This is the fourth post in a series on Good and Evil.
Our aversion to hypocrisy paints us into a moral corner.
Just ask Baby Boomer parents who made all the wrong choices about sex and drugs how they feel about setting very different rules for their own children.
Many Boomer parents report feeling very uneasy about warning their own kids away from behaviors that they happily performed at the time but now regret.
They feel like hypocrites.
This phenomenon reminds me of childhood name-calling strategies. If someone called you a geek or a sissy, you dropped the hypocrisy bomb. “It takes one to know one!”
From this perspective, if you have even the slightest hint of the shortcoming you notice in someone else, you have no right to say anything. You have no room to talk. And if you do open your mouth, you’ve committed what seems to rank today as the only unforgivable sin: hypocrisy.
When it comes to judging and responding to evil, some think that Jesus taught precisely that lesson. The oft-quoted passaged is this:
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
In other words, some say we have no right to criticize or judge someone else until our own house is completely in order.
Jesus’ lesson seems to be that we should attend to our own moral shortcomings. Only once we have achieved an undiluted righteousness do we have any moral standing to hold anyone else accountable.
There goes responding to evil. Let’s face it. We will never be perfectly virtuous. So, if this interpretation of Jesus’ teaching is correct, we can never judge evil as evil.
Lacking the capacity to name evil, we certainly cannot respond to it in any meaningful sense.
But this interpretation is off the mark.
It is not at all in keeping with Jesus’ life and teaching to encourage us to lead lives of self-absorption. But the interpretation I’ve outlined above would lead to endless moral navel gazing.
We would spend all of our time reflecting on the state of our souls, ferreting out our character defects, and pursuing programs of moral self-improvement. Even though we would ostensibly be pursing righteousness, our lives would in the end be devoted to ourselves.
It would all be about me. The pursuit of the self-justified me.
But Jesus’ teaching was precisely that we are completely incapable of justifying our own existence. He has come to justify us. As he said, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
We do not remove the log from our own eye and then receive the moral authority to judge someone as less moral than we are. Instead, we see our own need for mercy and gratefully recognize that we have received that mercy.
We can recognize evil because we know it from the inside. We have been held captive by it and we have been ransomed from its grip.
Christians do not approach evil with smug self-righteousness or condescension. Instead, we remember the dreadful effects of evil on our own lives and look with compassion on those who are swept up in evil’s destructive power.
It is our duty to restrict evil’s territory, as it were, and to liberate those oppressed by its dehumanizing rule. We do not sit idly by and watch slavery, racism and genocide. Liberating Nazi death camps by violent means was an act of moral heroism.
And yet we do not consider ourselves morally superior to slave holders, racists and ethnic cleansers. Instead, we know ourselves to be under the reign of the only true, good and just king. We are dedicated to extending his reign and liberating even those who have served a hideous, destructive strength.
We stand for good against evil because we have received mercy. Our goal is not to destroy evil but to extend the reign of the merciful king: Jesus Christ.
I have been hinting here at more cosmic dimensions of good and evil. Christians live under the reign of Christ. Evil characterizes an alternative kingdom. Our struggle with good and evil involves the human will, but it involves more than our merely human wills as well. And it is to that topic that I will turn in the next post.