Friday, September 26, 2008

Redeeming Evil

Rom. 12:9-21[1]

I think a person has to go through life with “eyes wide shut” not to recognize that we live in a world in which evil is very real. All I have to do to demonstrate the reality of evil in this world is to simply mention Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Birmingham, My Lai, Soweto, Tianenmen Square, Beirut, Bosnia, Tibet, Sadr City.

Our tendency is to resist evil; we want to take the side of the victims and rush to their protection. But Jesus said clearly that we are not to resistevil, but to redeem evil. I think his words reflect the wisdom that when you respond to evil with force, you only increase the evil. Resisting evil in this way perpetuates the “vicious circles of death” that continually spin downward in a hopeless spiral of exploitation, violence, hatred, and destruction.[2] It is impossible to avoid the truth that fighting fire with fire leads inevitably to the point where we become what we are fighting.

I think what Jesus and Paul are trying to get across to us is that evil can only be defeated by being absorbed. Only a love that is willing to suffer has the power to overcome evil and redeem it.[3] There is no other way to solve the problem of evil in this world! Only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, can redeem evil. That is precisely the response God has made to evil in Jesus Christ. As Frederick Buechner says, “Christianity … ultimately offers no theoretical solution [to the problem of evil]. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene—not even this—but that God can turn it to good.”[4]

You may remember that we heard something similar from the Apostle Peter just a few weeks ago. You may remember he said, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9). And he said that as we do that we are following in the footsteps Jesus left for us: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Pet. 2:23). There is a clear consensus in the NT about our calling to respond to evil with kindness and gentleness, with love and mercy.

In a very real sense it is the attitude reflected in the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.[5]

I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said those who want to follow him would have to take up their cross. He wasn’t talking about the burdens of life, as in a “cross to bear.” Rather he was calling us all to follow his pattern of responding to evil by not retaliating, with love and mercy and kindness and forgiveness. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!” That’s what it means to overcome evil with good!

This may seem too hard a task for us. After all, we ourselves are just as fallen as those around us. I think one thing that can inspire us is the example of Christ—not to mention the many examples of saints throughout the ages. But I think this is where faith becomes essential. I think the only way we can redeem evil with a loving response is if we share the confidence that that “nothing evil is permitted to occur that God does not bend finally to the good.”[6] I think we can only take up our crosses if we know that “God’s light is more real than all the darkness, that God’s truth is more powerful than all human lies, that God’s love is stronger than death.”[7] It is not an easy task, but we can overcome evil by redeeming it because we trust that, as Frederick Buechner says, “Though all is far from right with any world you and I know anything about, … all will be right at last.”[8]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/31/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 293, 301-303, 329-335; cf. also Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, 39.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, “Love and Sorrow,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 74-75; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 284.

[4] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 24.

[5] See Leonardo Boff, The Prayer of Saint Francis: A Message of Peace for the World Today.

[6] The Study Catechism, 1998; cf. also Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 67: it is “the stubborn faith that there is no evil dark enough that God somehow, someway, sometime cannot redeem.” See further Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Providence,” in The Shaking of the Foundations.

[7] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 32.

[8] Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry, 113.

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