It is not difficult to see the existence of evil. Millions of people are its victims; harmless citizens maimed through landmines, youngsters who become commodities in the international prostitution trade, people starving through wrong decisions by others, children abused by parents, women beaten by their partners. In every part of the world there are people who go through life wounded, hurt or hungry. In every continent there are those who are used and discarded by others who do not care. The perennial problem of evil has never been a problem of whether evil exists but why, and why its power is so strong.
It does not take much of a theologian to recognise that evil has something to do with human beings, and not just particular human beings but all of us. The benign idea that some of us are part of a great majority of essentially good people is simply over- optimistic. Although it's reassuring to be told that there is really a nice guy inside whatever wrong we actually do, or whatever destruction we wreck on others, we are living with delusion if we believe it. Similarly, Hollywood attempts to identify evil with aliens or newly revived prehistoric monsters may be entertaining but they lack credibility. What possible evil could aliens bring into the world which is not here in multiple forms already? No, in the real world that we live in, evil is with us and in us.
It crouches at the door. It waits for the narrowest gap and enters without knocking. It cannot be pushed into outer space or masked by pleasant bonhomie. Many saddened unbelievers would concede that here, at least, Christian orthodoxy is absolutely right. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
It is also evident today that evil is contagious. It spreads faster than any disease. It is communicated by mouth. It is passed on by exposure to the bad attitudes of others. The natural course in our human relationship is to pay back evil for evil; the driver on the motorway cuts in dangerously on the driver of another car who has previously cut in on him; the terrorist group guns down a father of four in a retaliatory killing. The human ego finds it hard to absorb the sins of others and much easier to contribute to the pool of anger and vengeance. It is almost as if we enjoy keeping score of wrongs. As the escalation of conflict between neighbours seems to show, people even gain some satisfaction if the wrongs they dole out exceed those they endure. That is why evil can penetrate any human stronghold. The morally righteous are no less at risk. The events of Holy Week remind us that evil is able to turn the most moral of majorities into a seething mob of those braying for blood.
We have not even moved far in the way we justify evil. We still try to pretend that it is good. The only difference is that we have developed a more sophisticated language for talking about it. Concepts like "profitability" or "greater choice" can conveniently mask things that on a different evaluation would just be wrong. So we can ignore the mass human misery which follows our trade in arms, or our deals with dictators, for it is better that we have transactions which are profitable rather than lose our competitive place in the world. We can ignore the problems of children growing up with instability and breakdown, for it is better that we adults choose what suits us, rather than have our freedom and happiness sacrificed.
But it has all been said before. We recall it in Holy Week. "It is better that this man die than have the nation destroyed." Better that this man die? What better world is that? And what better world do we now have with today's justifications?
The sobering message of Holy Week is that we can all come to love evil and hate goodness. We have seen that truth illustrated in broken bodies and wounded lives throughout the centuries, in war, holocaust, genocide, and human destruction. It is an intrinsic part of our own contemporary world.
But, if this message of Holy Week is relevant today, so also is the other one. It is that evil does not have the last word. For it has been fully exposed for what it is, not justified or made benign, but confronted and disarmed. In refusing to pay back evil for evil Christ did not pass it on, fuelling the fires of hatred. He soaked it up, showing us that the goodness of God is more powerful than all the sin in the world.
The implication of this is enormous. It is that ultimately our human significance is not defined by the wrong we do, but by God's love for us. So we have a choice how we shall live. The real tragedy comes when we find it easier to live with the evil than with the love.
Elaine Storkey is president of the Christian development agency Tearfund and is a member of the General Synod