I just finished N.T. Wright’s book Evil and the Justice of God. (Isn’t it interesting that he has a tendency to title his books with a "_________ and the __________ of God" pattern? The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God… )
At any rate, it’s a great title for a great book. This won’t be a book review proper, just a few thoughts in response to it.
Essentially Wright argues that the classical problem of evil (How can evil exist if God is good and all-powerful?) misses the point, a point that became very real for Americans on September 11, 2001. The new problem of evil, he says, is What can God do about evil? What is God’s plan for dealing with evil? The problem is no longer a philosophical one, but one of justice.
He also argues that the response of the US to the atrocities of 9/11 was immature at best, that ultimately the answer to the new problem of evil is not the "good guys" bombing the smithereens out of the "bad guys". That’s probably for another post at this point 😉
Wright goes on to talk about the way God dealt with evil was through the deeply ambiguous story of the calling of Israel to be the light of the world, and ultimately its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus. He argues that the central atonement theology should be the Christus Victor message, that through the death of Jesus on the cross, God conquered evil, exhausting its strength. Now we as the followers of Jesus are called "implement his achievement" by anticipating the future (Revelation 21-22, among other places) in the present by living as future-people today. He specifically outlines prayer, holiness, and justice as ways in which Christians are to live the life of the future today.
The final chapter, though, is the kicker. Wright says that forgiveness is the epitome of the conquering of evil, because only through forgiveness can both offender and offended be "unhooked" from the endless cycle of anger and bitterness. He points to Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace as one of the best theological works of the past decade, in which Volf struggles with the very personal question of how he, a Croation Baptist, can forgive and embrace is Serbian Orthodox brother, after all the horrific acts the Serbs perpetrated against his country. He also points to Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as
"the most extraordinary sign of the power of the Christian gospel in the world in my lifetime. We only have to think for a moment of how unthinkable such a thing would have been twenty-five years ago, or indeed how unthinkable such a thing would still be in Beirut, Belfast, or (God help us) Jerusalem to see that something truly remarkable has taken place for which we should thank God with fear and trembling. Though most Western journalists have taken little notice of it, the fact of white security forces and black guerillas both confessing in public to their violent and horrible crimes is itself an awesome phenomenon. And with those confessions, the families of the tortured and murdered have been able for the first time to begin the process of true grieving, and thereby at least to contemplate the possibility of being able to forgive, and so to pick up the threads of their lives instead of being themselves overwhelmed with continuing anger and hatred" (p. 134).
The last chapter is breathtaking in its audacity, but rings true. Forgiveness is not saying "Oh it didn’t matter that much," or "It wasn’t so bad after all." If that was true, there really wouldn’t be anything to forgive. No, for true forgiveness to be possible, we must name the evil: It really did matter, it was horrific. We have to look evil in the face and name it for what it is. Then the possibility of forgiveness is opened to us. This is why the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been so important to the healing of South Africa. Before true reconciliation and forgiveness could even be possible, the truth must be told – the horrors and atrocities committed by both sides must be confessed and named. Truth comes first, then reconciliation is possible.
The ability to receive forgiveness and offer it are actually the same thing (which explains some of Jesus’ shocking statements about it), and the only way forward into a world without evil. The way we deal with evil, both personally and corporately, needs to be shaped by the cross. "God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others, is the knife that cuts the rope by which sin, fear, recrimination and death are still attached to us" and is the primary way we anticipate God’s future in the present.