Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Problem of Evil

(7th Sunday of Easter-Year B;This homily was given 27 & 28 May, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 17:11-19)

For The past several years one of the most popular Broadway shows has been a play called “Wicked”. It’s based upon a novel by Gregory Maguire under the same title. Basically it’s a story about the Wicked Witch of the West, only before we come to know her in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Towards the beginning of that book, the Wicked Witch is away at boarding school, and has a conversation with her roommate Galinda (the one who will later become Glinda, the Good Witch, in “The Wizard of Oz”). They are talking about the reality of evil: Does it exist? Where does it come from?

At one point Galinda makes the observation that, while belief in God has become rather passé (people of Oz at the time could take it or leave it), the reality and the implications of evil are obvious and unavoidable.

In our own culture things are not really all that different. We do not have to be convinced of the reality of evil. We can simply open the morning newspaper or turn on the evening news. Evil exists in the world we live in.

That is the reality Christ is speaking of in the gospel, on the night before He dies, when He prays to the Father for the Apostles and for us. He prays:

Father, I do not ask that you take them out of the world
but that you keep them from the evil one.
—John 17:15

Following Christ does not necessarily remove us from the world and the experience of evil. Jesus, nonetheless, prays for us so that we can live in this world and serve Him, but all the while kept from the evil one. We are called to follow God’s plan, and God’s will, not the evil we see taking place around us.

Essentially, this is the same thing we ask for each time we pray the Our Father. We pray:

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

But with all that said, and after Jesus’ prayer and our own have been offered, much of what we know about evil remains a mystery. Down through the centuries, in the history of our tradition, some of the saints and theologians of the Church have helped us to shed at least some light on that mystery.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that evil is an absence of the good; it is a lack of some legitimate good which ought to be there. We can think of injustice, when someone’s legitimate rights are taken away or violated. That is an experience of evil. Or when one’s health or life is taken away seemingly without any sense of reason or purpose.

I recently learned that a young man with whom I had studied for the priesthood died this past Wednesday in tragic accident while vacationing with his family. He was 36 years old and had been a priest for only three years. That is what St. Thomas Aquinas means by an absence of the good; it is often how we experience evil in the world we live in.

St. Augustine describes evil in much more personal terms. In addition to an absence of the good, he also calls it “id quod nocet (that which harms).” Think about a time when something or someone harmed you our caused harm in the lives of those around you. That can happen in any number of ways. There are natural disasters or unexplained phenomena that cause damage and harm in the world around us.

Yet very often harm is caused by our own decisions and actions, by our misuse of freedom and the reality of sin. Our sins themselves are id quod nocet, that which harms. When we sin we harm our relationship with God, with one another, and ultimately we cause harm to ourselves.

But perhaps the most perplexing and often painful problem that we face with regard to evil is not the harm that we cause in the world, or the harm caused to us by others. The most challenging obstacle is often the suffering of those who are innocent. How are we to make sense of that?

In Dostoevsky’s great classic, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the main characters named Ivan brings up this very dilemma with his brother who is a monk. He tells him that he can accept his own suffering and the suffering of others if that is what God requires. As he puts it, “if all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony.” But then what does that say for the suffering of the innocent, of children that have done nothing to harm anyone?

Ivan tells his brother that if that is part of the equation, that if God is going to require the innocent to suffer to restore “the eternal harmony,” then when he gets to heaven he will return his ticket for admission! He will not go to a heaven like that.

What Ivan fails to mention is the one thing his brother brings up immediately: it is not our own suffering that returns the universe to “eternal harmony,” and it’s not the suffering of the innocent that accomplishes that either. It is the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that restores harmony and order to the world we live in. That’s where we receive our admission ticket to heaven.

And that is God’s response to the problem of evil. As St. John says in his gospel:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
—John 3:16

God’s response to the problem of evil, to all the harm that we see in the world, to all suffering, is the response of love. It is the sacrifice of Christ Himself on the cross, for our forgiveness and our redemption. Now, that is not a response that answers all of our questions about evil and suffering. But it is a response that gives us hope in this life and in the life to come.

We can live in this world, finding consolation in Jesus’ prayer to “keep us from the evil one.” But ultimately, we can now participate in God’s plan to overcome that evil once and for all.

That is the Good News. Our sufferings and our struggles in this world are not meaningless. We can now unite them to the very sufferings of Christ, participating in the life of Christ and becoming a part of that same response of love that has changed, and continues to change, the world we live in.

Might we continue to see, in our lives, a greater participation in the life of Christ, the life He came to share with us; and may we continue to recognize more completely that Christ is our hope and strength, the one who prays for us throughout our time on this earth, and is ultimately our ticket of admission into the eternal life to come.