One of the saddest things I encountered during my time as a college campus minister was the misuse of religion by a few small, bad-intentioned groups. Most of the religious ministries on campus were genuinely concerned about the well-being of the students, and made a real contribution to the students’ lives. There were a couple of groups, however, whose concerns and loyalties lay elsewhere. Those few groups, which can legitimately be called “cults,” preyed on the vulnerability of young adults who were far from home and separated from friends and family. Those cult groups disrupted the lives of individual students, sometimes beyond repair. Those groups also had a negative effect on the other campus ministries; their nefarious activities made all religion look slightly suspect. As a campus minister, I found it personally insulting that someone would take something as positive as religion and use it for destructive purposes.
There are some puzzling contradictions about the world in which we live. One of those puzzling contradictions is that good seems to attract evil.
The details of the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 aren’t available yet (at least, at the time this homily was written), but it appears to have been an intentional act of the co-pilot. The airplane was filled with tourists, students and families with young children. There appears to be no causal relationship between the passengers and the co-pilot. The passengers were innocent victims of whatever troubled the co-pilot so deeply that he decided to crash the plane into a mountain.
The on-going conflicts in the middle east, the Ukraine, and elsewhere in the world, victimize millions of innocent citizens, none of whom have done anything to harm those responsible for the conflict and destruction. The examples of this puzzling contradiction are nearly endless. Innocence attracts sin; good attracts evil, and the attraction is not because evil wants to be redeemed. On the contrary, evil wants to be destructive.
The blind, thoughtless destructiveness of evil is evident in Mark’s Passion Narrative. The Gospel doesn’t give an explanation of why the religious authorities in Jerusalem turned against Jesus. Mark’s Gospel suggests that Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was the turning point in the Jerusalem authorities’ relationship with Jesus, but there is insufficient information for us to draw any meaningful conclusions.
What is clear in the Gospel, and the Passion Narrative in particular, is that Jesus was a righteous man who was rejected and persecuted by the unrighteous. Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution are emblematic of the tendencies of evil. Evil is attracted to good in order to be degrading and destructive. In fact, evil wants so much to be destructive that it is often destructive of itself.
The insidious, destructive nature of evil gives the impression of unassailable strength. It is very popular in religion and secular society to portray evil as powerful to the point of being overwhelming, if not invincible. This, however, is a false impression and an inaccurate assessment of evil. Evil can be pervasive, but pervasiveness is not the same as power. Evil, in its nature, is weak. It is dependent on the good upon which it preys; furthermore, it is dependent on the good failing to resist its attempts to degrade and destroy.
In Mark’s Passion Narrative Jesus is portrayed as not fearing evil, but rather resisting evil by taking the higher moral ground. Jesus knew that he would be betrayed by those closest to him. He confronted Judas, but showed no fear about the consequences of Judas’ actions. (Mark 14:17-21) He also confronted Simon Peter about the weakness of his faith, but expressed loving concern for the one who would deny him. (Mark 14:27-31) When he was arrested he pointed out the duplicity of those who pointed their weapons at him. (Mark 14:48-49) When the religious authorities pieced together a sham trial based on perjury he reiterated the truth he had proclaimed in his preaching. (Mark 14:62) Finally, when his fate was sealed he accepted the title “King,” and refused to engage with Pilate, his inferior. (Mark 15:1-5)
At every turn, Jesus resisted evil with strength. The strength that Jesus displayed, however, was not the frantic efforts of one who was uncertain about the outcome of a conflict. Jesus resisted evil with the assurance that God’s power would vindicate him. Jesus addressed evil’s weakness directly, and stood firm in the saving power of God. In doing so, Jesus redeemed all of human nature from the weakness of sin and death. He also gave us an example of how to confront evil in our lives.
Evil is abundant, but it is not strong. Evil can be frightening, but only if taken seriously. Evil can be degrading and destructive, but eventually it destroys itself.
When we are faced with an objective evil that afflicts us from without, or even with the evil of human weakness that is part and parcel of our nature, we must keep in mind that evil is essentially weak. When facing trials and suffering, we must always trust in the power of God who saves us. When faced with evil, whether great or small, we take refuge in God’s strength rather than our own strength. We keep in mind that the salvation God offers is not merely rescue from occasional suffering or privation, but Resurrection, which is eternal victory over all evil. Jesus conquered sin and death; we, too, can conquer evil if we recognize its weakness and stand firm in faith.