Battling Evil Part 1

April 14, 2002



Battling Evil, Part One: Defining the Battle (4/14/02)

University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas

Rev. Gary Cox

I remind you of this morning’s Bible reading from the Gospel of Matthew, the words of Jesus: You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. I ask only that we keep those words in the back of our minds as we begin this series on battling evil.

Our nation’s collective psyche was shocked into a new reality on September 11. Since that day, none of us have viewed the world in quite the same way. Our children were traumatized in ways we are just beginning to understand. Can they—or for that matter can any of us—ever look at a jetliner again without being haunted by those images of massive planes disappearing into the sides of the World Trade Center?

In the immediate aftermath of that tragedy, teachers and parents spent the days trying to ease the fears of our young children, telling them everything was okay, that they were safe—all the while looking over our shoulders and wondering if our words were true, or little white lies created only for the purpose of calming fears that we knew in our hearts were all too justified.

As a society, we changed that day—we had no choice. We evolved into a new nation, one that was older, wiser, and more vigilant. At the same time, we grew into a more anguished people, and an angrier people. A certain amount of justifiable rage is to be expected at such a time. We are only human. We cannot experience such tragedy as cool and detached observers. We know that our forebears in the faith have witnessed such pain. Recall the words of Jeremiah: A voice is heard in Ramah (rah’ muh), lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, they are no more.

We know that pain. We understand that anguish. And we have to respond. We have to give a name to those who would kill for the sake of shock, who would terrorize for the sake of bringing fear into the hearts of innocents. And we call it evil. And we know we have a duty to stand against it. And as Christians, we are haunted by the words of Jesus, found in both Matthew and Luke, commanding us not to return evil for evil, but rather to turn the other cheek in the face of evil.

Like all of you, I have been wrestling with this dilemma. As Christians we would appear to be caught between a rock and a hard place. How do we do battle against evil? How do we stand against a mind-numbing hatred that kills everybody in its path, and at the same time remain true to our call as Christians?

Our answer—the response of the nation of the United States of America—has been to effectively declare war on evil. In response to this, I have friends in the ministry who have taken what they consider to be the high road in this matter, and who declare that it is impossible to remain true to our faith and embrace war at the same time. In my eyes, that is far too simplistic a response. I doubt that any of my ministerial friends who claim such pacifistic beliefs would stand idly by as a spouse or child was brutally murdered. I feel confident they would find a way to confront that evil, to stand against it. So I won’t hide behind my robe and pretend I have evolved beyond the human need to respond when attacked.

This sermon has been percolating in my mind for over half a year—ever since I watched the twin towers collapse, burying our innocence beneath a pile of rubble. And as I kept putting off the actual writing of this sermon, I came to understand that my procrastination was rooted in the fact that this is a big issue, to say the least. How do we battle against evil?
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I do not claim to know the answer to that question. The easy way out is to respond superficially with one of two radically different answers. One answer is provided by many of my friends in the pulpit, namely, Turn the other cheek. At all times and in all circumstances, turn the other cheek. The other answer is the one I’ve heard quite a bit lately on talk radio, as over-zealous people who are unconstrained by the moral demands of faith say, Kill them all and let God sort them out.

I believe those two answers have been doing battle in our minds ever since September 11, and we find ourselves struggling because while each one has its appeal, neither one is satisfactory. As I wrestled with this matter one thing became clear: the subject cannot be adequately dealt with in a single week. The truth is not that simple. So we will take what I hope is a careful and thoughtful look at the question of battling evil over the next few weeks.

There are two distinct sides to this problem of evil. One side is philosophical, and deals with the root and nature of evil itself. The other side deals with the real-life manifestations of evil that accost us in this world, and our need to uncover a morally acceptable response.

We will approach the problem in three phases over three weeks. Today, we will take a philosophical look at evil. What is it? Where does it come from? Next week, we will keep one foot grounded in the philosophical world, and place the other foot down in the real world, by examining the ongoing debate in Christianity between pacifism and the just war theory, understanding that sincere people of faith have been at odds over this subject throughout the history of the church.

