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The Banality of Bad                                  Jeff Jarvis / 2000


So much of religion is about mystery – and about the faith it takes to see past that mystery.

And surely the greatest and gravest mystery of religion and of life is evil: How did evil grow here, in the midst of God’s own good creation? What does God do about evil… what doesn’t He do… and what does that say about our God? What are we supposed to about evil? And here is the tough practical mystery that we parents face every day: What do I tell my children about evil and even just about bad people? How do I arm them against this dark side of life even as I try to protect them from it?

There is, of course, a wide range of evil… from bad to worse.

At the red end of the needle is unspeakable evil, nothing darker than the Holocaust. I will go to my grave – and whatever lies beyond – never learning how to grabble with that horrid mystery and what the fact of it says about us and about our God. How could so many people – so many of us – have allowed this crime to happen; how could so many have made it happen? How could the God who parted the Red Sea not have stepped in to part a few strands of barbed wire to stop it? So what does this tell us? Is God dead? Does God care? Is there a force of evil that can challenge even God?

The Holocaust was the cause of my great crisis of faith when I was younger. It was my discovery of the darkest side of humanity and creation, the challenge that made me question my faith even as that faith grew and matured. I could not face the horror of it; I could not not face the horror of it and so I studied the Holocaust and religion and even German, looking for answers that, of course, I could not find. I came to understand only that I could not understand it. So it remains a mystery, the darkest mystery.

And this led me to a leap of faith: I learned that I had to be willing to grant that there are questions that may not have answers; that is faith. I learned to believe that even after the Holocaust, there is a God; that is faith.

To accept God in the face of great evil… takes great faith.

But, thank God, we do not face great evil often; most of us never do. Instead we face the merely bad and we face it every day – the bad acts of bad people and the bad acts of good people – and it starts early, on the playground when another kid who doesn’t yet know better does something mean, something bad. And, oh, how we want to protect our children from that, how it hurts the first time we see a kid – a good kid – doing something bad to our children. How we hope our children can see past this moment and not view it as an example. How we pray that our children will forever be the good guys. But as they grow older, they cannot help but be exposed to the bad sides of this world that we are leaving them. And how we fear what they will come to think and to believe when they see our worst on the news: How, today, can a child compute Kosovo or Colombine?

I sometimes wondered whether my own mother and father sheltered me too much, whether they did too good a job as protective parents. As I grew older, I was surprised by all the bad things people could do… especially at work – but even at church. My parents didn’t warn me, I thought. But now I understand why they didn’t sit me down and talk about it: How do you start that conversation with a child, to tell them about bad and about evil? How do you ruin innocence?

And yet, as I grew yet older and as I thought about this more, I came to realize that my parents may not have always warned me. But they did arm me. And so does God.

My father, a very honorable man, told me that I had to look myself in the mirror every morning when I shaved – well… in my case, when I brushed my teeth, at least – and I should never do anything to someone else that would make me want to look away from that mirror. He told me that when people fought with me with low blows I should not sink to their level but I should rise up and be above them. He told me that I would have to do hard things – he had fired people – but that I should treat all people with honor. My mother, a very honorable woman, told me that I should treat people with fairness and forgiveness.

It’s very godly advice they gave me – not so much about what to expect from bad people but what they expected from me when I faced those bad people.

For just as there is a wide, wide range of bad from the evil to the banal, there is wide range of weapons against evil and God gives us very clear and helpful advice about them.

It may be our instinct to fight fire with fire, to go for the jugular and find our revenge, to seek vengeance. But that weapon is dangerous. My parents warned me of that. God warns us of that.

We’ve heard the often quoted and probably misquoted line from Moses’ lips in Deuteronomy: “Vengeance is mine… and recompense for the time when their foot shall slip, because the day of their calamity is at hand, their doom comes swiftly. Indeed the Lord will vindicate his people…” Yes, vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.

You could read that to say that vengeance is the right of the righteous.

But I read it differently. I see a warning here that God is reserving vengeance for Himself. For vengeance is a very powerful weapon, too powerful for us mere mortals to handle. Only God can fire it and God will chose when to; He claims it as His.

