Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dirty Harry and the Problem of Evil

They had a Dirty Harry marathon on one of the channels last weekend. What's interesting about the series is how it justifies the fact that Police Inspector Harry Callahan has appointed himself judge, jury and executioner. In the first movie, he is up against a serial killer based on the unsolved Zodiac murders. And to make it absolutely clear that the suspect is actually guilty, the movie has the fictional Scorpio killer do what the real Zodiac killer only threatened to do: target a school bus. Harry chases the bus and shoots the killer. Of course, in real life, no one wants a cop to open fire around kids. In fact, in real life you don't want cops like Dirty Harry deciding who lives and who dies. So in each sequel, the bad guys are made even worse than Harry. Think Harry is taking justice into his own hands? In "Magnum Force," a secret squad of cops hunts down and kills bad guys in cold blood. Think Harry is sexist? In "The Enforcer," Harry gets partnered with a woman who proves to be as tough as he is when facing terrorists. Think Harry is a vigilante? In "Sudden Impact," Harry encounters a real vigilante--a woman taking revenge on the men who raped her. Think Harry's films inspire violence? In "The Dead Pool," Harry is up against someone modeling his murders after a popular horror movie franchise. Not only is each movie a rebuttal of a specific criticism of Harry, but each makes sure that its bad guys deserve to be shot--by the biggest gun Harry can lay his hands on.

Too bad Dirty Harry isn't a sci-fi franchise. Hollywood knows that you can kill all the robots, aliens or zombies you want and there are no moral objections. Outside of "District 9," no one doubts that non-humans are completely evil and exterminating thousands of them is heroism, not genocide.

But in real life, we don't fight bad guys with guns or machetes; we work and live with and among them. Nor are they usually serial killers or drug lords or monsters. They are liars and bigots and gossips and backstabbers and jerks and people who cut corners. Yes, there are extremely bad people out there, people who do major harm: physically, financially, sexually, psychologically, or socially. Most of us will never meet them, though occasionally we know of one, the quiet guy who seemed so nice and did something unthinkable.

And then there are the people we know whose sins we'll never know, the ones who secretly abuse their wives or children or aged parents, who drink or drug themselves into a stupor, who betray their spouses, who are up to no good on the computer, who cheat on their taxes, who steal from their employer, or indulge in other destructive and self-destructive habits.

These expressions of evil are varied, both in degrees of intention and the damage incurred. Some of these sins are in fact our own; some belong to those we love. Some we excuse, rightly or wrongly, for that reason or because we feel they are not that bad. Some we might even contend are necessary evils, like war, at least when it is waged to stop evil done by others. Of course, to our enemies, we are the evil ones. Vlad Tepes, the historical Dracula and model for the fictional vampire, was a prince of Transylvania who repelled Turkish invaders. He did this by lining the roads into his land with thousands of his impaled countrymen. After passing miles of this appalling spectacle, the Turks retreated, deciding they didn't want to fight someone with such a disregard for human life, especially that of his own people. To the Turks, he was a monster. In Transylvania, he's a national hero. People like Vlad Tepes beg the question of whether the end, in this case national security, justifies the means, like unspeakable cruelty. We had a version of this argument a while back when it was disclosed that, in interrogating terrorism suspects, our government authorized the use of waterboarding, for which we prosecuted the Japanese for using during World War 2. Does that make us bad? Is evil relative? Who is the final authority? If it is human government, how can we criticize Vlad Tepes or Saddam Hussein for what they did in their own countries? If it is God, then how does he see us? Should he be as ruthless as Dirty Harry in wiping out what and who is evil? If he doesn't, how can he be called good or powerful?

In Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, Jesus deals with some of those questions. Jesus pictures a situation in which a farmer's rival has sown the seeds of weeds among his wheat. Once this becomes evident, the farmer's slaves suggest weeding the fields. But the farmer says no; the efforts to uproot the weeds would lead to the loss of some wheat. Wait until it's time to harvest the crop. At that time, the weeds can be separated. Jesus later explains that the sower is himself, the Son of Man, and the wheat and weeds are the children of the kingdom and of the evil one, respectively. They must live together in the world until the end of the world when the final judgment will sort out who is who.

