"Let go of your anger and your hate," advised the pastor at the funeral. Anger and hate are generally good things to let go of-unless we suspect that they might be justified. The funeral was for a victim of rape and murder. She was 9 years old. She was attacked by not one but two grown men. One of them was her stepfather. Might God be angry?
It was a tough gig for the pastor, no question. What does one say? Of course, fulsome praise for the deceased: Everybody at school loved her and she was always first to show up for youth activities at church. But the more praise heaped on the little girl, the more horrifying the crime against her. Something had to be said about that, and the man of God said it obliquely: "Many of you, if it was up to you, you'd organize a vigilante committee and go after [the perpetrators]. But we should remember that [she] is in a better place today that is full of love, joy, and peace. If we focus on the evil in the situation, guess what? Who gets the glory? Satan does."
The pastor did the best he knew, but he betrayed a moral shakiness that might undo us eventually. It's a variation of a common theme: "Christians are called to forgive." "Jesus taught love and brotherhood." Or, with more scriptural backup: "Love your enemies." "Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." I remember, from 10 years ago, anxious callers to hastily organized talk shows on NPR, urging a nation still paralyzed with shock not to lash out at supposed enemies.
And, of course, they have a point. Vigilante justice can be as evil as the original crime, or worse-but a court system that's too slow or too compromised by legal wheeling and dealing has its own perils. The murderers of that little girl are only now coming to trial, four years after the crime. Four years of incarceration have been no picnic for them, but to be held so long under allegation, without a trial and a clear conviction, is almost a crime in itself. When the wheels of justice grind that slowly, they begin to chew up the very notion of justice.
We're told that it's better 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer. We're told to "forgive" the evildoer, as if bystanders were even in a position to forgive. Jesus took on the sins of the world, but we can't. We can only deal with them, directly or indirectly.
In a Better World is a movie about justice. We first see Anton, a Swedish doctor, working among refugees in Sudan. When an injured war lord-the "Big Man" himself, known for cutting open pregnant women-is brought to the compound, the refugees plead with the doctor not to treat him. Anton believes he must; it's his calling, and perhaps an act of kindness will help bring an end to the unremitting violence. He has taught his own children to turn the other cheek and not give in to retributive passion. But when the Big Man, partially recovered, laughs at the suffering of a wounded girl, Anton furiously turns him out of the field hospital to be beaten to death by his victims. Has he betrayed his best principles, or obeyed the voice of innocent blood, crying out for justice?
It's not an easy question. In his first presidential candidate debate, Rick Perry won the most applause for the mere fact that he'd presided over the execution of 234 murderers. The audience response troubled more commentators than Perry's answer: Execution is never a thing to be celebrated. But neither is justice a thing to be papered over by calls for understanding and "forgiveness"-which is not really forgiveness at all. If we don't "focus on evil" when it is appropriate, evil will nibble us to death with a million small bites. If Satan has the soul, he can do without the glory.