Evil is a big word. A heavy word. A loaded word. A word I do not use often or without careful consideration.
Maybe you, like me, think “evil” is too strong a word for casual use. Maybe you, like me—until recently, anyway—are not so sure what you think about evil: whether it is a real and active force that exists independent of anything else, whether it is is something we see only rarely—say, in the Holocaust or slavery or other genocides, or whether it is merely a projection of our own values and fears and biases.
Be that as it may, I am not particularly interested in a discussion of whether evil exists or, if so, what it is exactly. I have no case to make. It may be that, to paraphrase what a Supreme Court justice once said of hard-core pornography, we know it when we see it. We know it when we experience it.
But, just for the record, and to make explicit where I am coming from, these few past weeks and months, these past four years, have me more sure than ever before that evil is real. Never before have I been so aware of its power. Never in my lifetime have I felt so viscerally that we are in the throes of a pitched battle between good and evil. Never have I felt that the stakes are so high.
Now, I realize that these are strong statements. I understand that you may find them melodramatic and off-putting—and I respect that. But I ask you to stick with me here. Because, again, my aim this morning is not to convince anyone of anything, but rather to have us consider together—however we understand what is happening in our world and, especially, in our nation, and whatever we want to call it—how to hold our own against it, and, even more, for the sake of the world and all that is good and holy, how to overcome it.
But before we get to that, I do want to pause for a moment: to give us permission to acknowledge the seriousness of our situation, to reflect on the profound polarization we are living in.
You see, there is power in naming things.
Such as the horror, outrage, and despair we feel when the police shoot a black man seven times in the back at point-blank range—and some people want to justify it. Such as the anger and disgust we feel when we learn that a group labeling itself as Christian has raised more than $100,000 to defend the 17-year-old white man who shot and killed two racial justice protestors and then went home. Such as the deep anxiety we have not only about who will win the presidential election but also about the survival of our democracy. Such as how beaten-down and disoriented we feel by the seemingly ever-flowing stream of lies that comes from some of the most powerful people in the world.
There is power in naming things, even hard and upsetting and frightening things. We can debate whether things really are worse than ever before or, as Adrienne Maree Brown says, “they are [just] getting uncovered.” Either way, acknowledging how undeniably bad things are encourages us to “hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
There is, in fact, hope to be found in recognizing evil and acknowledging the bleakness of our situation—because then we can more directly address it, then we can more freely surrender to our need for help, then we can more effectively nurture and use the power of good.
Consider for a moment the powerful string of verbs Paul uses in this section of his long letter to the persecuted church in Rome:
Love one another, hold fast, show honor, be zealous, be spirited, be humble. Rejoice, persevere, give, welcome, bless, live in harmony, live in peace, associate with the lowly, be good to your enemies, feed your hungry enemies, give your thirsty enemies something to drink.
In the original Greek, all the verb forms are plural. Paul is writing not only about how individuals are to live in the midst of evil, but about our communal ways of living in hard times—how we as the church must live together in the face of hatred, violence, persecution, polarization, different values, and, yes, evil.
Now you may have noticed that there is one verb I left out, and that is hate.
“Hate what is evil,” Paul says.
Hate is the only action in Paul’s list of directives that is actually easy to do—all too easy. And I see it all too often in many protest actions and in our own social media posts. There is a fine line between outrage and hatred, between opposition and demonization, and in these days when disgraceful and dehumanizing behavior has become the norm, that line is easily crossed. Even if we do not become what we hate, our hearts can be eaten up by hateful thoughts; our souls can succumb to the very evil we hate.
As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
As we have seen in countless wars and, more recently, and even last night, violence cannot drive out violence; only peace can do that. The only way to peace and justice is peace and justice.
When Paul says “do not be overcome by evil,” he is not talking so much about winners and losers but about what kind of people we will be, what kind of community we will be, how we will get to where we want to go. If we are just as hateful and nasty and cynical as the other side in our struggle for all that is good, evil will triumph in the end.
Where Machiavelli said “the ends justify the means,” Paul says, Jesus says, that the means are theends.
Sure, in the struggle for justice, organizing is essential. In the struggle against evil, giving money is necessary. Standing up for what we believe in is fundamental, and standing together with the oppressed is the engine of change. And loving our neighbors is the second-greatest commandment.
But if we really want to overcome evil, we must hold fast to what is good—and that includes the good in ourselves, and that involves keeping our eyes on the prize. Maybe that means occasionally turning off the never-ending news machine or unplugging from social media. Maybe that means being more reflective and less reactive, more prayerful and less passive.
If we really want to overcome evil, we can’t let it change us. Maybe that means doing what is right whether or not we think it will make a difference. Maybe that means out of love and joy more than duty.
And if we really want to overcome the evil that has overcome our enemies, we have to love them—not in words or feelings, but in what we do, and how we treat them.
Lest you think I don’t know how foolish this sounds, let me remind you: I am the person who, the day after one of our very own was injured in the racial hatred of Charlottesville, stood up in front of more than a thousand angry, heartbroken, hard-nosed, swearing protestors in Northampton and called on us all to love our enemies.
Beloveds, these really are the times that try human souls—so let us not lose our souls in the struggle.
Let us not be overcome by evil, but let us overcome evil with good.