Lent 2 March 12, 2017
The United Churches of Olympia
As you may remember from last Sunday, we are utilizing the theme of “Roll Down Justice” for the season of Lent. Last week we reaffirmed our baptismal vows in a very sweet and supportive way, as we reflected briefly on the power of water. What we didn’t say again was the part of our baptismal covenant, included in the liturgy of both of our denominations, where we promise to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ. We also have this version of the question in our worship book: Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?
Do we renounce the powers of evil? What are the powers of evil? There is not a simple answer to this question so you’ll need to follow closely. Some people, probably not many in our church, think of evil as the devil, or Satan, a personification of evil, the bad guy who tempts us to do bad stuff. In fact, following the baptism of Jesus, the gospels tell us, he is “sent into the wilderness” to be tempted by the devil.
Some of us sophisticated scholars think of evil as our Jungian shadow side. The shadow, said Jung, is the unknown ‘‘dark side’’ of our personality–-dark because it tends to consist predominantly of the primitive, negative human emotions and impulses like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage. He calls it our shadow side, due to its unenlightened nature. These impulses are completely obscured from our own consciousness. We don’t see these impulses in ourselves. Whatever we deem evil, inferior or unacceptable and deny in ourselves becomes part of our shadow. Jung differentiated between the personal shadow and the impersonal or archetypal shadow, which acknowledges transpersonal, pure or radical evil and collective evil, exemplified by the horror of the Nazi holocaust. Literary and historical figures like Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, and Darth Vader personify the shadow embodied in its most negative archetypal human form.
Biblical Scholar and activist Walter Wink describes evil as The Domination System. The Domination System is nothing new and can be seen all the way down through history whenever one group of people oppresses another for the sake of greed and self-interest.
Domination systems are fed by what Wink calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence. The Myth of Redemptive Violence enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world. Wink has written several books describing how pervasive this myth still is in Western culture. The belief that violence “saves” is so successful, because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience unto-death.
This myth, seen first in the Babylonian creation myth and repeated again and again up to today’s children’s cartoons, is ubiquitous in our culture because we believe that it is normative. This omnipresence, Wink argues, is so pervasive it even infiltrated the way in which ancient Hebrews conceived of God; thus, it produced vast amounts of violence in the Hebrew Bible said to be the will of God. Jesus interrupts this Myth, and exposes it for what it really is: legalized immorality. Wink paints Jesus in an activist light, as one who courageously revealed the truth about the one true God who has no part in The Domination System. Jesus was murdered by the powers and the early Church only half-way understood his purpose.
How do you think about evil? Did the Devil make you do it? Do you think it might be your unconscious shadow side, or the shadow that you project upon others? Are we all helpless in this domination system fed by the myth of redemptive violence? Is evil something else? Is it external? Do we create it?
I think each of these ways of looking at evil are helpful. Perhaps we cannot succinctly explain evil, but we can certainly recognize it when we see it. Bomb threats to Jewish centers in 33 states and 2 Canadian Provinces have topped 100 since January. Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized. That is what evil looks like. The Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked over a thousand hate crimes in the month following the election. Immigrant families are being torn apart. Mosques are being burned. That is what evil looks like. Just last week in Kent, WA a Sikh man was shot by another man who confronted him in his driveway, telling him to “go back to your country.” Two Indian men who were working for the Garmin Company in Kansas were shot in a bar on February 22 by an assailant who reportedly shouted, “Get out of my country!” One of the men died. That is what evil looks like. Dead Syrian toddlers rolling up on Turkish beaches, that’s what evil looks like. We know what evil looks like.
What are we supposed to do about it? Nicodemus wants to know how to live different, how to be different. He must be a bit afraid about what people might think about this desire, because he approaches Jesus by night. He is a leader in the Jewish community, a Pharisee, and perhaps he has caught on that Jesus is trying to turn over the domination system. He wants to participate in this new reality, but just can’t see how to get there. Jesus starts talking to him about being born again, which is totally confusing to Nicodemus, who wants to know how he is supposed to get back inside of his mother and be re-birthed. Jesus explains that Nicodemus must be born of water and the spirit. Water and the spirit.
Baptism is the symbolic re-birth of water and the Spirit. Remember, after Jesus was immersed in the water, the heavens opened and the spirit like a dove descended upon him, claiming him and naming him beloved. Baptism is our beginning in living in a new reality.
By the 4th century, the church had instituted a powerful symbol of the transformation of candidates for baptism away from evil and toward good. Before going into the water, they would face the direction of the West (the direction of the setting sun) and renounce evil. Then they would turn away from that direction to face the East (the direction of the rising sun) as a sign that they were leaving the forces of evil behind and facing the Light of God in their lives. The language of renouncing evil has come to us down through the ages as our rites of baptism invite us to renounce evil in all its forms, whether our own shadows or the devil or the system on domination that peddles this myth of redemptive violence. We affirm that we have the freedom to do so and that it is God in whom we put our trust. It is the ultimate trust in God who works through us to transform injustice. It is possible to cry “how long” as the psalmist does and also claim our agency to do something in that time of waiting–to “resist evil” and in that resisting, expose evil to the light.
How can we resist and renounce evil on a daily basis? You will be relieved to know that I have three easy steps. First, we have to work on our own stuff (our shadow as Jung calls it.) I know that we call it a shadow because we don’t see it in ourselves, but there are hints. Sometimes our friends or family members are trying to suggest what we need to work on. Sometimes we have a strong emotional reaction to another, and that reaction might be telling us about our own stuff that we need to work on. (As my friend Jane Jones used to say: That’s your shit.) Work on it.
Secondly, resist those impulses. You know what they are. Resist as a spiritual practice. Some of the things we are tempted to do and say, really just need to be resisted.
Thirdly, call out evil when you see it in our community, nation and world. Take a stand against what you know is wrong and say it. Say it often, say it to everyone. Don’t pretend that everything is ok just because the decision, or legislation, or change in the policy doesn’t effect you. Call it out. If you think the emperor is naked, say so.
We are named and claimed by the refreshing waters of baptism. In our naming, we promise to renounce evil. It’s a big job, but we can do it. Amen