Responding to Evil: Striving for the Loving Realm

Twenty-twelve was a bad year in the world by many accounts. Israel and the Gaza. Syria. Afghanistan. Each of these hotspots come to mind. In this country alone we had a theater shooting, we had a contentious — to put it mildly — election season, a near dysfunctional government, Hurricane Sandy wrought destruction in densely populated areas of the Northeast, and the shocking shooting of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.

It is easy to feel discouraged and beleaguered.

This image of Jesus arm wrestling Satan is not only inconsistent with much of the biblical witness, it elevates evil as an equal to God. Image borrowed from http://www.youwall.com/index.php?ver=MzI5Nw==
This image of Jesus arm wrestling Satan is not only inconsistent with much of the biblical witness, it elevates evil as an equal to God. Image borrowed from http://www.youwall.com/index.php?ver=MzI5Nw==

Though I do not believe in a personified devil, I understand those who do so. Describing what we are all witnessing as a battle between God and the devil is tempting. The world has much evil. One way to interpret it is to describe it as a battle between God and the devil. This dualistic image, however, elevates Satan to the level of the Divine One and is inconsistent with much of the biblical witness.

But evil exists.

As troubling as it is, I perceive evil as a by-product of free will. I perceive it as the result of cumulative bad choices. Cumulative choices by individuals and cumulative in the sense of multiple people making multiple bad choices. These bad choices are contrary to what God desires us to do. The result is where God desires us to respond lovingly, we create evil.

My view of evil is too troubling for many and so they turn to a personified other, a personified devil. My perception is troubling because to see evil as the result of our own choices means that we are each capable of horrendous acts. As a former early childhood education professor, I recall the shock on student’s faces when I told them that I understood child abuse. They were shocked because they could not imagine being driven to physically harm a child.

As a parent who was blessed with support systems galore, I still had to talk myself down occasionally when the combination of fatigue, stress, and frustration converged. So, yes, I understand good people, good parents who can be driven to abuse a child. Those without adequate support systems are particularly vulnerable to becoming abusive.

The reaction of many good people to the loathsome actions of others, child abuse or the Newtown shootings, is to spew their own venom toward the perpetrators. I have seen more than one person wish for a special place in hell for child abusers or the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary. This solves nothing. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 

Hating evildoers, only magnifies evil in the world. Jesus did not hate evildoers. Jesus loved those who chose the wrong path. He loved them despite their bad choices because, I believe, he saw the image of God within them. He saw the good that they were capable of doing despite the bad, the evil they chose.

To listen to God’s call on our own lives, we must be “on guard so that [our] hearts are not weighed down with . . . the worries of this life.” (Luke 21:34b NRSV. Read in context.) When we allow the worries of this life to control us or when we live by the rules of a culture that value those with financial wealth over those without, we fail to see the unfolding realm of God that began with Jesus.

We are called to focus on being part of God’s unfolding, in-breaking realm of extravagant love in the world. When we focus on responding in love even to those who do evil, we are a part of the light.

And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (Luke 12: 29-31 NRSV Read in context.)

Is God a Child Abuser?

This post originally appeared in May 2009 as What Does the Story of Abraham and Isaac Tell Us About Protecting Children?  If you are not familiar with the allegorical narrative from Genesis you can read it here. 

We would be appalled at anyone who suggested that a loving father should kill his own child. Photo by Tim Graves

When we read this story we typically emphasize Abraham’s faith. We gloss over God’s seeming command to abuse Isaac, to kill his own child. We do this because it is difficult to accept a God who would ask Abraham to commit child abuse. However, to remove from the story the nature of what God is asking of Abraham is to remove the power of the story.

This sequence of events within the broader context of God’s relationship with God’s children, the Israelites, tells us about the nature of God. Despite their repeated misbehavior, despite God’s frustration with their actions, God continually cares for and protects them. Within the multi-generations of the Israelites we find the nature of a protective and loving God who desires obedience. Made in the image of God, our relationship with children reflects the relationship of God with the Israelites.

He said “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22: 2 NRSV

When God tells Abraham to commit child abuse in Genesis 22:2 our literal nature squirms. Our God-created biological nature struggles against the words that ask our brother Abraham to kill his only child. Here the level of obedience God expects of us is revealed. Obedience to God is required above all else, even above our very God-created natures.

As Isaac and Abraham journey up the mountain and as Abraham prepares the altar for sacrifice, he does not abdicate his parental responsibilities. In the exchange between Isaac and Abraham we see a father’s love that avoids frightening his beloved son. Isaac places his trust in his loving, protecting Daddy. Abraham places his trust in our loving, protecting God. We are shocked by Abraham’s obedience as he binds his son, lays him on the altar on top of the wood and reaches “out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” (Genesis 22: 9a-10 NRSV) But our God will not allow child abuse even if it means a literal contradiction of Godself:

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Genesis 22: 12 NRSV

In this story we not only learn about Abraham’s faithfulness to God but when viewed through the teachings of Jesus, we learn about the nature of God’s expectations of our relationships with children. In our emotional response to the heinousness of potentially burning a child alive we learn about our own God-reflected nature. We learn about our relationship with our children, the children of humanity. The only thing that trumps our God-created nature to protect, care for, and love our children is our faith and trust in God.

What Does the Story of Abraham and Isaac Tell Us About Protecting Children?

When we read this story we typically emphasize Abraham’s faith. We gloss over God’s seeming command to abuse Isaac. We do this because it is difficult to accept a God who would ask Abraham to commit child abuse. However, to remove from the story the nature of what God is asking of Abraham is to remove the power of the story.

This sequence of events within the broader context of God’s relationship with God’s children, the Israelites, tells us about the nature of God. Despite their repeated misbehavior, despite God’s frustration with their actions, God continually cares for and protects them. Within the multi-generations of the Israelites we find the nature of a protective and loving God who desires obedience. Made in the image of God, our relationship with children reflects the relationship of God with the Israelites.

He said “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22: 2 NRSV

When God tells Abraham to commit child abuse in Genesis 22:2 our literal nature squirms. Our God-created biological nature struggles against the words that ask our brother Abraham to kill his only child. Here the level of obedience God expects of us is revealed. Obedience to God is required above all else, even above our very God-created natures.

As Isaac and Abraham journey up the mountain and as Abraham prepares the altar for sacrifice, he does not abdicate his parental responsibilities. In the exchange between Isaac and Abraham we see a father’s love that avoids frightening his beloved son. Isaac places his trust in his loving, protecting Daddy. Abraham places his trust in our loving, protecting God. We are shocked by Abraham’s obedience as he binds his son, lays him on the altar on top of the wood and reaches “out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” (Genesis 22: 9a-10 NRSV) But our God will not allow child abuse even if it means a literal contradiction of Godself:

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Genesis 22: 12 NRSV

In this story we not only learn about Abraham’s faithfulness to God but when viewed through the teachings of Jesus, we learn about the nature of God’s expectations of our relationships with children. In our emotional response to the heinousness of potentially burning a child alive we learn about our own God-reflected nature. We learn about our relationship with our children, the children of humanity. The only thing that trumps our God-created nature to protect, care for, and love our children is our faith and trust in God.