The Problem of Evil

Photo from Burlington Free Press

The community where I grew up, affectionately known as the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, is reeling this morning.

33-year old Melissa Jenkins, a single mom and a high school physics teacher and basketball coach, disappeared Sunday night. Her car was found late in the evening, pulled alongside the road near her house, running, with her two year old son snug and safe in the back seat.

After a day of searching, police announced last night (press conference on WCAX news) that they believe a body found in the woods a few miles away is that of Jenkins (Burlington Free Press article).

I’m trying to place Melissa. She is less than a year older than I (I’ll be 33 in May), and she grew up in Danville, a few towns away, and taught high school at St. Johnsbury Academy, neighboring and rival high school to my own Lyndon Institute. Our sons are almost the same age. I don’t know that we ever crossed paths, but I went to school with one of her cousins.

Nothing is known or released about the circumstances of her disappearance and murder, but one suspicion that fits with a series of disappearances a few years ago in southern Vermont and New Hampshire is that she may have pulled over to help an apparent stranded motorist, leaving her son in the car to check someone or something (family are now suggesting she may have received a phone call from someone she knew, asking for help or requesting that she meet them someplace). That’s a behavior we pride ourselves on in Vermont: stopping to help a person in need. It’s just a random guess, but might explain why a devoted mom was separated from her son, a circumstance that saved the boy’s life.

A friend posted on my facebook wall late last night, asking what “Pastor Becca” would say to people in pain right now. This was my response:

I don’t speak about or preach about evil often. I don’t buy into some dude with horns and a pitchfork, and I don’t think “evil” has anything to do with political parties or contraception or who marries who. But days like today remind me that evil is real. We don’t get to blame some amorphous devil; it lives in us, in places where we thought it could never be. And the story of faith– any faith, really, not just mine– is that evil doesn’t have the last say. Death and violence and brokenness and grief and pain overwhelm us for a time, but they don’t win. They don’t get the last word. There is something more powerful, more true. I call it Love, which is just another synonym for God in my book.

Our news these past couple of weeks has been filled with violence and tragedy, and as those in the Christian faith prepare for Holy Week, we walk headlong into a story of violence and tragedy. Yes, there is hope at the end, an empty tomb, an open sky. But first there is a mob, a betrayal of trust, a denial of love, a mock trial, a beating, a gruesome execution. Before we revel in the glory of Love triumphant, we must face the darkness of evil. Not evil personified in a person or thing. Evil that lives in us.

It doesn’t matter if a person is 17 or 33, a teacher, a student, or an Afghani civilian, with a baby in the backseat, skittles in the pocket, or carrying a jug of water. No one deserves to die. And the suffering inflicted on them is not some random disaster, but is human evil, the worst of ourselves.

Yes, we are Trayvon Martin. We are Melissa Jenkins. We are the Afghani children. But we are also the soldier who cracks under pressure, firing into a group of his allies. We are the neighborhood watchman, overzealous in pursuit of his vision of justice, harboring prejudices about skin color and clothing choices. We are the unknown killer on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.

I don’t believe in a talking snake and a tempting fruit. I see all the evidence I need to of a fallen humanity, desperately in need of love, grace, and a way to start again.

This is the problem of evil. It is not God’s problem, but ours. It is not God’s creation, but ours. It lives in us; it maims and kills through us. We are a broken, brutal people, and we need a light of hope.

The story of faith– of any faith– is that there is something stronger, truer, deeper, than the darkness that lurks in our communities, our safe places, our very selves. There is something we can hold on to, to pull us back out of the pain and grief and anger and fear. There is something that has the last say over death and violence and despair.

I name that something. Its nature and name: Love.

32 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil”

  1. Long ago and far away I was a Child Protection Caseworker for the VT Department of Social Services. Though my stint was short lived, because of the nature of the work, I witnessed horrors that humans can inflict on each other. Not nameless, faceless strangers lurking in the bushes – fathers, and uncles and mothers, brutalizing and molesting their own. I left because of the violent nightmares of what I would do if anyone should harm one of my daughters. The dreams would make Saw and Chuckie and Freddy cringe.

    The evil that lives inside each of us is horrible. As a peace seeking and nonviolent man, I embarrassingly admit that chromosome is part of my DNA as well. We (I) endanger ourselves and others when we egotistically deny its presence. Its roots run deep in our heritage.

    Think of it like this: in the history of humanity there has never been an era that was devoid of war – sometimes global, often regional, but always there killing and thinning the ranks of the human species. And who do you think survived through all those wars, the nice and the gentle ones? Hardly! The survivors, and the progenitors of us all were the conquering tribes – the killers, the rapists and the raped. Violence in in our bloodstream.

    But as you so wisely pointed out, that is not what beats our hearts; that is not what causes us to breathe and live on. Within us also is love – call it what you will – I name that “god.” So our human genetic predisposition toward evil – not our fallenness – our natural selection in action, is confronted by our life itself. But the scary part is that we appear to have been gifted with free choice. That is the rub, as the Bard would say. Each day we either surrender to the love that lives us into being or the hate and evil that is our birthright. And when we go unconscious love often takes second place.

    My prayer today is that we hold tightly onto that holy and sacred force in us, in full awareness that we must root out the other force, the evil that courses through our veins. Every great sage has said it: love conquers all; love is stronger than hate; love is all we need. May we choose love today, and tomorrow and each tomorrow after that.

    I am so sad for my former colleagues and neighbors and family who, living in the “Kingdom” must face that specter today. May love rule the day.

