The massacre in Las Vegas cries out to us about the sickness in our culture and social structures, begging anyone who will to offer healing. Those of us in the church hear this loud and clear. As members of the same culture and society, we feel the same need ourselves. Yet, we can feel so helpless.
…everyone fixates on the power of destruction because it is so shocking and sudden. So, the dark side seems greater even though it is not.
Let me offer what seems like a very tangential aside that, if you’ll stick with me, I think will help us here. (At least it has helped me.) In Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker asks Yoda if the dark side of the force is more powerful than the light side. It certainly seems like it is. It is constantly seducing away even the most powerful Jedis and is imbuing them with far greater fighting ability. <Empire Strikes Back: Jedi Training, Is the Dark Side Stronger?>. Yoda’s response is telling. No, the dark side is not stronger. True, it is quicker and offers obvious results that can impress people with its power (like choking others with your hand), but it does not grant peace or inner strength. Those that follow the light side will find their strength flowing out of a never-ending well and will find a way to come to peace in the midst of whatever struggles they have. The dark side followers may leave carnage in their path, but the light side followers will create a place of peace and strength that will build up others. It is the difference between the kid who builds the exquisite sand castle and the bully who knocks the castle down. The former is more powerful because she can create. The latter shows little strength because all she can do is destroy. However, everyone fixates on the power of destruction because it is so shocking and sudden. So, the dark side seems greater even though it is not.
We are in the same situation as Christians, except that we have an active, good, creating God we serve rather than just some vague force. Jesus, who embodied the fullness of God, did not come to destroy. Rather, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory” (Isaiah 42:3). Indeed, it seemed like he was much weaker than the forces of evil that opposed him: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
We have the power to endure and to avoid being violent. That seems useless in a day when systemic injustice and violent crime are destroying so many people.
This is the holy life of Jesus that the Holy Spirit imparts to us. It seems singularly unimpressive. We have the power to endure and to avoid being violent. That seems useless in a day when systemic injustice and violent crime are destroying so many people.
However, we also know the rest of the story. Jesus did die at the hands of all that is evil. In doing so, to quote the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, “He trampled down death by death, and on those in the tomb bestowed life.” Jesus created a new reality by enduring. He created a new life that could no longer be threatened by death because physical death would be reversed. All will one day arise from their graves to face the judgement of God. When this happens, the true justice that both the righteous and the unrighteous deserve shall be administered and a new heavens and new earth will be the dwelling place of all people.
Based on this, our greatest power as Christians is to live in groups of people who practice hope and provide havens of blessing and peace for people. We can demonstrate how we endure the crushing presence of evil without being destroyed by it (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
We can demonstrate how we endure the crushing presence of evil without being destroyed by it (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
Now, this sounds passive in the extreme. Does this mean that we live as monastics only, keeping peace behind the walls of our monasteries for those who would seek it while allowing the world to continue on as it is? In fairness, that is an option, and I am grateful for those who exercise it. It is good to know that there are oases of the “angelic life” (as St. John Chrysostom called it) in this chaotic world.
However, even Chrysostom argued that those who are in the monastery must leave and engage in the world when the church calls for aid. They cannot improve their souls if they are not also reaching out to love their neighbors.
So, we do need to enter the world. How? First, by making certain we sustain the assurance we have in the gospel. Without that, we really have nothing else to offer that the world cannot figure out on its own. It is the remarkable, almost unreasonable, peace that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus gives us that provides us with something meaningful to share with others.
From that, we demonstrate the love that God gives us to share. We can do this in any way that seems best fit for our gifts and abilities. Some of us will love best through direct consolation of the victims of violence. Some of us will love best through advocating in the halls of power for changed laws and policies that allow for greater justice for all people. Some of us will love best by interceding in prayer for the heart-broken. Some of us will love best by meeting the physical needs of the ones who have been harmed. Some of us will love best by seeking to evangelize the perpetrators of harm so we can win them to repentance. The list goes on. As St. Augustine said in his seventh homily on 1st John, “Love, and do as you will.” So long as we live out of the love God gives us to share with others, we are acting in a holy way.
Too often Christians criticize one another for which practice we choose in the wake of these calamities…In truth, we are a body of Christ, and we each serve in our own way.
Too often Christians criticize one another for which practice we choose in the wake of these calamities. The evangelists look down on the social justice workers because they are not seeking to save souls. The social justice workers look down on the people meeting immediate needs because they are not making a systemic difference. The people meeting immediate needs look down on the people who are praying because they are not saving lives that are in imminent danger. The judgmentalism goes on…
In truth, we are a body of Christ, and we each serve in our own way. The people working for systemic change ought to be grateful that there are evangelists trying to win people away from being evil, the evangelists ought to be grateful that someone is saving people’s physical lives, the people who are praying ought to be grateful that there are people open to being used by God as a means of answering the prayers. We can appreciate and bless one another’s activity rather than rejecting each other as sub-Christian because we are acting differently, especially since we all are acting out of the same love of God founded on our acceptance of the same gospel of Jesus Christ.
We do not need to make a zero-sum choice among different responses. We need to respond as we are gifted and called to respond, and we need to make room for everyone to respond as they are called. We start with the ability to do this by living a life of holiness in a community of faith. That is not something we should do because we are responding to something, but because we have already committed ourselves to the gospel of Christ. From that commitment, we have sufficient resources to respond when the time comes. And, even if we don’t impress everyone with the power that evil seemed to wield, we will nonetheless be engaging in a more powerful act of living into the prayer of Jesus by seeking to demonstrate how humans can follow God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” and so live in a foretaste of the Kingdom.