Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ (John 8: 2-12, NRSV)
Between 2000 and 2004, I worked as a senior consultant for Mercer Human Resource Consulting. One of our clients was Option One Mortgage Company (OOMC). We had been hired to conduct their employee survey. The survey helped OOMC measure and track employee satisfaction and engagement. In addition, we conducted statistical analyses to help them know what to do to retain their employees.
One day in 2010, not too long after the height of the financial crisis, I realized that I had participated in that debacle. The financial crisis had been precipitated by the housing crisis and OOMC had been one of the mortgage companies selling risky home loans and foreclosing on people who couldn’t pay. I had assisted OOMC through my work as a consultant.
I didn’t have any intention of hurting anyone. I was ignorant. I was just doing my job. However, unwittingly, I had been participating in systemic injustice. I had inadvertently helped a mortgage company take advantage of consumers and precipitate global recession. While without intent, I had participated in unintentional evil.
Malice is intentional evil. Some of the prisoners that I met with this past week have probably committed malicious crimes. They have most likely killed another person, stolen what was not theirs, and/or intentional harmed themselves or others. While some of their actions were not planned, others may have been.
This past Thursday, in our discussion, we wrestled with how we can be sure God is real or trustworthy given the extent of evil in the world. I got the sense that some of the men had come to prison, albeit indirectly, because they weren’t sure that God was real or that God loved them. Some of them shared that when they were children they had experienced the untimely death of a family member. Others conveyed that they had grown up in poverty. Due to these types of events, they may be more likely to think that they don’t need to follow the rules because there isn’t a God that is going to hold them accountable or because they don’t feel that God cares about them.
As I reflected this past week, I came to wonder which is greater, unintentional evil, the evil that grows out of ignorance, or intentional evil, the evil comes out of malice. My sense is that more harm comes out of unintentional evil, the injustice that arises out of living in a broken world.
I believe that this reality requires us to be willing to allow God to examine our hearts and to purify us from those things that keep us from knowing God’s love. When we know we are loved of God, we are less inclined to do things like work for large corporations, where impersonal cultures keep people from understanding the impact of their work on other people, and to commit criminal acts.
The scripture text above suggests to me that we need to be deeply circumspect before deciding that we are justified in hurting people who have engaged in immoral or illegal acts. We have all participated in evil. We would do well to examine our own lives and attempt to discover first if we are without sin, without separation from God and God’s love.