“You have to take the bad with the good.”
That’s how my mom usually responded to my kvetching about my circumstances. When I was disappointed, flabbergasted, outraged, or frustrated, those words never failed to infuriate me.
What I heard her saying was, “Calm down.” It’s a well-known fact that, in the history of people needing to calm down, telling people to “Calm down” has never persuaded anybody to calm down.
In retrospect, I’ve come to believe that my mom probably meant to convey a lesson about life that I wasn’t yet prepared to learn. She was trying to help me see what it means to persist in being a person committed to nurture and healing in a world bent on breaking hearts and minds and bodies.
My mother survived Mauthausen, one of the Nazi’s cruelest if less-well-known concentration camps. American troops liberated that camp when she was sixteen. Accounts of the atrocities that took place there are a Google search away.
The only story my mother ever shared with me about that place was her liberation. Viciously beaten and left for dead by a German officer, my mother woke to find her wounds being tended by a GI. Her captors had fled ahead of their advancing enemy.
In movies and novels this episode might serve as the happy ending. She was free at last and that was that. The strife is o’er, the battle won. She lived happily ever after.
Only, she didn’t. In her personal life, she endured and eventually escaped an abusive husband. Two of her children—my brother and my sister—preceded her in death. The question for her was always, “Who will I be in response to this world?”
She had been liberated from that dreadful camp. But not from the world that devises such camps. She had been liberated into a world that still needs liberating. She would have to take the bad with the good. To respond to the bad with the good. Be a force of liberation especially when and where the forces of captivity redouble their efforts.
Jesus was saying something analogous to his friends just after he had emerged from the tomb. They were now people of the resurrection in a world that still crucifies people.
Jesus put it this way, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23) We will be the people who heal and nurture, or we will perpetuate a world that returns violence for violence, wound for wound.
We cannot liberate this world by putting people in concentration camps. Even those who build concentration camps.
To be honest, sometimes I get weary and discouraged with this healing, nurturing work to which Jesus calls us. I’m a fan of closure and happy endings.
It’s tempting to believe that we could just eradicate the bad so that we’re left only with the good. These feelings grow especially acute when it seems that violence, prejudice, greed, and selfishness are on the rise.
But Jesus warns us that this is a dangerous, ultimately self-serving and destructive illusion. In one parable he puts it like this. Some weeds popped up in a wheat field. Workers wanted to pull up the weeds, but the landowner stopped them.
He said, “If you try to yank out the weeds you’ll just pull up the wheat along with them.” (Matthew 13:24-30) That’s the Kingdom as we will know it. You have to take the bad with the good. But not just to resign ourselves to the bad.
In another parable Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. In quantity, the yeast is negligible compared to the dough. But without the yeast the entire mass would collapse in on itself. The yeast is present precisely for the sake of the whole. You have to take the bad with the good. Eventually, the good will make something even of the bad. (Matthew 13:33)
I don’t mean to suggest any false equivalencies here. There are captives and captors in this world. Forces of love and forces of hate.
There are those who pursue the common good, recognizing that to rob any person of dignity diminishes the dignity of every human being. And there are those who seek their own comforts and advantages and privilege at the cost of others’ deprivation and misery.
Jesus sets us free to liberate the captives from their captors and, paradoxically, the captors from themselves.