I know someone who has just gone through a terrible experience, suffering from something truly awful that someone did to him. And we’ll all understand that his first instinct was to seek vengeance: getting back, getting even, getting justice. But as mad and as hurt as he was, he realized even through a fog of anger and hate that vengeance would get him nowhere. It would bring him down before it brought his foe down. It would expose him to revenge and even deeper wounds. It would hurt his cause. Vengeance is dangerous.

On the trivial playing field of the office, most of us have had to learn that same lesson: Some bozo does something bad to us and though we want to get back, if we fight that way we make the fight the issue, we lose sight of what we wanted to gain, we play politics for politics’ sake, and that is low. Vengeance is bad strategy.

But God gives us better weapons.

I was struck by the scripture lesson Ruthann Estler selected when she preached here a few weeks ago, and that was read again this morning.  In Romans, quoting that line of Moses’ from Deuteronomy, Paul writes: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink… for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

What amazing advice that is, appealing to our own hunger for vengeance even as it tells us to pull up to a higher plane and leave vengeance below.

Paul says that we should never avenge our enemies ourselves but leave room for the wrath of God – and that is not to say whether God will use that room or that wrath, only that it is God who can and should judge whether to. And I’m not sure God ever does. One of the many other mysteries of God and religion for me is that I have trouble believing in a wrathful, angry God; I have trouble believing in a hell presided over by a loving God. And so I leave that as one of my many question marks, my leaps of faith: I will wait to find out that true nature of God.

But I will take the advice on the topic that He gives us for this earth, for it is good advice. Again, Paul tells us that we should feed even our enemies if they are hungry and if they are thirsty give them something to drink – and not necessarily just because it is the right thing to do, turning the other cheek and all that, but also because it will serve our ends and our emotions: It will “heap burning coals on their heads.”

Righteousness is the best revenge, he says. Amazing advice.

This may not work against the worst of evil or the sick and psychotic. And it will not work if you are the bad guy trying it; if you’re in the wrong and you’re standing above your foe, trying to look down on him, you only make yourself look like a fool or a bully.

No, this only really works if you do stand on the pedestal of righteousness, if you deserve to look down on your foe. And then it is terribly practical advice. It works even in a garden-variety office political fight: Stand above the fray, look down on the guy in the next cubicle, kill him with kindness, ruin him with righteousness.

Now I don’t want to recast the Bible as a new manual for management training … though I certainly could imagine worse things happening these days than causing a rush on Bible sales in America’s business schools. No, I don’t want to trivialize God’s advice to us, to make it seem as if He could or should really care about our petty squabbles in offices or schools or neighborhoods or even churches.

But I am struck again at how real and helpful this advice. I am struck, too, at how it resembles the advice my own father gave me about life in the grown-up world: Remember that you have to look yourself in the mirror the next day, he told me. Remember not to sink down to the other guy’s level, he said. Remember to treat him better than he treats you. Good advice, that is. Godly advice.

And so I come back to my list of great mysteries about evil and God and I wonder, how He does arm us against the bad sides of life?

Perhaps He does not protect us with air cover, swooping down to part clouds or seas or barbed wire; I am not sure I believe that God ever intervenes or should intervene that actively for us or at least I leave that as one more of my many, many unanswered questions.

In the same way, I now come to wonder whether it really is God’s aim at all to help us fight bad and evil people and win. Maybe that’s not what this advice is all about. If we can win, fine; but there are no guarantees from God that His advice will work in every fight.

So instead, I now wonder whether God’s real goal with this advice is simply to make us good; to help us avoid being bad; to help us hold off the temptation to fight bad with worse and seek vengeance – and He tells us this both because it is the right thing to do and because it is the smart thing to do and it is what we can do.

But all these are still mysteries for me – more mysteries and more leaps of faith. I still do not understand evil in our world; I won’t understand it.

But I do understand the very clear guidance God gives us through Paul:

“Do not be overcome with evil,” Paul tells us, “but overcome evil with good.”



-- Jeff Jarvis 2000

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