Given last week’s events in Paris and, though less well-known, Beirut and Bagdad, I had to scrap plans for my sermon on Sunday. It was a good sermon, and we’ll talk about evangelism next Sunday, but events required a response.
As it so happens, my current series was supposed to come to an end the following week by wrestling with the question, “If Jesus reigns, why is there evil?” In the wake of violence and hatred and destruction that seems like an excellent question with which to wrestle. But here’s my dilemma, we can’t solve the problem of evil.
Christians have been wrestling with that question for thousands of years, and I was never even going to pretend to bring the definitive word on this whopper of all problems. I mean, why is there evil?
One of the most common explanations for evil’s existence is that we humans sin because it often appears to be the best way to gain a kind of reward – both emotional and physical. We get hooked on that reward, and we crave it, even though it destroys us. The classic example of this is the destruction drug addiction causes, but it’s a struggle with which all wrestle.
If that’s the case, the answer to the question “why is there evil?” might be partly because we humans are addicted to it. When we become angry, or hopeless, or disenfranchised, or lost often times the easiest way we can achieve catharsis is to lash out. In our homes we see this in the way couples can wound each other with unfair criticism and well-aimed words. On the world stage, where the stakes are higher and the anger much deeper, people use guns and bombs and grenades and drones.
So why doesn’t God do anything about this awful cycle? Why is evil allowed to continue?
Well, for Christians the answer to the first question is, “God has done something – God sent his Son to walk humbly as one of us, to grieve over us, and to break the powers which bind us.”
The answer to the second question is, “I really don’t know.” God appears to be giving us human-beings chance after chance after chance to reach out for his extended hand and embrace the peace offered in Jesus – and we keep slapping it away.
So, maybe the best question to ask isn’t “why is there evil.” Maybe it’s best if we say to ourselves, “Evil does exist, how will we respond to it?” The good thing about this question is Jesus actually tells us how to respond to evil. He does this many points o this teaching, but they all really work out from his Sermon on the Mount. In particularly, the beatitudes.
In those sobering statements Jesus tells us to “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” We talk about righteousness all the time in Church – it’s the practice of living in right relationships. All creatures one to another, and all creatures with God. Jesus says we should thirst for it, as if longing for water on a hot day. He says we should hunger for it, the way we hunger for a meal as its smell permeates the house while it cooks.
When we are faced with acts of evil as potent as the attacks in Paris, Lebanon, and elsewhere, the first hunger we often feel is not for righteousness – it’s for vengeance. That’s the drug we can most quickly apply to the sense of futility and pain we experience. And it can bring about a sense of relief. But like any drug, the hunger for it will never be satisfied. It will demand more and more and more of our souls in order to give increasingly smaller amounts of the relief we crave – until we are left as a little more than a shell.
Contrast that to Jesus’ statement. If we hunger and thirst for righteousness that hunger will not consume us – it will be satisfied. If we heed Jesus’ call and hunger and thirst for that which can satisfy then just maybe, in the face of evil acts which are becoming all too common, we don’t have to succumb to the dehumanizing impulses of xenophobia, hatred, and mistrust. Maybe we can find satisfaction and hope in the face of evil by offering generosity, graciousness, hospitality, and (hardest of all) forgiveness. This is why, I believe, Jesus calls “peacemakers” blessed.
Now, when we bring up the image of “peacemaker” in this violent world people will often make the accusation that reaching out to offer reconciliation is nothing more than appeasement. “Peacemakers” are like Neville Chamberlain, giving Hitler all he wanted. That is, in fact, the argument made against President Obama regarding his attempts to come to some sort of conciliation with Iran.
Let me be perfectly clear, peacemaking is not appeasement. In fact, peacemaking is what emerges from “hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” It’s the work which springs from that longing, driving us to move into the divides which separate humanity (often putting ourselves at risk) and say, “This must not be, we must find a better path.”
As I read the beatitudes this past Saturday, what struck me was how much they sound like what Jesus has already done. Isn’t he a peacemaker (that is, a reconciler)? Doesn’t he hunger and thirst for righteousness? Isn’t he humble (that’s a better translation than “meek”)? Isn’t he pure of heart? Doesn’t he grieve over us now every bit as much as he did when he stood in front of Lazarus’ tomb and wept? And hasn’t God blessed him?
Why should we believe anything in the beatitudes? Because Jesus gave his life in order to show they are true.
And yet, for all that, there a problem remains. The specter of vengeance hangs over us as the question rings out, “But can we possibly do when we encounter people who don’t want to be reconciled? What do we do with people who relish being hated, and are affirmed when they inflict pain on the world? How can we be peacemakers with people such as that?”
Perhaps we can’t. I honestly don’t know. Maybe the militaries of this world need to obliterate ISIS wherever it is found, and hunt down it’s remnants in the way we track down and prevent a rabid animal from spreading it’s disease. That may need to happen. But if it does, we need to understand, it will not solve anything. The cycle of violence will only start up all over again.
What I do know is this. If ISIS is confronted and destroyed in order to make this world safer, as Christ’s disciples, the only emotion we should feel is grief. Why? Because, even people who have become so twisted that lobbing grenades into a crowded theatre is seen as a “miracle” remain the image of God. How can witnessing God’s image so bent, twisted, and warped so much that it almost unrecognizable do anything but break our hearts?
May Jesus’ disciples hunger and thirst for righteousness rather than succumbing to fear and vengeance. And, in Jesus’ name, may there be peace on Earth. Amen.