Trinity: "The Problem of Evil"

The Revd Brutus Green

One of the problems that exercised the early Church, and philosophers going back to the ancient world, is the so-called problem of evil. After centuries of persecution the first generations of Christians had plenty of first-hand experience of the evil of men, not forgetting their own founder’s. As Pascal affirmed: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And yet the Christians worshipped a God, categorically defined as good, who had alone created all things from nothing. Where then does evil come from?

St Augustine at the end of the fourth century came up with the classical definition that evil doesn’t exist. Evil is simply a lack of what is good or a failure to ‘harmonize’. Wicked acts are a failure of will.

Intellectually this presents a strong, defensible position. The alternative, of an actual source of evil in the world - that reality is a contest of good and evil, - has also been a common assumption of ordinary people throughout the ages. In Augustine’s time it was part of the Manichaean heresy; it certainly affected some less intellectual medieval demonologies and remains very strong in the popular imagination - think of all those horror movies. I believe Deliver Us From Evil with Edgar Ramirez playing an unconventional priest opens this week. Otherwise you can always step out and buy the DVD of Mean Girls.

But I wonder if the problem in the liberal West has not gone the other way. Talk of sin in non-evangelical churches is a little embarrassing, the devil need no longer make an appearance in the baptism service (he does today!), the human sciences and bleeding-heart-liberals fall over themselves to explain crime and wickedness as social problems not moral problems; while in the military during airstrikes, they do not usually have a chaplain present, arguing the morality of a strike; they certainly do have a lawyer though ensuring its legality.

Good and evil have largely dropped out of our vocabulary, replaced by abnormal psychology, sociological patterns and legal concerns. There is certainly some gain in this. And yet while a woman may choose her husband expressly for biological reasons of natural selection, school children do steal because of peer pressure, and for better and worse foreign states usually do not interfere in the domestic arrangements of other countries, we might also insist that these are also moral situations, and deserve specifically moral reflection. To explain is not to justify. To give causes of human behaviour does not to exonerate it.

I was in magical Croatia until this week. The last time I was there was twenty years ago. At night, in Zagreb, you could hear gunfire then and two weeks after I left it was attacked by rockets. A Serb general had announced to the press a month before that in an attack he would bomb the parks, because that way they would be sure of killing civilians. In the end they hit a national theatre, the airport, some public squares and a children’s hospital. And this is only a minor detail of the widespread moral failure of these wars. The most famous occurred a few months later at Srebrenica when Serb forces walked into a UN safe area, marched over 7000 men and boys past the 400 Dutch soldiers on the word of the officer that none would be harmed, and murdered them.

Western politicians do not come out of the wars well either. Continuous stalling, especially from the French, led to more sadism and destruction, while we, with our usual fears of immigration announced that no Bosnian could travel to the UK without a visa, which given that there was no British embassy in Sarajevo proved extremely effective in resisting asylum seekers. The blame for the savagery of murder, torture, rape and ethnic cleansing, mostly lies at the hands of Serbian politicians - although the first Croatian president Franjo Tudjman was no angel of light - best known for his cosmopolitan prejudices against Muslims, Serbs and Jews.

This time on holiday I managed to get down as far as Split, famous for the Diocletian palace. Certainly for theologians the Roman emperor Diocletian is most famous for his systematic murder of Christians. Peter Cubicularius, for example, was stripped and scourged, with salt and vinegar poured into his wounds, before being slowly boiled over an open flame.

Such acts remain familiar today, brutally in Syria and Iraq; and ethnic and nationalist hatred remains the most apparent form of evil. We don’t usually think of them in such terms - it is politics, or war or terrorism. British politicians tend to refrain from the rhetoric of ‘the axis of evil’. But it’s important to remember that all these acts - politicians inciting crowds, officers issuing orders, the acts of soldiers are the willed acts of individuals. Genocide is never inevitable. It is the combined actions of many people; people who are morally responsible. People who may choose to do good. People who may choose to do evil.

But even if we are prepared to recognise extreme evil such as IS atrocities in Iraq, we are less inclined to assert moral judgement closer to home. It would be unsophisticated to be ‘judgmental’. I wonder how many of us have said to another person ‘I think what you’re doing is wrong’. Again, this is probably largely a good thing but the question should be asked: Evil may be defined as a lack, a failure, but have we as individuals, as a society, lost our moral confidence? Do we excuse ourselves with pop psychology and self-diagnosis when we are weak-willed? Even if we are always legally scrupulous are we also morally scrupulous? Or are we like Mae West who between two evils, always picks the one she’s never tried before.

Are you ready to accuse me of being a judgemental, puritanical hypocrite yet?

In today’s Gospel we have an intriguing scene. The woman who comes to pester Jesus is a foreigner, a Gentile from Syria, a Canaanite - an outsider by ethnicity and religion. Jesus’ response seems harsh - calling her a dog, a typical Jewish insult for gentiles. But the persistence and humility of the woman lead to her commendation and the healing miracle. Jesus is the one who actually seems to be at fault. Is Jesus here being taught by this woman, coming to understand more what God’s kingdom is really about? Or is he teaching the disciples who just want to get rid of the woman? The Canaanites are the old enemy, foreigners and heathens. Perhaps like the Yazidi are to Iraqi Muslims. This passage then is about reconciliation and about recognising the common humanity of the outsider. She is the woman of great faith and this brings with it healing.

The continuation of this opening up of faith and God’s kingdom can be seen in the epistle. No longer are the Jews set apart in their covenant with God, though they are not rejected. But with Israel’s rejection of Jesus, the kingdom of God is opened to all, the children’s food becomes the food of all God’s people. This is the radical new message of inclusion that Christianity brought.

Racism and its crimes depends upon the dehumanisation of other ethnicities. They must be seen as lacking, less than full humanity. It makes it easier to destroy if one first degrades. Just as evil is in itself a lack, a failure, so is it most obviously manifested in finding a lack, a less-than-human in other people. The examples that Christianity offers of faith and perfection are those who admit their lack, their own failure, but who perceive in others the fullness of humanity. This is the gift of humility and of love. It is the beginning of forgiveness. When the mystical theologians turn to the question of evil they almost celebrate it, because it is only be recognising the evil inherent in humanity that we can appreciate the love and grace of Jesus and the forgiveness that God holds for us.

This also is the point of baptism. It begins with penitence, with the acknowledgement of our weakness of our propensity for evil and failure. But its purpose is to include us in the universal body of God’s people. And to recognise that this body of sinners for all its faults is held before God, and carries with it the love of God that ends not finally with judgement but with reconciliation.