How do you fight evil?
For the last few months, this has been the question dominating the world's
headlines. A range of different answers has been offered, from massive
military strikes on several countries, to questioning what drives people to
such murderous deeds. At the time of writing, the intensive rounds of
diplomacy have given way to focused military action. So far, we have
avoided falling into the traps set by the extremists who want to provoke a
full-scale confrontation between Islam and the West, but the stakes are
Two thousand years ago, similar grave political crises forced the people of
Israel to ask the same question. They were God's chosen people, called to
be a light to the nations, to show the world how to live. Yet they were
dominated by a foreign super-power which worshipped the idols of power, sex
and war. For those who chose to ally themselves with the Romans there were
rich rewards. Yet, for the majority there was the indignity of grinding
poverty combined with the shame of seeing their religion, the symbols of
their identity, gradually being compromised and defiled.
Some chose to become freedom fighters (or terrorists, depending on how you
look at it). Despite their small numbers and puny military capability,
they were convinced that God would join them in the battle and throw the
Others took the line that God had allowed them to become enslaved because
they had displeased him. Their answer was to strictly apply God's Law,
especially the purity laws-those rules which set them apart from other
peoples. Some (such as the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls) went
so far as to physically separate themselves by living in desert
communities. They saw themselves as the vanguard of God's chosen people
restored and re-made. In an age which viewed sickness and deformity as a
sign of God's punishment for sin, the lame or the lepers were not welcome
in these special communities. Only the pure, the perfect, were allowed.
Soon, they believed, because of their faithfulness, God would act to
destroy their enemies and restore Israel.
Jesus took a wholly different path. To those who took up arms he said:
'those who live by the sword will die by the sword'. It was both an
accurate prophesy (Jerusalem was annihilated by the Romans forty years
later) and a theological observation (that those who choose violence are
worshipping at the altar of Mars and become as wrong as the people they are
Jesus saw his work as re-constituting the People of God or 'building the
Kingdom' and, like the Essenes, he believed that God would act through
this. Yet, the way he went about this work stands in complete contrast to
the Essenes or Pharisees. In the Sermon on the Mount, he pointed out that
the so-called purity of external obedience to the Law fell miles short of
the inner purity that God asks. In the face of these total demands to
perfection, ALL fall short and stand condemned. The 'People of God' would
not be re-made by excluding the sick and the sinners, but by healing them.
All would be welcomed into the Kingdom, and the key to the door was
forgiveness (of which healing was a visible symbol).
Jesus was no pacifist in the modern sense. He knew full well that walking
the path of love and forgiveness would lead him to do battle with the
powers of evil in the world. He took the full force of violence, cynicism,
corruption and self-interested bigotry onto himself, trusting God to give
the victory and breathing words of love and forgiveness to the last. The
rest (as they say) is history!
The paradox at the heart of Jesus' mission is that the Kingdom is both
coming and is already here. By raising Jesus from death, God did act, and
Christians believe they are invited to share Jesus' risen life. Yet,
clearly the Kingdom has not fully come because we are all still struggling
with our inner weaknesses and failings. It is a hard concept, and too
often churches and religious groups have come to think of themselves as
communities of the saved (or changed), forgetting that we are also still in
the process of being saved. Whenever we do this, we act like the Essenes
by excluding people from their birthright as members of the Kingdom. In
Jesus' time it was the blind and the lame. In our day it is the single
parents, the gays, the poor.
So where does that leave us in the 21st Century? The temptation now-as
before-is to see evil as something external, separate from ourselves, and
either to take up arms against it, or to self-righteously regard our own
communities as being without fault.
I believe that, particularly at the present time, we would do well to
recognise the old truism that the dividing line between good and evil runs
not between nations or religions, but through every human heart. Wherever
we recognise that, and become a community engaged in that inner struggle,
we become part of the Kingdom of God, and can expect to be working with the
power of the Holy Spirit. In an interdependent world we are called to
solidarity with fellow strugglers from every race, creed and continent.
Our struggle must inevitably take on board the need for global justice and
care for the environment, and the warm embrace of cultures and traditions
different to our own.
Mike Lowe, UK