I pity the fool

Aug 18, 2017 by

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Where do you locate evil?

In the aftermath of the deadly white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., it’s easy to point to places where evil was active: evil was marching down the streets, under Confederate flags and Nazi swastikas. Evil was in the heart and mind of a man who slammed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one and wounding 19. Evil was outside a golf course in New Jersey, as a politician tried to create a false moral equivalence, blaming “many sides” for the violence.

Evil was on vivid display all around us, but those weren’t the only places where evil was active.

Reflecting on what he calls “the myth of redemptive violence,” theologian Walter Wink suggests that some of our earliest cultural learnings teach us to locate evil in others, and then to celebrate when those others are forcibly punished. Because of that, Wink warns, we “may never outgrow the need to locate all evil outside [ourselves]. Even as adults [we] tend to scapegoat others (the Commies, the Americans, the gays, the straights, the blacks, the whites, the liberals, the conservatives) for all that is wrong in the world.”

By focusing so intensely on the evil out there, we distract ourselves from confronting the evil within ourselves. Perhaps this is part of the warning Jesus was giving in the Sermon on the Mount. After drawing connections between anger, hatred and murder, Jesus says, “If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

The term we translate “fool” is an ancient Aramaic word — raca. We can’t say with certainty, but most scholars agree that raca meant “empty” or “worthless,” and became a slang term for “fool.”

When we insist that others are raca, that others are empty and worthless because they’ve given themselves over to evil, we don’t defeat their evil. We actually endanger ourselves, feeding into the very destructive tendencies we wish to overthrow.

White supremacy is a foolish ideology, empty of any truth or value, filled with evil and violence. However, to suggest that those who cling to that ideology are raca, worthless and empty of the divine image, empties Christ’s cross of its power.

At the cross, two streams of God’s power come together to defeat evil. Miroslav Volf identifies these streams as solidarity and self-giving. At the cross, God stands in solidarity with the oppressed: “God suffers with victims, protects them, and gives them rights of which they have been deprived.”

At the same time, God engages in self-giving love for the oppressor: “God does not abandon the godless to their evil but gives the divine self for them in order to receive them into divine communion through atonement.”

The violence and evil on display in Charlottesville deserve to be condemned by Christians standing in solidarity with those targeted by hate groups, even to the point of sacrificing our safety for them. But solidarity alone is insufficient to the task of overcoming evil with good. Solidarity must be joined by self-giving, as we hold forth the grace of the crucified Christ offered to victim and perpetrator alike.

In the long moral arc of the universe, no one is innocent. We are all complicit in the complicated systems that perpetuate white supremacy, injustice and all forms of violence.

We are all, by turns, victim and perpetrator, oppressed and oppressor, innocent and guilty. Naming this truth doesn’t create the false equivalence that blames “many sides.” Instead, it acknowledges the universal need all of us have for Christ: We need Jesus to stand in solidarity with us when we suffer, and to give himself for us when we sin.

The hard and holy work God has given to the church is the reconciliation of all things. As Volf emphasizes, the “work of reconciliation should proceed under the assumption that, though the behavior of a person may be judged as deplorable, even demonic, no one should ever be excluded from the will to embrace.”

I’ve heard preachers try to drive home the majestic, all-embracing grace of God by saying, “Jesus would have even given his life for Hitler!” If that’s true (and historic Christian faith affirms that it is), then how can we say that some modern-day Hitler wannabes are beyond the reach of God’s transforming grace?

The challenge facing followers of Jesus is finding ways to unequivocally denounce the evil, demonic ideology that drives that sin of white supremacy, while continually affirming one of the central truths of the New Testament: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst.”

The evil we saw in Charlottesville cannot be overcome by evil. It can only be overcome by good, as those who are received into divine communion stand in solidarity with those who suffer—while also being willing to give ourselves for those who sin.

Jon Carlson serves as lead pastor of Forest Hills Mennonite Church outside of Lancaster, Pa. This post originally appeared at Evangelicals for Social Action.

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