Christians across social media are talking very openly about the controversial demonstrations in Baltimore, but with little agreement concerning whether the protestors are justified in their actions. Some believe the demonstrations have harmed efforts to raise awareness about police brutality in the Black community; others see recent actions as the start of a righteous uprising among oppressed people. We have found ourselves entangled in a conundrum, and it's the same conundrum that has limited our ability to unite in opposition to injustice at numerous crucial moments throughout history. Once again, our collective perception of justice is hindered by our inability to properly identify systemic evil.
I started thinking about our blindness to systemic evil last week while preparing to lead my church's book club in a discussion of The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. Our reading selections included references to the trial of Jesus, wherein Pilate declared Jesus innocent of the charges against him and said that he would "chastise and release" him. The crowd, angered and riled, responded in chorus, "Crucify him! Crucify him!"- leading Pilate to ask, "Why should I crucify Jesus? What evil has he done?" No one answered Pilate's question in the heat of that moment- and then suddenly, it was too late for anyone to answer at all.
Of course, the next events in the story are well-known. The crowd won and the opportunity to apply an appropriate separation between good and evil escaped everyone, including Pilate. Jesus was sentenced to die by crucifixion. The crowd's misplaced zeal for extinguishing the perceived "evil" of one man had obscured their ability to see the evil that would be carried out by the state.
As I observed the disharmonious conversations about our nations Freddie Grays and Tamir Rices and Eric Garners and so many others, I was unable to escape a certain saddening irony. It occurred to me that many of us are like Luke's crowd in our zeal to convict the accused (and usually dead) parties without the benefit of a fair trial. Worse, many of us are like Pilate in our failure to demand that our "justice" system treat every person with integrity and fairness. Like Pilate, there are many who see the systemic evils which plague our legal processes, but choose to remain silent because they fear the ire or disapproval of the crowd. Both groups--The Pilates and The Crowd-- unwittingly offer people as blood sacrifices to the very system that should be protecting them, and then wash their hands of liability.
Last week, I was so disturbed by this observation that I decided to talk about it with my book club. There had already been three days of commentary about the "terrible" and "unforgivable" actions of the "Baltimore rioters" on nearly every news outlet I know, when I asked my small group: "What is evil, and how do we decide?" One participant said the opposite of evil is not good. She said the opposite of evil is compassion. I couldn't agree more.
America is standing at an apex today- a point to which we've traveled together on numerous occasions. We are being asked to define evil, just as the crowd and state were asked in the gospels to define evil. And more importantly, we're being asked to get it right. We're being asked to admit, as painful as it is, that our justice systems and their actors are often guilty of doing evil--and we're being asked to see that the actions of some law enforcement officers regularly eclipse the evils from which they claim to protect us.
Of course, we know that not all state actors are guilty, just as we know that some are definitely guilty. Yet, we also know that the guilty are often protected by the state, and we know that police brutality persists because of those very unfair protections. This is an evil and we all have a responsibility to cry out against it.
The people who convicted Jesus will never be given their moment again. No one in the gospels will ever have the opportunity to re-contextualize their understanding of evil in a way that could hold the Roman state accountable for its weaknesses. However, we do have the power to re-contextualize our understanding of evil in a way that will hold the American justice system accountable for its weaknesses. We do have the ability to talk about evil in ways that will validate the cries of unheard people, and in ways that will further empower those who cry out for help.
I worry that Christian faith communities may be missing an opportunity to talk about problems that embed and replicate themselves at the systemic level--problems such as racism and failed measures to ensure police accountability. However, if we are truly interested in bringing about justice in the world, then we must be a people unafraid of objectively assessing whether our systems are serving all of our citizens. And we must never be afraid to ask: "What is evil, and how do we decide?"