And then, on week three, we will take both feet and plant them firmly in the real world, the world where airplanes are piloted into skyscrapers; the world where innocent people die—not only on those planes and in those skyscrapers, but also in other lands as America responds to that travesty; the world where a millenniums-old battle between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East devolves into the slaughter of innocent people, on both sides, all in the name of justice and all for the glory of God. And perhaps most difficult of all, we’ll ask ourselves how we can be sure, as we attempt to respond to evil with some level of moral righteousness, that what we call evil is actually evil.

So today we begin by examining the term evil. In theology there is a name for this whole subject. It is called theodicy. Theodicy asks a question that is quite simple, and at the same time is the ultimate theological brain-teaser: Why would a powerful and loving God create a world with so much evil in it?

Different religions answer this question in different ways. Typically, Eastern religions dismiss evil, at least as any sort of cosmic force. Evil is simply the absence of good. It is not a force in itself. And in a great deal of Eastern philosophy, everything is viewed as being perfect. Everything happens exactly as it must, and if we think something is evil, it is because we cannot see the big picture. In the overall eternal scheme of things, everything is perfect. It is our ignorance that leads us to suffer, when we don’t recognize that things happen as they must.

The problem many people have with that idea is that we know evil when we see it, and we simply cannot attribute it to any good cause. When a sales clerk at the local convenience store is working the overnight shift to pay for a much needed operation for her son, and a gang member shoots her dead as a part of his gang initiation ritual, we understand there can be lots of social and psychological explanations for what happened. But don’t tell us it’s a part of the grand plan, that her number was up and things happened just like God wanted them to. No! God intends for us to live joyful and abundant lives, and when God’s intentions are thwarted there is something else at work here, something that is corrupting God’s will.

Well, you can see where this theodicy thing starts getting a little messy. Because the next logical conclusion is that there must be two gods, one who is good and loving and the other who is evil and hateful. But how can we put our faith in the good god if the evil god is equally powerful? No, there is something corrupting God’s will for the world, but it cannot be another god. It cannot be another eternal power. It is something else, but what?

If you’re like me, you’re getting a headache right about now. And let me assure you theologians for two thousand years have been searching for the aspirin that will make that headache go away. Allow me to provide the balm that I have found most satisfying, remembering that this is not a question that is easily answered or we’d put it on bumper stickers and make sure everybody knew about it.

I’ll make the logical argument, which has three steps.

Number one: Love is the only reason the universe exists. Love is the very nature of God, the very power that holds all of creation in being, the one and only reason creation ever came into being in the first place. This entire universe, from the smallest quark to the most giant galaxy, would not exist if not for the power of love.

Number two: Love cannot exist except in freedom. If there is no freedom there can be no love. If you give a dollar to a hungry person because he is holding a gun to your head, that is not love. If you give him that dollar not because you must, and not even because he asks, but simply because you see his hunger and feel his pain, that is love. Love can only happen in freedom. If you support your child because the courts say you must, that is not love. If you support your child because you would trade your own life for hers, and would make any sacrifice for her safety and happiness, that is love. Every act of love is built on a foundation of freedom. It can be no other way.

Number three: If the purpose of the universe is love, and the nature of the universe is freedom, then the same freedom that creates the possibility of love allows for the possibility of evil. The same freedom that allows a person to freely give to the hungry allows another person to kill and steal. The same freedom that allows a person to say I will give you all I have allows that person the opportunity to say I will take all you have.

And looking at all three phases of the argument—that love is the only reason the universe exists; that freedom is necessary for love to exist; and that the same freedom which allows for love necessarily permits evil—we can see that love must be a very powerful thing. Because there is a lot of evil in this world, and yet, here we are. God continues to call us into being. God continues to hold all of creation in being. And all for love. Christian theology has come to the conclusion that there is indeed only one God. Evil necessarily exists as a part of God’s creation, but it is God alone who is eternal, and it is God alone who holds creation in being.

