Violence and Our Embarrassment Over the Problem of Evil

August 8, 2017

 

Military intervention that Christians support seems to be partly the result of embarrassment over our inability to articulate a convincing solution to the problem of evil.

 

Stated simply, the problem of evil asks how an all-powerful and all-benevolent God can allow evil in the world.

 

Because of our embarrassment, we resort to violence to show solidarity with those who wag their finger at Christians because our theology created this gap but is unable to persuasively fill it. Violence is our way of saying, “Yes, we agree that the problem of evil is a frustrating theological conundrum, so we’ll show you that we mean business by fighting evil in the same way that you fight evil.” We speak their language of violence because we have no words to adequately explain the violence of others. But in papering over one theological challenge, new theological challenges poke through—like trying to explain how we kill our enemies while teaching that we should love them (Mt. 5:44), how we fight on behalf of the kingdoms of this world when Jesus said our kingdom is not of this world as a reason why his followers don’t fight (Jn. 18:36), and how we worship a God enthroned on a cross when his would-be followers (and we) were expecting a military Messiah.

 

But getting blamed for the violence of others is little more than an expedient misdirection. It’s common to contend that if we can stop someone else’s actions but we don’t, we are responsible for them. But this conveniently shifts blame from the person or groups who are directly responsible for the violence (even if there are systemic and historical reasons that involve us) and deflects responsibility from them to the ones who don’t stop it, which works in their favour and is what they want. It’s a way of goading us into inevitable failure in the form of intractable violence that we insert ourselves into. But the only violence we are actually responsible for is our own in response to our inability to solve the problem of evil.

 

And theologically, if we are to blame for the violence of others if we don’t stop it, then Jesus was also responsible for the violence to which he subjected himself since he told Peter to put away his sword and refused to call down twelve legions of angels to prevent his arrest (Mt. 26:52–53). As uncomfortable as this is to admit or wrap our heads around, it is nevertheless true that the most egregious expression of violence in human history is killing God. But if Jesus was responsible for the violence that he could have prevented but chose not to, this makes his crucifixion little more than a self-righteous suicide. This would be true of all Christian martyrdoms too.

 

Although preventing, managing, and stopping violence against the vulnerable and innocent are indeed actions we must always take, nonviolence doesn’t mean doing nothing. We can still do something, including participating in the many peacebuilding and conflict transformation initiatives at our disposal. But this also includes prophetically calling out those in power whose past and ongoing exploitation of regions around the world, profits through munitions sales, divide and conquer strategies, and other manipulative and self-benefiting behaviour has led to the violence they now try to stop.

 

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