This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Believing That Good Can Overcome Evil

i've never completely bought the idea that Judas betrayed Jesus just for the money.  Perhaps he did--John's gospel indicates that he stole from the money pool shared by Jesus and the disciples.  But i've wondered if maybe Judas wasn't trying to force Jesus' hand.  Perhaps Judas, like many of his fellow Jews, believed that God would raise up a leader who would oppose the Roman oppressors by force and re-establish a sovereign Israel in all its Old Testament glory.  Perhaps Judas thought he could back Jesus into a corner and make him finally fight the authorities.  Maybe not.

Whether or not that's true of Judas, i think it's arguable that many of Jesus' disciples were stumped.  Why wasn't he more aggressive?  Why didn't He just rain down fire on the enemies of Israel?  And it seems fairly clear that they viewed His arrest and crucifixion as a defeat.  It doesn't appear they could even consider the possibility that what they were witnessing was a victory.  It doesn't appear to occur to them that violence and oppression and evil could be overcome without resorting to violence and oppression and evil. 

i don't think we're generally any different from them.  i think we still reason the same way.  How can i possibly win a fight without ever throwing a punch or pulling out a weapon?  How can i possibly escape being injured now and in the future unless i injure in return or even injure pre-emptively?

i remember sitting in a class about the Sermon on the Mount at my home congregation a couple years ago.  The sections about turning the other cheek and loving your enemy were read aloud.  Immediately people raised their hands:

"He can't possibly mean that." 

"You can't just let people walk all over you." 

"How can it be okay to let people
commit evil against you?"

"Common sense tells you there's a point
at which you have to fight back."

"What if your kid was watching you? 
You can't let your child see you get hit."

And so some people said you can't take Jesus' words literally here.  Others said you should try to do what He said up to a point, but then it's perfectly okay to retaliate as a last resort.

What Jesus describes as an ethic, as a way of doing the right thing, as a way to be like God--we clearly see that as a strategy for defeat.  We can't seem to even entertain the possibility that what's being described is a strategy for victory.  

Why?  Why does this seem so backwards to us?  i'd like to suggest an answer:

Because we don't really believe that good and overcome evil

No, we'd never say it like that. We reserve the right to call some level of retaliation or inflicting of injury good.  Why do we still want to call it good?  Because, like i said, i don't think we really, really believe that evil can be defeated any other way.  

We believe that either right off the bat, or as a last resort, or at least in the final analysis of extreme-circumstance, evil has to be met on its own terms.  Guns have to be met with bigger guns.  Someone sucker-punching you repeatedly eventually has to be met with you eventually  sucker-punching him in return.  Someone scheming against you at work eventually must be met with scheming against her in return.  Violent invading nations must be met with bigger or more capable armies or well-placed assassins' bullets or some other force at least as destructive as that of the invaders.  

At base, we think the only way to beat the bad guys is to be like them.  They hit us?  We hit them.  They harm?  We harm.  They injure?  We injure.  Maybe we're obligated not to be as harmful, or as injurious, or as brutal as them.  But still, at the end of the day, that's the only way to win.

So we read Jesus' words in Matt 5 and just don't believe that His way of doing things could possibly work.  'There's no way i could do what Jesus wants me to do, because if i did, it would never work, and evil people would just hurt me all the time.'  And it seems so obvious to us that we think, 'Surely Jesus had the same common sense that i have.' And based on that we conclude that He couldn't possibly have meant what He said, and we need to read between the lines to 'round off' the sharp-edged-ness of His words.

But is our 'common sense' gut reaction any different than the trouble the disciples had making sense of Jesus?  i think the gospels make very clear that Jesus repeatedly telling them of His impending death made absolutely no sense to them.  Peter finally spoke up and said, "no way, we won't let that happen."  After all--how could Jesus do all Peter expected Him to do if He were killed?  It made no sense.  To them, what He was saying quite obviously wouldn't work.  So they couldn't take Him at His word.  He must've meant something else.  

Even though Jesus repeated it over and over to them, they still wouldn't believe Him.  Even when Jesus was arrested in the garden, Peter whipped out his sword and started swinging.  Why not?  Aren't these the extreme circumstances?  Isn't this "last resort" violence if ever there were a case of it?  Wasn't this clearly the time and place to just not take it anymore? Didn't Peter have a noble purpose?  Wasn't this one of those rare but perfectly appropriate uses of violence and injury?

But was Peter right?  Were the disciples right in how they tried to make sense of Jesus?  Despite how obvious it was to them, despite how much their reason accorded with common sense, were they right?  No.  They were dead wrong.  Jesus refusing to become an earthly king and engaging His enemies in an earthly battle, Jesus submitting to death on a cross--this was victory.  This overcame the sin and evil in the world.  Jesus was raised from the dead, and God proved that evil will be overcome with good.  

And at the time, they just wouldn't believe it.  And i don't think we believe it either.  What weapons did Jesus use to fight?  

Not swords. 
Not fists.
Not political conquest.
Not an army.
Not intimidation.
Not bombs.
Not preemptive strikes.
Not an arms race.
Not deceit.
Not slander.
Not gossip.
Not rumor-mongering.
Not the cold shoulder.
Not rudeness.
Not mockery.
Not stealing.
Not trickery.
Not injury.

Not one single weapon that we think is absolutely necessary to beat the bad guys was a part of Jesus' arsenal.  What did Jesus fight with?


That's it, my friends.  You might be able to squeeze a few more on to that list, but none of them will be fundamentally different in character from what is already there.  These are the weapons of Christ.  This is the way Jesus taught us how to fight, how to win, how to overcome.

But we just don't believe we can win this way.  We just can't accept that these weapons by themselves can defeat evil in the world and in our lives.  We just can't entertain the idea that using these, and only these, we can overcome people's hatred, violence, lying, deceit, anger, rudeness, etc.  We're convinced that if we were to use these and only these, we'd get hurt.  We'd get cheated.  We'd get abused.  We'd get disrespected.  We'd get taken advantage of.  We'd get injured, harmed, and defeated.

...kinda like Jesus was hurt?  Kinda like Jesus was disrespected?  Kinda like how Jesus was harmed?  In other words, if we did things the way Jesus did and taught, we might just have to live like Him?  (Perish the thought!)

Well, so what? How did that story end?  Both in the beginning (people whom Jesus repented, people who were healed, converted, grew in character and righteousness) and in the end of Jesus time on earth (Christ's resurrection from the dead), that story, that strategy overcoming-evil-with-good, ended in victory.

Good can, does, and will overcome evil.

Jesus exemplified it.  Jesus proved that it works.  Jesus taught us to live the same way.  So do we believe it or not?

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