Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Embracing Evil
Rom. 12:9-21[1]
It seems like everybody’s always angry with somebody these days. It’s so easy to get angry these days—all you have to do is turn on the TV, or listen to the news in your car, or scan the headlines on the internet, or even just overhear a conversation at Starbucks! We as a people are facing problems that pose serious threats to us all—even to the extent of losing our jobs and our homes! It’s no wonder so many people are so angry about so many things. While anger may make us feel more powerful in the face of overwhelming obstacles, it does not enable us to find solutions. When we’re angry, we inevitably look at our “opponents” with contempt—even if we’re good at keeping it hidden.
So how do we respond to the issues in this world that get under our skin? Oppression, injustice, deception, manipulation, violence. We really cannot just sit back and ignore what is going on if we truly believe in justice and peace and freedom, can we? If we turn to the Apostle Paul for help here, he says we’re to “hate evil” (Rom. 12:9). Surely that means we should do everything within our power to fight against it! But I think we have to be careful here. He also says we’re not to repay anyone evil for evil, and that we’re to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). While it sounds pretty straightforward in theory, in practice I think it’s anything but that![2]
Last week we talked about a book called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, by Paul F. Knitter. He uses insights from his study of Buddhism to re-frame Christian faith. We talked about how the Buddhist greeting, “Namasté,” is a way of acknowledging that everyone we meet has all the same goodness that is in us. And when we acknowledge that, it enables us to relate to others with genuine compassion. This way of looking at things also has implications for our attitude toward evil. If we can recognize that others have all the goodness we have, we also have to recognize that we have the same capacity for evil as those whose actions we abhor.
Professor Knitter illustrates this principle with a story from his life. In the 1980’s, he and his wife were very active in the efforts to end the violence in Central America and to promote justice and peace in several countries. He tells the story about how he took a retreat with a Zen teacher in preparation for a trip to El Salvador in 1987. He told the teacher he wanted to do his part to stop the death squads, but he also felt the need for meditation. And the Zen master responded, “they are both absolutely necessary. You have to sit (in meditation). You have to stop the death squads. But you won’t be able to stop the death squads until you realize your oneness with them.”[3]
He relates how at first he didn’t understand this. But it sank in over the following years as he carried out his convictions in working for peace and justice, and he saw the smugness of the activists, their anger over the wrongs, their hatred of the death squads, and their contempt toward governments and others who seemed to respond ineffectually. And he realized that all of those attitudes were in themselves forms of violence. They were seeking to end the violence in Central America, but they were going about it with violence in their own hearts!
When we oppose those who do evil in our world with anger, we are more likely to perpetuate the evil they do. So how then do we respond to evil? In the same way Jesus did. Jesus knew that only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, can redeem evil.[4] I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said those who want to follow him would have to take up their cross (Matt. 16:24).[5] He was calling us all to follow his pattern of responding to evil by not retaliating, but by embracing those who do evil with mercy and kindness and forgiveness. It’s the way Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and countless other black South Africans responded to the white South Africans who had committed unspeakable atrocities against them. That’s what it means to overcome evil with good! We can only truly overcome evil if we can embrace the “evildoers” with compassion.[6]
I’m not sure there’s a calling in human experience that’s more challenging than embracing those we consider evil with compassion. I’m not sure it’s possible to do that without “denying self”—setting aside all the selfish ego needs we have. [7] Only when we can get outside ourselves can we truly relate to those who do evil in our world in a way that has the chance of overcoming evil with good. Only when we can embrace those who do evil in our world with genuine love can we hope to respond to what they do in a way that will bring real change—responding to violence with forgiveness, responding to hatred with compassion, responding to hostility with peace.[8] When we do, we have the chance to change not only what they do but more importantly who they are. As we embrace those who do evil, we have the chance to make a change that can create peace and justice and freedom. [9]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/28/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in New Interpreters Bible 10: 715, where he says that God’s people are to meet the evil in the world “ in the way that even God met it: with love and generous goodness.” Cf. also James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, 752.
[3] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 173.
[4] Cf. PC (USA) Study Catechism, q. 45: “An abyss of suffering” has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 95; Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 246, 277.
[5] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible 8:350-52.
[6] Cf. Knitter, Without Buddha, 188, where he cautions that even the act of calling others “evildoers” can preclude our ability to respond to them in a way that creates justice and peace and freedom. Contrast Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2.713-14, where he recognizes the general application of some of what Paul is advocating, but essentially reserves it for the Christian community. Cf. also ibid., 4.2.805: “the neighbour as the one who in Christian love is loved is the fellow-man who stands to the one who loves in the historical context of the existence of the community of Jesus Christ. He is not the fellow-man as such, but this particular fellow-man.” I could not disagree more.
[7] Cf. Knitter, Without Buddha, 184, 198, he defines these as the need for recognition, for success, for control, and for superiority.
[8] Cf. R. Jewett, Romans : A Commentary, 779, observes that in the context of a global mission in which love has the power to transform all humankind, “even a cup of water given to the thirsty becomes a means of expressing the love of Christ and thus extending the realm of divine righteousness.” Cf. also Cf. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 477, where he says that the one who “attempts to overcome evil with evil, may perhaps surpass his enemy in doing injury, but it is to his own ruin.”
[9] Knitter, Without Buddha, 183-84. He relates this to Thich Nhat Hanh’s reminder that if we want to make peace, we have to be peace. Cf. also ibid., 197.

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