Friday, May 19, 2006

The shallow theological answer

Misty has a question for God (language warning if you click thru):
I woke up last night punching a wall (okay, a canvas camper shell, and my poor many-times-sprained wrist was grateful). For the first time in my life, the somnolent rage that fueled it was not for myself. I was not dreaming of hurting the people who’ve hurt me, but of hurting the people who hurt them.

So someday, I’m going to have to account for the life I’ve lived, and the sentiments I’ve held towards my fellow human beings. And when that happens, I’m going to be truly repentant for almost all of the judgment and wrath I’ve heaped upon the rest of the human race. But so help me, I will hold my head high before my Creator and not be ashamed of the hate and rage that I feel towards these children’s parents. If He condemns me for that, then He’s not any sort of God I want to have spent my life loving and worshipping, anyway.

And you know what? He's going to have some explaining to do to me, about how He could put them on the earth to begin with, and how He could give into their care helpless infants to starve and terrorize and rape. And He'd better have some pretty damned good answers then, because he sure as hell isn't giving me any in the here and now.
While the sentimental or those not used to Misty's honest style might recoil from such a bluntly stated desire to "hurt the people who hurt them" or with her rage, anger, and compulsion to strike out at others, what that feeling is - when directed in protection of others rather than in our own self-interest - is justice. It is the sense of justice that is built into every one of us by a just Creator. We all know right and wrong, we all appeal to the standard - even those who loudly disbelieve in God have no problem appealing to his justice though they call it something else ("It's not fair"). We feel within us God's sense of justice because we are created in his image and sometimes we see the world through his eyes, a little. We feel his wrath at sin, on occasion, even if we call it something else.

But as God is morally perfect (by definition, as the iron meter pole at the bureau of standards and measures is a perfect one meter long), his justice is perfect. And if it is perfect, it is complete. And if it is complete, then it is not limited to some bad acts, but to all bad acts and all bad intentions and all badness itself. Doubtless God's sense of justice is more riled when one murders a child than when one smashes a bug simply to be mean - as ours is - but the quality of badness inherent in the act is the same, and perfect justice demands perfect punishment for all acts, not simply ones that fall above some quantity of badness threshhold. It doesn't mean the punishment is the same (duh) but for every bad act there must be a proportionately bad consequence. In a just universe there must be Justice, capitalized, squared, and loaded with g juice.

And it is a slide downhill, forever, because justice does not fix the problem of evil; it simply squares the books, and often, like karma, perpetuates it. And eye for an eye gives you two half-blind men. They are even, but neither of them is where he was. And since all of us are to a greater or lesser extent unjust, then we are all under the very condemnation that we agree is just when the standard is applied to others.

(Insert here the Gospel, in which Christians believe that Jesus' death on the cross somehow satisfied God's justice on behalf of all men. I'm not going to explain it - I believe it; I do not understand it - I'm just inserting it because it is a necessary step to get to where we're going, mercy)

God wants more than justice, He wants restoration. He wants those who lost eyes to see. We live in a just universe, but we live also in a broken universe - broken by the very sin that demands justice - and that universe can only be fixed by going beyond justice.

So back to the Evil People and a crime for which we demand justice. There is a bill to be paid, and our sense of justice demands that it be paid. Would we be within our rights to see such a person shot, stabbed, hung, dead, buried, dug up, dragged, and stomped on? Yep. Absolutely. Without a doubt. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to see absolute and permanent justice done. There is nothing wrong - in fact there is everything right - with carrying that justice out so long is it is truly justice and not simply striking out because of how we feel. Justice, to be justice, must be cold and calculated and impersonal and merciless.

But what then? Then we have a child who is dead and a perp who is dead. All is even, except that the perp was a father and now we have orphans. How can they be made whole? We have other people who hurt and are hurting, and the more justice we get, the more people we have affected by it. We have a world full of half blind, many of whom go on to blind others. We have stopped the evil, for now, in specifics, but we have not undone it. God's desire is that his people, as the body of Christ, work to undo it - not to simply stop evil external acts, but to unmake evil hearts, which are the wellsprings from which evil acts arise.

That does not mean excuse the evil. Say all the bad things you wish about the evil people, and the merciful should agree with every word, because they are bad people. It does not mean to seek to understand it, although the more one reflects on the evil that is in oneself, one can't help to come to a better understanding of the evil that is in others. It does not mean to deny justice; in fact, it may mean to carry it out in some fashion personally, and it certainly means doing everything to see that it is carried out by the authorities. It does not mean being a spineless liberal; placing evil in objects like guns or in situations like poverty; it means placing evil uncompromisingly where it belongs: in the human heart. But that's not the first step. In fact, it doesn't even really help.

Rather, the first step in undoing the evil is Jesus' command to love your enemies. Sure, they are still your enemies, they are the enemies of all that is right and good. They are still bad people. They are still dangerous. Love them anyway. Give something of yourself to them, even when in your heart you would rather see them impaled on a greased pole or strangled slowly (because perhaps they will be - we seek justice because God is just, but justice will be done because God is just.)

Jesus didn't say to pretend they are not that bad, or that it's someone else's fault. He didn't say to love them because they deserved it. And he didn't say to love them because they'll return that love. Instead he said to love them "hoping for no earthly gain...and you will be called children of God. Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful."

Mercy is harder than justice because it demands that we pay something for the sins of others. It means that we suffer, voluntarily, because of acts that others have committed. Loving the unlovely means you'll be hurt by them as others have been. Serving the unworthy means that they'll spit on you as they have spit on others. Giving to those who don't deserve it means that you'll be ripped off by them like others before you. Mercy demands that it be done anyway, because the step beyond justice is the necessary step to undo evil.

And it's not simply hard to go beyond justice - the justice built into us and the very fabric of the universe - to mercy; it's impossible without help from God.

But why bother? You don't do it simply because God said so. God said so because that is the only way to straighten those who are bent, and we are all bent to some extent. Does threat of punishment keep us from evil? Yes. Does it change our evil desires? No, it doesn't. Merciless justice suppresses evil, but only when it's combined with mercy can it begin to change evil people into the kind of people who are concerned with doing right rather than being afraid of getting caught doing wrong. It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. Justice makes the books even, but only love and mercy can increase the bottom line.

So to answer Misty's original question, Why did God put evil people on earth? I don't know. I don't have an answer for that, and you know what? Neither does anybody else. What am I to do knowing that they are here and the damage they do? That one I have an answer for.

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