The incuriosity of metanarrative

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So, an acquaintance shared this on Facebook and there was much approbation:

We seem utterly devoted to avoiding the question of evil, to misdiagnosing it, completely committed to a childish view of the world. And our foolishness is proving very costly. For as Chesterton went on to say, “The great human heresy is that the trees move the wind.” By this he means the heresy that it is economics, race, poverty, a political party or doctrine that are the real causes of evil in the world; in this case, that it is the lack of gun control that causes evil in the world. Is the evil therefore located in the gun? Far more people are killed by automobile accidents each year in the U.S.—is the evil located in those vehicles?

There is a lot of wisdom in here. We need to be serious about the problem of evil. We need to be aware of the Powers, the social and structural problems which contribute to and perpetrate evil, and we need to be aware that the root of most of the world’s problems is the evil in the heart of men. I know this; I’ve just published a book about it. I think it’s a very insightful statement. So far, so good.

But something about all this made me deeply uneasy, and the more I reread it the more I realised quite how spectacularly, not just spectacularly but dangerously, wrong it was. Because the problem is evil in the hearts of men, the writer argues, attempts to deal with the problem through gun control are “naive” and “foolish.” The argument echoes very closely the catchphrase of the NRA—guns don’t kill people, people kill people. This is trivially disproved, by the way; there’s a reason the army uses guns instead of, say, bananas. Here is the problem: people and guns collaborate to kill people.

To blame the issue solely on the transcendental nature of evil is equally to misdiagnose it. It is a simple and convenient answer to a complex and multifaceted problem. For starters, even knowing that evil is the root of our problems does not tell us how to solve them. Eldridge assumes that as Christians we have the solution to evil—“Because we have answers.” By which I presume he means that the answer to the problem of humanity is more Christianity. And that is the natural consequence, isn’t it? If you believe that the problem is solely the evil in mens’ hearts, and you decide to apply yourself solely to solving the transcendental problem, you have no need to get involved in proximate solutions. You do end up seeing them as “naive” and “foolish.” Gun violence won’t be solved by legislating, if it’s a matter of evil. If the root of human trafficking is actually sin, then the International Justice Mission are naively and foolishly wasting their time breaking up networks and freeing people instead of actually dealing with the real cause of the issue. Perhaps they should be evangelising instead.

And this is the classical Evangelical position. Billy Graham is the poster child for this—no point doing any kind of social work because if people get the Gospel, their sin problem is fixed. (Really? So Christians don’t sin any more?) But it’s based on the depressing and frankly insulting contention that Christians are incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. It’s a shame, because I tend to think we’re better than that. IJM is a great example: they work for justice, and they advance the Gospel.

Eldridge has found a deeper problem, and he’s right to highlight that. But he isn’t right to utterly dismiss proximate solutions as well. We can work to heal the evil in the hearts of men; we can also help to secure our children from the consequences of that evil. It’s neither foolish nor naive to try to do both. Nor is it naive or foolish for legislators to work on a legislative solution, because that’s how they, in their contexts, can best contribute to their part of the puzzle.

Yet far worse than this just being a recipe for inaction and lack of appropriate involvement, it’s also a recipe for incuriosity as well, as Eldridge himself demonstrates brilliantly. Yes, gun violence is a matter of evil. But is that it? Case closed? No mention, for instance, of the fact that random gun massacres are overwhelmingly an American problem. If Eldridge were right, that gun massacres happen purely because Humanity Is Bad, then the whole of humanity would be suffering from them to a similar degree. But they are not, and so that really ought to give one pause before making such pronouncements. The brilliant and insightful answer has unfortunately blinded him to the more interesting questions: Why here, why us, why now, and what can we do about it?

In fact, those questions are utterly uninteresting to him; he explicitly rejects the need to consider “sociological, psychological or political explanations” for human behaviour. Sin alone is the explanation, and the Gospel alone the answer, and we need not think about it, nor deal with it, in any other way.

That’s the Evangelical approach, folks. That is apparently what putting away childishness and naivety looks like.

A friend of mine likes to say that “the perfect is the enemy of ‘done’,” and this is no more true when it comes to gun control. People say “would this solution have prevented that massacre?” Who cares? Not a relevant question. Preventing any massacre is a good start. But the perfect is the enemy of ‘done’ when it comes to Kingdom work as well. Yes, the root of the problem is evil. If you want to concentrate on fixing that, go right ahead. But don’t trample on those who are trying to fix the effects of evil as well.


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