Social Justice and the Problem of Evil

Social Justice and the Problem of Evil January 7, 2019

Why is it that when many Christians talk about the systemic nature of social injustice, they don’t think about theodicy — or the problem of how a good God can allow such enormities to exist and continue? Seldom do I see the prophets of social justice turn skeptical about divine benevolence the way Voltaire did after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 when 100,000 people died. Nor does there seem to be much on the order Viktor Frankl’s reflection on the holocaust and the problem of finding meaning in the midst of such pronounced suffering. Instead, we seem to find descriptions of systemic injustice right next to exhortations for fixing the evil that seems be everywhere, pervasive, and indefatigable.

For instance, just to take the example of Thabiti Anyabwile, the depth and extent of racism is so vast that someone might well wonder how a good God could let this happen:

Greatly exaggerated were any reports of racism’s demise. That should be obvious now. But just a few short months ago a lot of people pressed back against claims of racism. They told us we could not know for certain if any racist motivation were a part of incidents like Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland. These were sad events, some said. But perhaps these were isolated incidents, not connected, almost random. Why cry “racism”?

Well, now we have a look at the roots, sprawling beneath the soil of assumed respectability and authority. Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and an untold number of other places all share the same root system. They all manifest human depravity, and that depravity sometimes takes the form of racial animus….

Rarely does racism walk alone. She dances with power. Not just the raw, unlettered, erratic power of stereotypical toothless hillbillies who sometimes “have a few too many” and cause trouble for brown-skinned people while embarrassing the good white-skinned town folks.

No. Racism acts far more seductively than that. She prefers men in robes or suits or uniform. She rathers young people wearing the letters of fraternities, with power over who can and cannot join their organizations. Racism makes her deals in country clubs, once segregated by club rules, now segregated by club fees and culture. Racism likes smoky rooms with dark cherry paneling, where the makers of futures and cities like to laugh, back slap, and cut deals. She would marry power, but that’s too public and people would talk. So she continues as power’s mistress, the unseen influence that poisons his heart toward his wife, Justice.

Such pervasive wickedness could lead Anyabwile to ask the sorts of question that come with theodicy (as recently outlined by Gene Veith):

Arguments trying to address the problem of evil often suggest that evil or the conditions of evil are necessary. They are dismissive of the seemingly naive or childish complaint, “but if God can do anything, why can’t he make it so nothing bad ever happens?” Those arguments about the requirements for human freedom and the like can indeed have a bearing on our temporal life here. But they are incomplete when they leave out our eternal existence after death.

One reason social justice Christians do not raise questions about the goodness of God may be that they conceive of systemic evil as a problem similar to indwelling sin within a believer. Again, Anyabwile suggests a frame of mind that regards social justice as the application of sanctification to human relations. Notice how his description of a believer’s battle with Satan, the world, and the flesh resembles the problems Christian face with systemic injustice:

It seems to me that many (most?) theologically conservative Bible believers (which includes me) don’t think very much about spiritual warfare. Maybe it’s because there are some wacky Christians who seem to only talk about spiritual warfare, the way some young wacky Calvinists only talk about predestination and election. Or, maybe it’s because it all sounds a bit spooky or scary. Or, perhaps we don’t talk about it much because we’re infected with the skepticism of modernistic and “scientific” thinking, leaving us to disdain “all that spiritual warfare stuff”? I don’t know. But I’m thinking that if we don’t have categories for spiritual warfare, then we’re probably losing the war in some area of our Christian lives.

The pastor’s remedy for such spiritual warfare is to “put our flesh to death,” “cultivate a holy hatred against the world system,” and “take our stand against the devil.”

In other words, the remedy for a system of evil in the world is sanctification. This is akin to social justice Christians plan for eliminating injustice. You stand and fight against the system. And if structural evil is systemic the way that spiritual warfare is pervasive, then the remedy for both is through growth in grace.

What such a Christian model for fighting evil does for non-Christians and secular nations is not exactly apparent.

Even so, the sort of profound intellectual dilemma that systemic evil raises about God’s goodness for skeptics and atheists are simply an ordinary part of a believer’s struggle with sin.

Which is why the shock and outrage that social justice Christians express during the shifting sands recent news cycles are odd. If the evil were truly as seismic as some say it is, then social justice Christians should be questioning God’s goodness at least the way Job did. And they have double grounds for such a complaint because evil is as pervasive in the sphere of spiritual warfare as it is American race relations.


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