mine. I will repay" (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19)—the justice that disqualifies any human quest for vengeance?

This is not to discount the role of legitimate government in executing justice (see, e.g., Romans 13:4). But it does call into question the attitudes we as Christians have to such governmental action. Moreover, it underscores the fact, too little recognized, that violent retribution will ultimately do nothing to stop the violence that stains human existence in this fallen world. To paraphrase Jesus, evil we will always have among us. Let us, therefore, take seriously our role as agents of God's kingdom and work to implement the victory won by Jesus in loving, sacrificial service to the fallen world in which we live.

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