Evil and the Witness to Divine Love

Evil and the Witness to Divine Love May 29, 2022

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:25-26)

The message of Scripture and the message of John’s Gospel – in particular – is that God loves us more than we love ourselves that that we are meant for glory.  But that love is of a particular kind, as John notes.  It is an intimacy and knowledge known preeminently by the Father and Son, and it is an intimacy and love that can only be known by indwelling: That intimate state of existence that is marked by a oneness with the Son.  That is why John uses images like the vine, and that is why his Gospel is filled with allusions to the sacraments.

If we imagine that love can be given full expression apart from Christ, if we mistake our feeble attempts to express it for the fullness of love found in him, we have yet to learn much about our faith.  The Christian journey is not about getting our passport to heaven and then being a good, loving person in some innocuous, well-meaning, vanilla sense of those words.  It is about dying and rising with him in baptism, to be led into a life that continues to plumb the depths of God’s fierce love which heals and restores the lost to the true purpose of their lives.

That is a love that we will never fully comprehend in this life.  But it is the spiritual journey into which we are invited.  By God’s grace his Spirit peels away layer after layer of cruelty, pettiness, and selfishness.  But the Spirit also leads us into larger and larger expressions of God’s love.  It is what Maximus the Confessor described as a “sober inebriation”. And it led the church to reach around the world in an embrace of divine love, building churches, monasteries, schools, universities, hospitals, and orphanages – breaking down barriers between the clean and the unclean, between men and women, between races and classes, the rich and the poor, and warring nations.  It led the fight against slavery.  It created a global culture, that however imperfectly talks about the self-evident rights and dignity of every human being.

But if that relationship is about a love that leads us into glory, imagine what horrors can be committed by walking away from that love.  If that love can transform the world, its absence – what we call evil – can plunge it into just as much darkness.  It is that kind of darkness that has been on display over the last two weeks, in Buffalo, Los Angeles, and Uvalde: the deaths, the waste, the obscenity, the pain, the grief that follow in its wake.  And we should name it for what it is.

There are those who will not agree.  They will argue that there is no god and, therefore, no such thing as evil, that the choices we make are thoroughly determined by sociological and psychological factors.  But such thinking has left us without the vocabulary to name what is happening around us and in our own hearts.  In the wake of every tragedy now, leaders of all kinds – including far too many clergy – say, “I can’t understand why this happened” – or words to that effect. That is why we seem so lost, so powerless, so befuddled in the face of evil deeds.

This does not mean that we cannot learn from sociologists and psychologists.  It is worth naming the sociological and psychological factors that exacerbate evil that aids and abets it.  To argue that certain acts are inherently evil is not about denying the factors that multiply its impact.  Nor is the church’s conversation about evil about refusing to consider the concrete steps that we can take to ameliorate the impact of evil deeds on the world around us.  Church leaders led by the sober inebriation of Christ’s love participated in the Civil Rights Movement and helped to create legislation that made it harder to spread hate and discrimination.

But it is dangerous to assume that evil choices are reducible to a series of environmental factors that “make people do evil things”.  And it is childish to think of evil as some sort of possession that comes over people without antecedents or connections to the rest of life.  Jesus takes on human flesh because it is in human flesh and through it that the power of evil and death exercises its influence over the world.  That is why Hannah Arendt, having lived through the Holocaust, could still talk about “the banality of evil”.  Demon possession is the language that we use to describe someone who is inhabited by nihilism and the desire to destroy life.

And that is why the church needs to persist in naming evil.  It is rare that it is clothed with horns and a tail.  More often it looks like any other human being, and failing to name evil dulls our moral senses.

What else can we do?  I won’t spend too much time arguing that we can support a variety of efforts that are already explored at length across the internet.  I do have to say that after several days of following the conversation about the events in Uvalde, that I am stunned that the conversation about this problem is so mired in ideological approaches to it, that we can’t seem to take a divergent, complex approach to the problem that takes three basic elements into account: the perpetrator, the weapon, and his victims.

That analysis clearly suggests that no single solution will suffice. To be sure, that will include gun laws and other provisions. Long term it will involve addressing the factors that contribute to the complex mix of social, psychological, and familial factors that help to create the violent ideology that prompts people to commit this kind of crime. And, because none of those approaches will have immediate effect, we also need to secure and protect our schools.

If the average citizen can contribute anything to the solution, it will be the calm, steady, firm insistence that our representatives work to solve this problem in a way that is concrete, likely to succeed and shaped by a commitment to a viable solution.  We can also engage our communities and schools in a conversation of what more can be done to protect our children in the meantime.

But as a church, there is also a larger task that we can and should embrace.  The loving oneness which we have been given in Christ is not a private grant.  It cannot be expressed in isolation.  The unity of the church as it is expressed in the love of Christ is meant to serve not just as a witness to the reign of God, but as the leading edge of the new reality that love makes possible.

That role has been at the heart of the church’s mission from the very beginning.  But today it is not only central to our mission in theological and spiritual terms, it has become critical to the well-being of our communities.  And that love needs to find active expression beyond the walls of our buildings.

More often than not, the modern suburb (and, for that matter, the modern city) is no longer a true community.  We do not know most of our neighbors, let alone a significant number of the people who live in our towns.  We do not shop for groceries in the same place.  We do not walk the same streets or visit the same post office (if we use one at all).  Instead, we work long hours, pull our cars into the garage, and withdraw behind closed doors.  Evil plainly thrives in disconnected communities where families are unknown to one another, where support systems are threadbare, and where people are often left to navigate misfortune in isolation.

There are many ways in which we might address the events of the last week and we should, but none of those measures will mean very much in a world without a lived witness to the power of God’s love.  As important as it was the Civil Rights movement did not vanquish racism.  As important as gun legislation is, it will not vanquish the darkness that led to the events of the last two weeks.

If we are truly anguished and angry about those events, then we need to discern a way in which to reach out into our communities.  We need to get our hands dirty – as the expression goes – in addressing the despair and anger that creates the horrors we have witnessed.  We need identify ways in which we can address the brokenness and isolation in our communities – in ways that don’t simply deal with the structural problems that promote violence, but that speak to the darkness in our hearts.

Why? Because if the “thoughts and prayers” of some are not enough, neither is the attitude that says, “pass a law, so I can stop worrying about this and get back to my life.”  And because – if the power of evil thrives in the absence of God’s love – then it is also true that the embodied love of Christ is ultimately the antidote to the power of evil.

Gracious and loving Lord, you poured out your life, the life that you share with the Father, in a sacrifice of love.  And in our baptism we were buried and raised to new life in your crucifixion and resurrection.  You have given your church the mission of forging bonds of love and care, bonds of love and care that witness to the possibility of new intimacy, new life, and the hope of healing.  Use us, we pray to frustrate the power of evil and to nurture the reign of your love.  All this we pray in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit, reign one God, now and forever.  Amen.


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