Comparing to my usually short blogs, I wish to reflect together with my readers on the book written by N. T. Wright, Evil and Justice of God. This book is the written version of a series of lectures given in Westminster Abbey where Wright worked in 2003. This reflection will be published in Chinese in Taiwan’s Campus Publisher, one of the good publishers in Asia. As this book is hitting the stand all over Asia this week, I wish to share the English version of my reflection.
Theodicy has been a problem that plagued the church and the Christian faith. Evil can come in all forms whether through human-made or part of the natural cycle. As I’m writing this, New York City had just suffered a storm damage of 33 billion US dollar with people killed and homeless and Israel and Hamas are bombing each other. Meanwhile all over the world, wars rage between people and the innocent are killed by collateral damage. Wright is a realist. He dedicates the book to the memory of some of the most unexplainable suffering in recent years (e.g. 911, hurricane Katrina etc.). These are just some of the most publicized events, not to mention human trafficking and domestic abuse etc. that happen on a daily basis.
The logic of Wright’s book is very simple and clear. He starts by accepting that there is evil in this world, lots of it. He establishes that all is indeed not well with numerous examples dating from the Enlightenment to the modern West. Why are we still surprised when evil hits us? Is it not because we do not expect it to happen to us? But it does, as Wright states with certainty. This evil penetrates every form of human existence, often beyond logical or philosophical explanations. Most people live in the realm of knowing some form of evil exists but that things are basically “all right” in our world, of course, until evil arrives at our front door. This state of perpetual denial causes drastic reaction because of the lack of preparedness.
By pointing out the existence of all sorts of evil, Wright calls us to deliberately take seriously the evil in our world even if evil doesn’t hit us everyday. Wright also suggests that misunderstanding of the purpose of evil is almost as bad as not taking evil seriously enough. The suggestion that somehow evil will produce great heroic character in ordinary people will only go so far when something as horrible as the Holocaust happened. To put God as the originator of such evil to train character is equally unthinkable. At least, character building is not the whole answer to how evil functions. Instead of pointing to God as originator of evil, many believers would either project the evil on others, producing a blame environment, or project evil on themselves, producing depression. Neither reaction deals with the real problem.
When viewing evil, many political solutions have fallen off short. Will allowing the people education and freedom to vote do the trick? Not so according to Wright. In fact, the US has demonstrated that this system has still fallen short with many blind spots, no less than a political desire to be the world’s policeman. Would the pooling together of collective countries with varying interests into a singular rotating government work? The EU has proven to be largely a failure as debates descend into opposite interest groups from different cultures and governments. Biblically speaking, the political powers were a mixture of good and evil, sometimes reaching to the height of evil, evident in the crucifixion of Jesus. Before we come up with a solution, I think many would want to seek an answer as to why evil exists.
For instance, what caused the genocide of Rwanda? Some may blame godlessness in the heart of the people. How then can we explain priests being involved in perpetrating the crimes? Others would blame colonizers who manipulated the power between the Hutus and Tutsies. How then do we explain that other parallel situations did not result in such massive hatred and bloodshed? Others simply blame the devil. But we can’t see the devil! Wright turns to the Bible and finds three explanations that will not explain much of what we consider evil: evil people persecute the righteous, evil from idolatry, the devil. Such explanations do not really say much about what God said about evil. They only confirmed the existence of evil by observations of human authors.
To explain the problem biblically, Wright draws from Genesis where human had allowed evil to come into the world, the flood came largely to wipe out evil, and God called Abraham into His purpose. Whatever the explanation for evil is, God did confront evil in many different ways in the Bible. With the history of Israel moving towards exile, Wright shows that the gentiles were not the only evil people, but also Israel as well. God had to raise a servant to solve part of this problem head on, ultimately in the person of Jesus. In close reading of Job, Wright also points to the problem of evil being solved without Job having entire knowledge. The evil that would be righted by God did not come in the future but in this world. This is an important point leading to Wright’s ethical argument.
Rather than providing pet answers from just Bible or adding philosophy to the mix, Wright suggests practical solutions. In so doing, Wright rejects the Enlightenment program that had eventually created modernism and moves towards an ethical paradigm. The solutions he suggests include the way we relate to one another. The main question he asks is, “What can we do about it?”
Wright suggests some simple solutions that encourage Christian activism. If I were to summarize his suggestion, it would be this, “Don’t just philosophize, do something about the suffering.” His solution is biblically grounded. When he tells Christians to do something about all the suffering, he grounds all such activism in the cross of Christ and resurrection. The way Wright frames the solution brings the balance between two dichotomies. Quite often, people wanted to use structures such as governments to stem the tide of evil. Conversely, they may try to do something on the individual level. Wright suggests the faith community to be involved in bringing a Christ-center solution by each member doing his or her part. In other words, since Christ had accomplished so much on the cross, His people should actively do something about that gospel in this world and not sit and wait for the Second Coming.
What in fact did Jesus accomplish according to Wright? Jesus had taken on the full failure of God’s people in order to bring triumph over evil. Here, Wright is consistent with the classic theory of atonement by telling a story about the triumph of the cross. However we frame atonement, the cross was a present reality for the first-century believers. Wright builds his entire argument not only through the general idea of the atoning cross, but also God’s new creation from the cross, not only in the future but starting from the here and now. The discussion comes out of implications from many parts of Romans, several other biblical books and story of Israel. Through the discussion, Wright brings out the implication for the Christian life. Things are not just made new in the eschaton. They need to be renewed now through the Christian community.
In this accessible work, Wright deals with contemporary issues of global empire, of criminal justice and punishment and of war. By calling our attention to such evils, Wright also sharply condemns the political powers of ignoring their role in these issues as if they do not exist. I say “contemporary” because Wright takes a route that veers off the classical metaphysical discussion about evil. The classical logic goes something like this. If both evil and God exist, then we have two choices in viewing our world. First, we could say that this God is evil (thus unloving) in allowing evil to exist or that He is not powerful to prevent such evil from happening.
In Wright’s preface, he has already stated that his treatment is incomplete at best. The setting for his lectures is the church. However, he has launched against political systems that do not embody the gospel. We have to understand Wright’s setting of political system in England is merged with church. Obviously his analysis and insights may have other applications in different models of government, especially in the relationship between church and state. What is the solution to the problem of evil? The answer depends on what starting we take. Wright takes the practical route built upon the work of Jesus.
The Bible seems to acknowledge evil in every form but also provides no definitive answer other than for God’s people to do some good in this suffering world. One very relevant point about Wright’s solution to the Chinese culture is the “naming” of evil. Wright is not talking about some kind of supernatural declaration against powers in some kind of superstitious prayerful chant. He is talking about confronting those who have wronged others. Confrontation is one of the weakest elements in Chinese culture. The preferred solution usually is to cover over a problem and wishing for it to go away, even within the church. In Wright’s formulation, neglect to confront evil is a kind of evil. Forgiveness does not equal to not naming the evil. Wright uses South Africa’s bishop Desmond Tutu as an example. In the Truth and Reconciliation movement to rebuild South Africa, forgiveness is the key, but naming of evil also assists in the process. Here is where Wright’s distinction between forgiveness and tolerance. Forgiveness actually names the evil and makes the deliberate choice to do the right thing. Tolerance basically brushes evil aside as if it does not matter. Many Chinese churches are quite good at tolerating evil but not so great at forgiveness. Tolerance in such a case cheapens justice and forgiveness. Is harmony at all costs the solution to justice in the Chinese Christian community? This is the question the book posed for our readers.