There is one thing I should mention before we move on. The problem of evil as we have discussed it so far, and as we will continue to approach it throughout this three week series, deals with the evil human beings bring into the world. It does not deal with what some consider an even greater headache—natural evil. It is certainly difficult to explain away natural disasters, from earthquakes and tornadoes to cancer and AIDS. For those of us who embrace the ideas concerning evil and freedom we just examined, we see some correlation even in the natural world. The same process that allowed for the development of the human brain also allows for cancer cells. The same process that causes earthquakes allowed for the development of life on this planet. I imagine freedom somehow answers those questions as well, but that is a subject for another time—or maybe not! There are some things I am happy to leave to mystery, if for no other reason than I can only take so much aspirin in one lifetime.

And so, back to the type of evil you and I know something about—the kind that keeps popping up in the local newspaper headlines, and on the national evening news. I imagine you will be as happy as I will be to move one foot out of the philosophical realm and into the real world when we continue our discussion next week. Hopefully we have given some definition to—or at least some reason behind—this thing we call evil. Next week, we will examine the ongoing debate in the church between the just war theory and pacifism. This is where the theological rubber meets the road, so to speak. We’ve tried to get a grip on evil, to define it, to understand it. Now we ask where our faith fits into our need to respond to it.

But let’s go ahead and take one of these two feet we have planted in the philosophical world and go ahead and move it into the real world right now—there’s no need to wait until next week. And we’ll straddle the line between the philosophical and the worldly in two ways. First. We’ll go back to that saying of Jesus which has been lying just beneath the surface of this discussion, haunting us along the way. Again, the words of Jesus as found in the Gospel of Matthew: …if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Now, you know that one of my constant themes is that the writers of the gospels did not throw in superfluous words. Everything is there for a reason. In the Gospel of John, when Nicodemus approaches Jesus by night, that is not a meaningless detail. It is John’s symbolic way of saying Nicodemus was in a spiritual darkness. So I ask the question: Why does Jesus say right cheek? Admittedly Luke’s version of this saying leaves out that detail, but that is unfortunate, because it is very important. Did Matthew insert this detail for no reason? The story specifically says, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn also the other.

According to scholars, this is a very important detail, and here is why. In the ancient world, women were considered to be lower on the cosmic hierarchy than men. The demeaning of women wasn’t any more acceptable then than it is now, but two thousand years ago it was an accepted norm. In fact, women were often regarded as little more than fertile soil in which man planted his seed. It was not at all unusual for a man to strike a woman, especially his wife. But the custom was to strike a woman with the back of the hand. A man would be struck with the fist, but a woman would be backhanded.

Now, follow this. In the first century Middle East, the ultimate insult against a man would be to strike him like a woman. In that ancient, patriarchal world, there would be no more humiliating way to demean a man than to slap him as if he were a woman. Because most people are right handed, for a man to be struck on the right cheek means that he was backhanded like a woman.

Hear gain the words of Jesus: if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn also the other. Understanding the ancient world gives an entirely new meaning to this saying. Christians have often viewed this turning of the other cheek as a cowering before evil, as lying down to be run over by evil. But when we understand the context, we see that we are told to stand against evil. We do not cower; in fact, we do just the opposite. We do not return evil for evil, but we stand our ground and demand respect. In effect, we say, “You may strike me, but you will not belittle me.”

That should help us plant one foot back in the real world, and it helps lay a foundation for next week’s discussion regarding the possibility of a just war. But I said there were two ways we would straddle the divide between the philosophical and the worldly. One is by coming to a new understanding of Jesus’ saying about turning the other cheek. The other is by celebrating communion together. I know of no place, no time, no situation in all of creation where the philosophical and the worldly meet more concretely than in the sacrament of communion.

And as we celebrate this ancient sacrament together, let this be, at least for this moment, our way of standing against evil. Because in spite of all the evil in this world, we all know in our hearts that for every great act of evil there are a thousand little acts of kindness. And for all the pain, and for all the suffering, life is good, and our surrender to God’s love makes it all worthwhile.