Easter challenge: Being faithful in the presence of evil

When the church is up against forces it cannot control or redirect, it is time to recall our fundamental work, which is to be a community that practices and models mutual forgiveness and compassion for the world.

I am always grateful that Easter lasts so long: we need all fifty days to work through the promise and the challenge of Jesus’ resurrection. One of the challenges is how to square the joy of Easter with the persistence of evil in the world. We all awoke on Maundy Thursday to news of the massacre of students at a college in Kenya. I’m sure many preachers felt the need to mention that event in their Easter sermons, lest our alleluias should ring hollow.

For some, evil actions and evil systems speak against the Easter gospel. If Jesus is victorious over sin and death, then why does the world remain such a dangerous place? But let’s turn the question around. How does the reality of terrorism and exploitation help us understand what Jesus’ victory is really about? We might say, first of all, that the risen Lord brings us face to face with truth, and that truth is the love that lies at the heart of all things. Because God is love, evil cannot win.

Still, we might wish for more than this assurance. Why doesn’t God just do away with evil once and for all? The Bible and Christian tradition do, in fact, point to a final division of light from dark and truth from lies. They also warn us not to be too eager for that last day to come! In his parable about the wheat and the weeds, Jesus himself reminds his disciples that what is good and bad cannot be definitively separated (or in some cases even distinguished) until they have grown to full maturity.

Certainly, in our own hearts, as in our own communities, there is a mixture of good and bad that requires patience and time to get sorted out, and much that is sinful can be transformed through repentance and forgiveness. Viewed this way, following Jesus means walking bravely into resurrection light, and allowing God’s judgment and love to make us fit for eternal life.

Still, this may not speak sufficiently to the original question about evil. We generally reserve the word evil for wrongs so enormous that they seem to be beyond the reach of love or punishment. The massacre in Kenya is one such wrong, and we can all think of many others in the world today. We feel helpless before them, because they reveal whole systems of malice and blindness that defy effective response. We want to destroy them or reform them, but we don’t know how.

In the face of this frustration it is important to remember the environment into which Christianity was born. The earliest Christians were well-acquainted with systemic evil: they lived in the midst of an empire which, for all its lip service to the rule of law, was as ruthless in its imposition of uniformity and its consolidation of power as any in the history of humankind. It did not occur to them that they could “fix” the empire, still less overcome it. In fact, they strove to live quietly and obediently under its rule. But they were convinced that by being a reconciled and reconciling community they were living out the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and they believed that if they were true to that spiritual work, that community would eventually outlive the empire. Even when the empire recognized the depth of this subversion and unleashed all its cruelty against it, our spiritual forebears didn’t lose heart. They knew their witness to love was stronger in the long run.

I take two things from this. First, when the church is up against forces it cannot control or redirect, it is time to recall our fundamental work, which is to be a community that practices and models mutual forgiveness and compassion for the world. This is easier said than done, because it requires signing on to spiritual practices that require discipline and are often not immediately gratifying (for instance, regular attendance at worship, serious study of Scripture, conversation with one another about our faith, constantly opening ourselves to the stranger, persistent commitment to partnership with all people of good will). But this work, which is at once how we carry out God’s mission and are formed for it, is how we claim Easter and grow secure in its truth.

Second, we may need to remember that the Christian life is not primarily about being effective. It is about being faithful, even when we are or feel powerless. It is the righteousness of Jesus that was vindicated on the first Easter day, and it is his goodness, not ours, that triumphed over the forces of darkness. We shouldn’t hesitate to rest in his goodness and feed on his love. Relief and gratitude will impel us soon enough to action in his name.