by Joshua D. Ebener
LSTC finalist, James Kenneth Echols Excellence in Preaching Award, 2009
In the most recent Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” there is a scene where the Joker conducted what he called a social experiment. Here's the scene: There are two boats, one has prisoners on board, the other civilians. Both boats are filled with explosives, and the detonator to those explosives was given to the people in the other boat. The Joker gets on the loud speaker saying that if a boat presses the detonator, they will be saved, but if neither boat presses their detonators by midnight, he won't spare either boat.
What is striking are the comments you hear on the boats. One man on the boat with the civilians says: “Those men on the (prisoner's) boat – they made their choices, they chose to murder and steal. We shouldn't have to die too.”
So put yourself in this situation... What would you be thinking and feeling? Would you pull the trigger?
In the movie we see some of the same evil by which the Joker has orchestrated this situation, reflected in the responses to the evil. The people began to be overcome with evil.
After 9-11, we were overcome by fear, anger and hate. This evil act that could kill 3,000 innocent civilians began to overtake us, to saturate us. We had to repay this evil act, by whatever means necessary. We supported wars on what was termed “terror” and we also supported torture (decisions we're hearing more about in the news right now). The thought was that we need to pull the trigger, because otherwise, they will pull the trigger on us.
As we were overcome with fear, anger and hate, we began to characterize “those people in the other boat.” Those Muslims are all terrorists, for example. Those prisoners are all bad, rotten, no good...It's this impulse for retaliation... when we are hurt we are overcome with the impulse to return the hurt, in attempt to achieve justice or prevent the other side from hurting us. Somebody here has been wronged before, hurt before. Somebody has been so filled, overcome, with hate and a desire for revenge. Somebody has said, well, they're gonna get their's.
I remember a time where I felt this way, when I was filled with hate and a desire for revenge. Two years ago my cousin Ben was riding with a friend of his who was driving drunk, they swerved off the road into a ditch going 90 mph. Ben lost his life, and his friend survived. I remember I was so overcome by hate for Ben's friend. These feelings of hate, they took a hold of me, they saturated me. It is that feeling I felt at that moment. It is the feeling in the United States on September 12th, 2001. It is the feeling of the child in Gaza or in Chicago who returned to school, and looks over to see the empty desk where his friend used to sit.
It is this feeling that Paul addresses to the Roman Christians in his letter. He knew the threat of persecution and acts of hostility that these small churches faced. He knew that there would be times that they would be overcome with evil and hate and then try to overcome evil with more evil. Paul has a counter message which he repeats four different ways in this text, and culminates with this:
“Do not be overcome (nikeo) by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Paul knew how common the maxims that promoted revenge were, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” He was aware of these social norms. But Paul knew that society's norms were not God's norms.
Because Evil was not overcome by a strong military. Evil was not overcome by revenge, by tit for tat. Evil was not overcome by responding to hatred with more hatred, to violence with more violence.
No…Evil was overcome on a cross.
Jesus knew the realities of revenge, hatred and violence, he suffered and died because of them. He did not repay evil with more evil or violence with more violence. He says, Peter, “put your sword away! Am I not to drink the cup my Father gave me.” We know the way Jesus responds to evil… Jesus overcame evil with goodness, and hatred with mercy, love, and compassion.
We are marked by the cross of Christ, this cross that overcomes evil and hatred. This gives us power to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good and hatred with love. Because of the cross, evil cannot overcome us, hate can not overcome us, fear cannot overcome us, systems of oppression cannot overcome us.
The scene in the “Dark Knight” continues with the boat filled with the civilians tabulating a vote, which overwhelmingly motioned to pull the trigger on the detonator. After some silence, a man gets up and says: “What are you afraid of? Fine, I'll do it.” I’ll pull the trigger. He felt overcome by evil and ready to return the evil. Meanwhile in the boat full of prisoners, a big prisoner gets up…he’s full of tattoos and he has an angry look on his face. He says, “Give (the detonator) to me and I'll do what you shouldda done 10 minutes ago.” He takes the detonator….and throws it out the window. The scene shifts back to the other boat where the man who volunteered to pull the trigger pauses....and then puts the detonator back in the box.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” By the grace of God we are not overcome by evil, but we are empowered, to overcome evil with good... As Paul writes, we are empowered to: to bless those who persecute us; to live in harmony with one another; to associate with the lowly; to not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all to feed our enemies if they are hungry; to give them drink if they are thirsty. We are empowered to take a step back when we get hot with anger, to take a deep breath. We are empowered to throw our detonators out of the window, to pursue reconciliation and peace, and to mend broken relationships and create new ones.
We can see this happening around us. I think about Global Conversations in the LRWC, about interfaith prayers and dialogues on campus, and casual conversations among people from different faiths, and the work of the Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice.
A few months ago Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson and other bishops along with spouses and staff made a visit to the Holy Land. Bishop Hanson reflected on the visit and the recent violence in the Holy Land in a letter. He said they heard stories of the violence, persecution, humiliation, hurt and fear and witnessed the effects of this longstanding conflict. But they also saw: “partnerships among Christians, Jews, and Muslims that offered hope that our shared Abrahamic tradition can lead to a shared land and a shared Jerusalem.”
His letter ended with this prayer from the ELW. Let us pray it together...
Gracious God, grant peace among nations. Cleanse from our own hearts the seeds of strife: greed and envy, harsh misunderstandings and ill will, fear and desire for revenge. Make us quick to welcome ventures in cooperation among the peoples of the world, so that there may be woven the fabric of a common good too strong to be torn by the evil hands of war. In the time of opportunity, make us diligent; and in the time of peril, let not our courage fail; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.