Have you grown weary of evil in the world? Charleston. Chattanooga. ISIS. How can people do such horrific things to each other? Where is our humanity, indeed.
The presence of evil in the world–that’s what sends many people fleeing from faith. “How can God let these terrible things happen?” they ask. “I can’t believe in a God who allows such things to occur.” One friend recently asked me, “Do you believe in original sin?” I told him I believe more in original grace. He told me that when he looks at all the evil in the world, he sees a lot more evidence for original sin than original grace. “Left to our own devices, humanity always seems to choose evil,” he said.
I ache for that friend. A thoughtful person, he also used to be a person of deep faith. But the evil he sees in the world has killed his faith. I fear it’s also killed his hope.
So, how does the thoughtful person keep faith in a world where nine people attending Bible study can be shot down, a world where Coptic Christians can be beheaded, a world where children are taught to murder, a world where members of our military are murdered just an hour and a half up the road? Maintaining faith when times are good–that’s well and good. But maintaining faith in the face of evil? A faith that can do that can withstand anything.
How do we get that kind of faith? How can we keep believing in the face of evil?
As I watched coverage of the Charleston shooting, I felt a lot of things–rage, despair, helplessness. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around such an evil act. It didn’t compute.
Then I remembered something I heard in the days after 9/11, a quote from Mr. Rogers. He said that if something terrible happens, look for all the people who are helping in the aftermath. See all the good they’re doing….then do something to help. Sometimes, the only way to remember that there is good in the world is to do something good ourselves.
Which is probably where Paul is coming from when he tells the followers of Jesus in Rome: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; …Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Romans is one of Paul’s later letters. It was written after persecution of Christians had become a regular practice of the Roman government. Paul wrote to encourage people who were being mistreated because of their faith, people who increasingly were on the receiving end of evil acts. “If your enemy is hungry, feed them. If they’re thirsty, give them a drink.”
Why? Why treat your enemies, why treat your abusers as human beings when they’re treating you so inhumanely?
After decades of working with Brazilian peasants who were mired in the oppressive realities of poverty and illiteracy, educator Paulo Freire wrote a book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In it, he closely examined the dynamics of oppression. A key idea for Freire is this: oppression dehumanizes both the oppressed AND the oppressor. When we treat others inhumanely, we become less human ourselves. At the same time, when we treat others humanely, our own humanity is strengthened.
Which might be what Paul is getting at in Romans 12. When you’re on the receiving end of evil, dehumanizing acts, respond to those acts with humanity. Yes, treat your enemies, treat your abusers as human beings. Who knows? Perhaps if your enemy is treated like a human being, he or she will start acting like one. However your enemy responds to your humane treatment, though, know that your compassionate action will strengthen your own humanity.
“Overcome evil with good.” I know. It’s hard to imagine. But sometimes, doing good in the face of evil is the only way to survive; it’s the only way for our faith to survive. If we can’t find any good in the world, sometimes we have to create it ourselves.
Can’t imagine how to do good in the face of evil? Here are a few examples…
A gunman walks into a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and, after sitting with them for an hour, stands, and shoots and kills nine people. The families of those who died forgive the shooter. Those grieving families overcame evil with good.
Another gunman walks into a school for Amish children and kills six girls. The parents forgive the gunman. Those Amish parents overcame evil with good.
After decades of Apartheid in South Africa, under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Black South Africans forgave the whites who had so horrifically abused their people. Black South Africans overcame evil with good.
It’s important to remember these stories of people overcoming evil with good….because when we are confronted with evil, these stories can guide us into responding humanely to even the most inhuman of acts.
There is one story I’ve been wrestling with that doesn’t seem to move much past acts of evil. One cool April day in 1913, the body of 13 year old Mary Phagan was found in the basement of the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta. Reading an account of the trial and eventual lynching of factory manager, Leo Frank, for Mary Phagan’s murder, I didn’t find a whole lot to redeem the story. At all. Racism was rampant—against African Americans and Jews. Sensational journalism didn’t just report on the events, it shaped them. Witnesses’ stories changed on a whim, based on how much the interviewer paid them. When, in 1915, many Mariettans—some of them public figures—drove to Milledgeville, broke Frank out of prison, drove him back to Marietta and lynched him, no legal action was ever taken. To this day, no one has been charged with the unlawful death of Leo Frank. The lynching of Leo Frank remains a dark stain on Marietta history.
A few people did advocate for Frank throughout the trial and worked to exonerate him after his death. Overall, though, the story of Leo Frank is sordid; it is rife with evil.
A week from Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank. Next Sunday afternoon at 2:00, there will be a memorial service for Leo Frank at Temple Kol Emeth. The Temple’s rabbis are eager for people of all faiths to attend the service.
I encourage us to attend. I know. This event happened a century ago. What does it have to do with us? None of us had family in Marietta at the turn of the century. None of our relatives participated in the trial or lynching of Leo Frank.
We might not be related by blood to participants of those heinous acts a century ago, but we are related by our common humanity. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Until all of us are free, none of us is free.
Attending the memorial service next Sunday can be one small way of overcoming evil with good. Joining together with people of other faiths to affirm the humanity of someone who was treated so inhumanely? In so doing, we’ll remind ourselves and the world that good does exist. Good exists in the world because we are working with God to create it.
How do we keep our faith in the face of evil acts? How do we maintain our humanity when forces and people seek to destroy it? We tip the scales toward good by doing something good ourselves.
Here’s the story of one young woman who did just that.
Prayers of the People (8/9/15)
God of all compassion, we know that when any of your children suffer, you are the first to weep. When people don’t have enough food to eat, when they are oppressed by systems that don’t allow them to live in their full humanity, when basic human rights are denied, you weep, and hope, and pray that we’ll do something.
And so today, we put ourselves at your disposal.
Make us instruments of your peace, Holy One:
Where there is hatred, let us 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;
May we not so much seek 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. (St. Francis)
And so this day—and all days—we ask not so much what you can do for us, but what we can do for you. Show us the way. GM/HP
In the quiet of this moment, we make ourselves available to hear whatever you might be saying to us. (Silence) GM/HP
In the quiet of this moment, we lift into your care all those things that are not yet ready for public speech. (Silence) GM/HP
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours. (Teresa of Avila)
Use that body to do something.