In the wake of the tragedy in Boston yesterday, a number of people have been posting comments and quotes on Facebook. That’s not a bad thing. I’ve begun to realize that FB is truly becoming a place where people gather to grieve, to get angry, to try to make sense of complex, crazy things happening in our world. While the quotes and captions nearly always over-simplify any complex event, they can act as springboards to help us think and pray through what’s going on around us.
Social media also often gives us comfort – even on days when people are grieving and angry over something that has just happened, there are blessed reminders that life goes on and blessings still abound. People still post beautiful pictures (of their grandkids, their cats, the place they wish they could travel). People still post recipes of good food that they’re thinking of making for their family, or creative ideas about teaching their children. And it can give us a sense of confluence or serendipity as people post reminders of this day in history – it might be the birthday of someone inspiring, or the anniversary of an important event.
Today, for instance, happens to be the 50th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther King began writing his letter from the Birmingham Jail. The confluence of that memorable moment in history and the tragedy of yesterday have coalesced in such a way that it seems to make sense to turn to MLK for wisdom, comfort, and strength. The letter, which points to the importance of non-violence resistance in the face of evil, seems as pertinent now as it did then, because evil never entirely goes away in this world – it just takes on different forms and tries different tactics. And as the Christian vision reminds us, it’s still on its way to ultimate defeat.
One of the quotes I’ve seen today is this: “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.” This quote is being attributed to MLK, and out of curiosity, I went to look it up. I haven’t been able to find a source for it yet (if anyone knows, let me know please) but at any rate, whether he said it or not, it’s understandable why it would surface today. There’s a lot of good to chew on in that quote, but I think we need to be careful with it too.
A quote like this is clearly snipped from a larger piece of rhetoric. It sounds like a speech or sermon. (Again, frustrated I can’t find its context.) As such, it reads in a rhythmic way, paralleling good and evil and contrasting what they each do. Evil plots, burns, bombs, shouts hatred. Good plans, builds, binds, commits to love. Yes. I find myself feeling a little cautious though, about using this kind of speech within every day conversation. I think what the quote is saying, in a sense, is that this is what evil looks like when it is manifested in a person’s actions. If someone is committed to evil, he or she will do these things. And this is what good looks like, when manifested in a person’s actions. If a person is committed to good, he or she will do these things.
The truth of the gospel is that we’re all sinners, lost and broken, in need of healing. At our best we are sinners saved by grace. While it’s true that certain actions most definitely deserve the adjective “evil” – an accurate description to cover what someone did yesterday in Boston – I do think we have to be careful when throw around evil as an adjective to describe people. It can too quickly turn into a picture of “them” and “us.”
It’s not that the adjective is not sometimes accurate or deserved. We’ve all done it, called someone “an evil person” if we see that their habitual commitment to darkness and cruelty earns them such an appellation. We’ve also done the reverse. “He’s a good man,” we will say about someone who has shown a long commitment to compassion and care and decency. But just as our saying “he’s a good man,” doesn’t negate the fact that the person we say that about is still a sinner, prone to human frailties and mistakes, our saying that someone is evil, even if they have truly committed awful acts, cannot negate the fact that they may actually still have it within them to do something good. Or, more importantly, we cannot let ourselves forget that such a person is still within the reach of mercy and redemption – not unless we are willing to say that evil is stronger than grace and forgiveness. Which it is most emphatically not.
If I’m meandering here, forgive me, but this is something I think we need to work through on real heart levels as Christians. Naming evil for what it is – yes, that’s important. Realizing that people can truly become corrupted by darkness and sin – yes, that’s important too, not least because it helps us guard our own hearts. What we commit our hearts, minds, and lives to can shape who we become, in the direction of good or evil.
But we are not intrinsically “evil people” or “good people.” We are all people created in the image of a very good God, but that image has been corrupted in us. How far it has been corrupted (or redeemed) will show forth in our acts, our words, our lives. What – and mostly importantly who -- we choose to commit our lives to matters.
One thing I have been heartened by in the response of many people to yesterday’s tragedy is how quickly they have gone on to say it’s time to overcome such evil with good. I think that must be the impetus behind sharing the quote above and others like it. That’s a deeply Christian response, and yet I am seeing it – in various forms – from people who don’t self-identify as Christians, as well as from those who do. There seems to be some sort of latent understanding, even in our post-Christian culture, that to give into the power of hatred and evil by trying to combat it with its own methods is not only misguided and short-sighted but ultimately just plain wrong. It won’t work, and even if it seemed to (in the short run) it runs the risk of moving us and shaping us in the very direction of the evil we abhor.
What I find myself longing to say to well-meaning friends and acquaintances longing for peace is that it’s not just enough to commit ourselves to well-meaning hopes, or even to kind and loving actions, as important as both of those things are. It’s not enough because ultimately, in our human sinfulness, we will fail in those commitments. I know this, because I fail in them dozens of times a day in small ways, and sometimes in big ways. It’s why I keep needing to confess my sins against God and my neighbors. We need more than just good will and pretty pictures and inspiring captions (as seriously helpful as all of those can be) to keep us committed to light and love and impossible seeming forgiveness in the face of heinous evil. We need the empowerment of someone outside us (and within us) who *cannot* and *does not* fail in little ways or big ways when it comes to loving and forgiving. We need the Holy Spirit.
Without him, without the triune God who is love at work within us to love, we risk become noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. We may be clanging “love” and ringing “peace,” and those are good words and important things to be making noise over. But without him, we may find ourselves falling into understandable anger and despair at the many awful things we see in the world, and yes even in people, around us. We need God to turn to, not only for the empowerment and strength he gives us to stay committed to light in a world that can feel awfully dark sometimes, but because we need loving ears that will listen and strong arms that will hold us when we really do need to lament and grieve and shout out against the darkness. (See the Psalms.)
More on this as I continue to ponder. And please, feel free to ponder with me.