Understanding this parable depends on noticing what specific question it is answering. And it is not about the existence of good and bad people, nor of the last judgment. You find those issues throughout the Bible. The unique feature about this parable is that it answers the question, "If God is all-good and all-powerful, why doesn't he eliminate all evil?" It is a question still asked by atheists hoping to prove that a good and powerful God does not exist. If God can't get rid of evil, he's not all-powerful. If he can but won't get rid of evil, then he must not be all-good. Thus the existence of evil shows that God is either not powerful or not good. Or that he doesn't exist.

The syllogism is not air-tight, however. There is another alternative. The answer Jesus gives for God not eradicating evil is that he is being merciful. What's more is God is being merciful to the good people! As we saw, the lives of the good and the bad are intertwined. The good and the bad are our friends, our relatives, our coworkers. In many cases, we don't know who is truly good or truly evil. Just as rigorous weeding would uproot some of the wheat, how could God pluck all the evil people out of the world without disrupting the lives of the good? And which of us can say without a doubt that we are among the righteous?

Parables, like all analogies, have their limits. And Jesus knows the situation is even more complex than this parable can show. There are no completely good people out there. Jesus picks up where John the Baptist left off. His message also begins with repentance. He is sent to save sinners, not the righteous. Jesus' message has a special resonance for society's notorious sinners, like corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus knows that the righteous are not sinless but sinners who change their minds and lives and turn to God. For God to get rid of evil is for him to abort the process by which the children of the evil one become children of the kingdom.

One of the metaphors Paul uses to describe the process is that of adoption. In Romans 8, Paul says, "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry 'Abba! Father!' it is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ." Adoption in the Roman era made one as fully a child as a natural born son or daughter, even in the matter of inheritance. To this, Paul adds the Semitic usage wherein the phrase "to be the child of" someone means to act like them. The children of God have his Spirit and act like him.

But learning about our God and how to behave in accordance with his Spirit takes time, just as it takes time for a child to grow to the maturity he needs to properly exercise his inheritance. It takes wisdom and self-discipline. In our passage from Genesis 28, we see the beginning of the transformation of Jacob. When we first meet him, he is a conman and trickster. He talks his brother, admittedly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, into giving up his birthright. Then, in an elaborate ruse, he impersonates his brother to steal his blessing. He is not what anyone would call a righteous person. But while fleeing his murderous brother, he has this vision of God. The Lord promises to fulfill his covenant to Abraham through Jacob. And yet, the fulfillment was years off. Jacob would meet his match in Laban, an even bigger conman than he is. Jacob will learn to work for and earn what he wants. He will have a family to provide for. He will, like his brother, have a lot to lose. And then he will go home and have to face his brother and reconcile with him. He will again see God and have his name changed to Israel. He will at last be a righteous man. But if his story ended with Jacob's ladder, he would not fulfill his potential to become the person God wanted him to be.

While a lot of people may get freaked out by the mention of the devil and the furnace of fire, the actual message of the parable is that God is merciful. He doesn't come on like Dirty Harry, taking out all the bad guys. Because we all start out as bad guys. But we can change. And thanks to God, we are given time to change. There will come a time at which God will decide that the process is done, just as there comes a time when a wise doctor realizes that a course of treatment is done. But as long as there's hope, God will not pull the plug, so to speak. And the hope, as Paul says, is for the redemption of our bodies. It is part of the redemption of the whole world, for which all of creation groans and longs. Why not? The human race, created to be just a little less than the gods, has used its powers of memory, reason and skill to really mess things up for each other and for the world in which we live. Our transformation into wise, loving stewards will transform the world as well. Paul's use of the phrase "redemption of our bodies" lets us know that Christianity has never been merely about saving souls. We were created as unities of body and spirit and the two are ultimately inseparable. That's why we say in the creed every Sunday that we look for the resurrection of the dead. The spirit gives meaning to the body; the body gives expression and impact to the spirit. God created both; God is interested in both; God will redeem both.

Unredeemed humanity's imagination has not been able to come up with a better solution to the problem of evil than "kill them all; let God sort them out!" God has a different idea. "Let me die for them all; let those who answer my call come to me and with my Spirit working through them, we will sort my new creation out."

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