I am never quite sure what to make of Christian leaders and teachers who say that “they are shocked” at something like the murders in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania or that they “no longer recognize our country.” As a window into anger and grief, perhaps such observations are meant to express the shock we all experience when something so brutal and seemingly random occurs.
But any robust doctrine of sin and evil that arises out of the Jewish and Christian traditions acknowledges the presence of evil in the world. And even a modicum of attention to the news demonstrates that only the narrowest sampling of world events could create the impression that such evil is not always and everywhere on display.
Christian leaders do an injustice to their communities when they feed the lack of realism that seemingly suggests that people are “basically good” and that all the world needs is a bit of therapy and a better social order. And they do even greater damage when they collapse emotionally in public, indulging their own grief, rather than speaking directly to the grief of their communities.
We are all challenged and confounded by the evil that roils our world. We should be sensitive to more of it than we are. We often reserve our public expressions of grief and concern only when it hits “close to home.”
But Christian pastors owe their congregations and communities more:
- Without indulging stained-glass language, they should speak concretely and specifically to the problem of sin and evil.
- They should avoid speaking in only therapeutic terms, which – as important as they are – are completely incapable of speaking to the problem of evil.
- They should prepare people to confront evil and sin in their own lives.
- They should prepare people to confront evil and sin in their communities, equipping them to offer an alternative.
- They should engage the resources available to the Christian community that the church’s experience offers in prayers of repentance and the absolution of sin.
- They should teach their congregations what it means to exercise the personal and communal vigilance that church is urged to exercise in dealing with what Paul calls “the powers and principalities” of this world.
- And they should nurture a vision of the church which reflects both the confidence and courage of a church which Isaac Watts taught it to sing:
Stand up, my soul; shake off your fears,
and gird the gospel armor on;
march to the gates of endless joy,
where your great Captain Savior’s gone.
Hell and your sins resist your course;
but hell and sin are vanquished foes:
your Jesus nailed them to the cross,
and sang the triumph when he rose.
Then let my soul march boldly on,
press forward to the heav’nly gate;
there peace and joy eternal reign,
and glitt’ring robes for conqu’rors wait.
There shall I wear a starry crown,
and triumph in almighty grace;
while all the armies of the skies
join in my glorious Leader’s praise.
Both in word and in deed, that is the kind of church that we have been called to be at times like these, which — in truth — are days like any other day in many places around the world.