Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sin, Evil, And The Boondock Saints

[Read this only if you like philosophy]
The great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton had this idea that of all the central Christian doctrines, sin is the only one that is empirically evident. That means that, of all of our core beliefs (God's sovereignty, human sin and error, the Incarnation, the atonement of the cross), the idea that there is evil is the most provable based on observations of the world around us. I think there are some hard-headed Nietzscheans and the like who would reject the notions of good and evil, but these are philosophical idealists. I also think that, for the most part, all the upper echelons of philosophical academia have abandoned this notion of "absolute moral relativism". Heck, I'd even make the argument that moral relativism in its purest form was never even an idea entertained by any respectable thinker. "Everything is relative; there is no absolute moral law" is not embraced by anyone but misled and misinformed Stuyvesant students whose little knowledge puffs them up, but that's another blog for another week. That entry will be titled, "Don't saw off the branch you're sitting on".

[For the rest of you, start here]
For now, it suffices to make this point. There is evil in the world and we connect it to the vast evidence of pain and suffering that occur. No human who exercises either compassion or common sense can look at the injustices occurring all around us, people going hungry, people dying at the hands of other people, natural diseases and disasters (are they that natural?), and the existence of gangster rap, and deny that evil exists.

If this is the case, then we have to ask the following, "How?". I would like to propose two ways of answering this question.

If you've been in college for more than a year, I'm assuming you've seen the movie "The Boondock Saints" (1999). It's about two Irish twins residing in Boston, who became vigilantes after accidentally killing two Russian mafia members. "After a message from God, the brothers, together with their friend David Della Rocca, set out to rid their home city of Boston of crime and evil" (Wikipedia). The following youtube clip is a scene from the end of the movie, when the two vigilantes and their new accomplish sneak into the courtroom where mafia boss Joe Yakavetta was standing trial. He knew that he was going to get away scot-free because of his connections and the way he had the jury "wrapped around his fingers". Please watch, but note that there is strong language and implied violence.

How did the Boondock Saints address the problem of evil? Their presumptions are clear: The problem is there is a group of people in the world, we'll call them evil people, who commit evil deeds and make life hard for the rest of us. They cause us to suffer, to have pain, to endure injustices like loss of loved ones, violence, abuse, hunger and thirst, heartbreak. If we could just eradicate these evil people, then the good people will be rid of evil.

Now read and ponder this quote:
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

I've been thinking about this quote for one month, one week, and six days; ever since Pastor Jonathan Kerhoulas at Citylife Crossroads service. The truth is, the Boondock Saints were wrong. There are no absolutely evil people. There are no absolutely good people. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. This is what the Bible says about evil. "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom 3.10). Every human being in the world is in the same boat. We were created by God as good, but because we fell, we are all sinful and we fall short.

I think this is hard teaching because we don't like to think of ourselves as the problem. It's so much easier if removing evil were as easy as removing the black sheep from the flock of white. But it's more like destroying the mold from a basket of apples. And "who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? This is why the Boondock solution isn't just. In the short run, it will save many people and remove a great deal of evil from the world. But it won't remove the evil within the hearts of the good guys, the "lesser forms of filth".

This is so important for us as Christians to understand because only by understanding the all-embracing, systemic nature of sin can we truly grasp the deep, transforming power of the gospel. See, no amount of human-originated justice, whether vigilante or socially-enacted, can root out the sources of sin within the heart of every man and woman. The only thing that can do that is the atonement found in Jesus' blood and the reconciling, peace-making acceptance of Christ as our savior. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5.21), and ONLY through him who knew no sin can we be made righteous.

G.K. Chesterton, when the a British newspaper posed this question to various eminent authors, "What's wrong with the world?", responded simply:

Dear sirs,
I am,
Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton

What's wrong with the world? We are.

Sola Deo Gloria


  1. hi, i did in fact watch a clip of the boondock saints in my jurisprudence class, which, incidentally, brought up nietzsche, heidegger, and others.. but that's a side note.

    in jurisprudence, we addressed the question of whether it's ever appropriate to take the law into one's own hands. you mention vigilantism but the analogy you make is that of boondock saints addressing the problem of evil like christians addressing the problem of sin.. i appreciate that analogy but can't help but think it can be bit of a stretch for those who see the boondock saints not as addressing the problem of evil, but the problem of injustice. whereas christians have appeal to the Judge, the problem for the boondock saints is that there seems there to be no judge and therefore, the only recourse is to self-administered justice..

  2. Hi Christina,

    Thanks for your comment and I do concede your point. Perhaps I should have been a little more even-handed in my criticisms. My point is not about the ethical inconsistency of vigilante justice, but about the inadequacy of any human-administered justice, whether within the bounds of a social agreement or without. I hope you'll appreciate this elucidation.

  3. "ethical tenability of vigilante justice": sometimes it takes me an entire day to think of the proper big word that I want to use.