    1. Thank you Kris. So beautifully and aptly put.
      Love is a practice. And we choose what informs out lives, ultimately. We don’t need to be ashamed, but simply willing , over and over in each day as it comes, to choose to be loving (tough love is loving too). God Bless Everyone, No Exceptions.
      Particularly, at this time, God bless Melissa, her little boy, her family and her friends in this time of such unfathomable grief.

  2. Well well well said….pure evil will never break a heart full of love….it’s a sad day in the NEK…a place once known for safe travels….praying for her little Childs heart :/ forever and ever

    1. Me too, Tom. Such a sad day, and such a heartbreaking story for everyone near her, but especially for her son. I hugged mine extra tight today.

      Blessings and deep peace,

  3. I followed a link here and am in tears about not only this story but the beautiful way you spoke about it. Your words were so pointed and so true. Love indeed.

    thank you for writing this, my prayers are with your community.

  4. Great piece of writing, it brought tears to my eyes!! It might help to know though that she actually grew up in Danville, her family farm was in North Danville, she attended Danville School from grade school to later graduate class of 1996.

  5. Beautifully written. I went to college with Melissa but her presence is a vague memory. I agree with your sentiments, and it does not matter if I knew her or not: her loss is felt 3,000 miles away.

    1. Thank you for reading, and for sending your love and warm thoughts long distance to Melissa’s family and community. Her loss touches many, whether or not we knew her or knew her well.

      Deep peace,

  6. Your sympathy seems to have run out in your description of the neighborhood watchman who was jumped, beaten, screamed for help and needed to defend himself against aggressor Trayvon Martin. Your judgement mars your point, perpetuates the evil which you address, and undermines what is otherwise beautiful sentiment.

    1. Ryan, thank you for reading and commenting; your point is taken.

      I don’t want to make this thread about George Zimmerman, but his claim to self defense is shaky at best, while both his zeal and his racial prejudice are well substantiated in his actions that evening and through his numerous calls to 911 over the months preceding Trayvon’s death. Unfortunately, we will never know Trayvon’s side of the story.

      Actually, I think Zimmerman best illustrates my point. I name violence as evil, whether it is born out of extreme sickness (as I presume is the case with Miss Jenkins’ killer), PTSD or other stress-related illness (as is the case with Sgt Bales), or fear stemming from our own prejudicial assumptions as is the case with Zimmerman who, at the very least, followed and confronted an unarmed teenager because he considered him a threat. My point is that this propensity toward violence, this evil, lives in all of us. I am not a soldier, asked to bear the burden that Sgt Bales carried, and I am not a sociopath or whatever it takes to lure a woman out of her home and vehicle and kill her. I have it in me, deep down somewhere, I am sure, because we all do. But I am certain that I harbor prejudice and racism in my heart, despite my best efforts, and I know for a fact that I often react out of fear and perceived threats. The difference between me and George Zimmerman is very small, and that’s what I think we all have to confront.

      I’m sorry if my comments about the Trayvon Martin case detracted from the message for you, but I do not think they were inaccurate. You are, however, absolutely right: I have far less sympathy for the person holding the gun, standing over the body of an unarmed child than I do for the victims of violence.

      Peace to you and to us all as we seek to live gently together,

  7. This has been another terrific episode of “Becca Says What I Wish I Could, More Eloquently Than I Could Hope To.”

    I’m so glad you’re here.

    1. Thanks Clay. I doubt that pilot would get picked up. Too preachy and the title is too long. Needs some work. 🙂


  8. I posted the following in my blog…

    I am not religious – too many untimely deaths of the good (including my brother), too many wars over who owns God, and simple lack of proof. (I have faith in nothing.) But this blog post by a Vermont minister gets it absolutely right. And then, just to hammer it home, a pair of vicious, racist cartoons about the Florida youth murder by a cartoonist who, somehow, is syndicated. And I’m back to being nonreligious, because if this ass is made in God’s image, none of us should follow him.

    Cassius was right. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, it is in ourselves. More’s the pity.

    1. Ray, thanks for reading and sharing the post. I’m glad it spoke to you, even for a little bit.

      And yeah, it’s hard to see racists as created in God’s image. I hear you there.


  9. Seems this young woman had a traumatic ending..was she beaten in the face or head? The world is a sick place full of monsters and atleast they found her body. Many are never found…:-(

    1. Yes, Patricia, this is a terrible and sad story. It is good that her body was found quickly, and the evidence led to the speedy arrest of the suspects, but that is small comfort, I know.


  10. Thanks for sharing and condolence to Melissa’s family.

    What can anyone do…we may be a little more cautious but it’s hard to stop helping someone who may need help. LOL

    1. I agree Carmela. We have to be safe and cautious, but we don’t want to lose who we are, and the compassion with which we live.


  11. Becca, it is as my maternal grandfather used to always remind me when I was crying and wringing my hands over evil deeds during the worst years of the fight for civil rights in Mississippi:
    “Remember, little one, we have 2/3 of the forces of heaven on our side; and the Devil only has 1/3. We have them beat 2-to-1!”
    I ache and scream and cry with all of you there in Vermont and with the family of Melissa Jenkins!

    1. Thank you for your prayers and solidarity, and the reminder of whose we are!

      Blessings and peace,

  12. Living where we do, we have to help people who ask for it — our roads, the weather, our lack of control of where our cars end up sometimes demand it. I have let strangers into my house who have gotten stuck on our snowy roads — something I wouldn’t have done living in the city where I grew up. But that is one of the beautiful things about living around here — the ability to ask for and receive help from our neighbors. Shame on that couple for taking advantage of one of the ways of life here. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me. But I also know that I’ll continue to help people who ask for it. I’d rather believe in a world where most people are well-meaning, and teach my children that the world is a safe place for them to live and love and prosper.

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