I’ve finished a book recently called The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s a story of a young girl whose brother dies and mother abandons her into foster care. It takes place in Germany during WWII. The town she lands in is Molching, with a family living on the wrong side of the tracks, barely scaping by.
Molching it turns out is just down the road from Dachau, the infamous concentration camp. There are few stories told about life in Germany under the rule of Adolf Hitler that don’t include evil in broad daylight. I was struck as I read this book at how the Jews were dehumanized to such an extent that they could be treated as they were in broad daylight: shamed, humiliated, beaten, abused, starved, killed. Evil had moved from the shadows and was allowed to operate in plain sight.
While Nazi Germany is the easiest example to point to of a community that allowed evil to become its daily operating reality, it is not the only nation, nor the only people who have allowed this to happen. And so, am I bringing this up because it is happening in America right now? Is evil operating in plain sight right here, right now? I don’t think so. Not right here, not right now, but evil would if it could. That is the nature of evil.
This sermon is simply a reminder of how to keep evil at bay by being vigilant, and in the light, and about the good, and toward the love… always towards freely choosing love. (That is the subject of my bulletin letter today, if you want to delve deeper in my thinking on freedom & love).
The season of Lent invites us to confront, in a clear-eyed way, the reality of evil lurking in the world around us. This Gospel passage talks about darkness being the place were evil waits; and where lightness is the force that scatters and shatters, or just keeps evil at bay… hiding behind the door in the dark. Most of the time…but every once in a while, the darkness becomes the day, and the evil finds a way to slip into the regular patterns of life, in a manner present, opaque, overlooked, and banal.
It is this – the everydayness of evil that we, as followers of Jesus, must be on the lookout for, and ready to respond to, if and when evil tries to legitimize itself in the light. Today’s sermon is a booster shot to help keep evil at bay; so, roll up your sleeve…
There are two worm holes through which evil likes to crawl into the light: one is isolation, and the other is misinformation. This pandemic has softened the ground to make it easier for these worms to emerge. Isolation and misinformation play well on-line. They are fuel for Q-anon, and Antifa, and white nationalist pods and the like. And it is easy for us to point at these groups’ evil….and while that may be true, they are evil that still prefers to stalk dark corners and shadowy crevices.
They are not the evil at this point that threatens to become average and commonplace and banal: more likely the evil of human suffering parked right here on the streets of Seattle, in cars, where children live; more likely the evil that desecrates our environment, in real time, right now; more likely the evil that plays out through institutional structures of oppression that disproportionately impact people of color right here in Seattle; more likely the evil that dances across social media looking to obliterate someone’s character because of their conviction and cause. Evil threatens to become commonplace in these ways. Easy to overlook. Opaque and banal.
OK, with that cheeriness laid out before us, I want to move our hearts towards productive ways of casting out darkness whether amorphous darkness on-line or darkness seeking daylight down the street, we have tools to keep it at bay. Toward that end we are going to look at two ways evil seeks the light: one by becoming opaque and two by becoming banal; and two ways we confront this evil, with spiritual zeal and with curiosity. We will see how spiritual zeal makes opaque evil transparent and how curiosity reveals the banality of evil.
Let’s begin by looking at the opaque nature of evil. Opaque is an odd word that means something that was once see-through that is no longer see-through. Like your bathroom mirror after a hot shower. When the water vapor comes in contact with the cool mirror, it loses energy and settles causing the mirror to become opaque (foggy). Here is the analogy: Just as when water molecules lose energy, they become opaque; so, too, when we lose our spiritual energy, evil capitalizes on our weakness to fog our sight. Evil becomes opaque as it settles on regular things making acceptable that which is really unacceptable. The response, our response, is spiritual zeal!
I spoke about zeal last week when I told you about the zeal of my Aunt Maria. Let me tell you a story about her again that serves as a metaphor for what I mean by impatience with evil.
When Maria was just 79 years old she was out in the field laying irrigation pipes. All of a sudden, a rattlesnake jumped up and bit her in the rear. She grabbed that snake, crushed its head, and then immediately jumped in her pickup the truck, and drove to the hospital.
Urgency is the enemy of banality. Urgency drives out the lethargy of evil… it wipes the mirror, it clears the fog. Aunt Maria has no patience for that snake. There was no time for venom. She didn’t panic or waste a minute on intellectual angst. Her physical actions are a metaphor for the spiritual strength we must maintain to keep the mirror from fogging up. We must keep the energy of spiritual power alive and moving.
What does that mean? It means praying, studying your Bible, going to church. It means being with other Christians who are followers of Jesus, who, like you, acknowledge and own their spiritual journey. It means taking your spiritual life seriously. It means, at the end of the day, above all else, the ways of Jesus, the ways of love, are the ways of life.
When evil jumps up and bites us in the derriere, we are ready. We know what to do. We name it. We acknowledge it. We crush its. We jump into our trucks. We drive to church where the people of God gather to give thanks to God with spiritual zeal.
Why is that important? Because it gives us the power of light, the power to confront evil with zeal; to see it hiding in plain day light…And that is challenging when evil has become opaque and we are used to its thin film of deception; when it is what we have come to expect; when it is what is normal, and average, and commonplace, and acceptable…Evil must not be overlooked. Evil must not be allowed to become average, and commonplace, and acceptable, and banal.
Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil.” She was a philosopher and political theorist in the 1960’s who reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. The subtitle of her article on his trial that ran in The New Yorker was called “the banality of evil.”
What Arendt pointed out was that evil can be born from complacency due to the lack of curiosity. Evil loves people who are too busy to ask: “Why?” Evil loves people distracted by superficial, entertaining things. Evil loves people who are just barely making it, struggling to get by. Evil loves it when people assume someone else is dealing with it.
We are the Christians, and it is our duty to ask: “Why is this happening? Why is it this way?” It is our duty to get curious. To wonder why children are living in cars in Seattle. To wonder why there is a disproportionate number of people of color in jail. To wonder why new voting laws impact poor people and people of color more than other demographic groups. To wonder why there are fewer bird species in the air and fewer schools of fish in the sea. To wonder why has it become OK to cancel people for their honest, thoughtfully considered, point of view.
We are the Christians, and there is nothing so banal as to by-pass our curiosity. Here is the beautiful thing about curiosity, it necessitates engagement. It honors the Kingdom of God reality that “relationship is primary.” And when relationship shows up, isolation vanishes and evil slinks back into its shadowy crevice. When evil becomes opaque, we wipe the mirror to see what is really there. We stop the busy. We flip off the screen. And we say: “We are the Christians, and we will deal with this like Jesus would deal with this.”
“We are the Christians, and we will deal with this like Jesus would deal with this.” Powerfully, in the light. Going toward love, always moving toward love. That is the playbook we are going to follow as we step back into community, as we step into Great Time-in.
We are the Christians, and we see through the opaque, and we hear into the heart, and we say: “We are here to help.” That’s how evil is kept at bay.
Like Aunt Maria… we know justice requires doubling down on relationship, it requires doubling down on community; it is our mission as we move from the Great Time-out to the Great Time-in.
We are the Christians. We are here to deal with this (whatever this is) like Jesus would deal with this.