I was beginning to feel discouraged the other day. Oh there’s plenty of good news. Loads of compassionate people devote themselves to making this world a better place for everybody.
Still, I can’t help but see the persistent violence, hatred, want, and misery. It weighs on me. Maybe you can relate.
Jesus taught us to walk the way of love. He warned that this way would be hard, but promised that it would change the world. I’m all in. And yet I found myself wondering, “Are we really making a difference with all this love stuff?”
That’s when I remembered something my mother used to say: “You have to take the bad with the good.” When I was disappointed, flabbergasted, outraged, or frustrated, those words never failed to infuriate me. What I heard her saying was, “Calm down.”
In retrospect, I’ve come to recognize that she probably meant to convey a lesson about life I wasn’t yet prepared to receive.
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, minds, and bodies.
The only story my mother ever told me about Mauthausen Concentration Camp 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 a movie or novel, this episode might serve as the happy ending. She was free at last, and that was that. The strife was 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, Joseph, and my sister, Marie, 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 she still lived in a world that devised such camps. She had been liberated into a world that still needed liberating.
She would have to take the bad with the good, to respond to the bad with the good, to be a force of liberation especially when and where the forces of captivity redoubled their efforts. As the apostle Paul put it, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Speaking to his friends, Jesus said something analogous to this just after he emerged from the tomb.
They were now people of the Resurrection in a world that still crucified people, and this is what he had to say to them: “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 and wound for wound. We cannot liberate this world by putting people in concentration camps—even the very people who would still build concentration camps.
As I just admitted to you, 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, saying that 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 now know it. You have to take the bad with the good. But you do not have to resign yourself to the bad.
In another parable Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast (Matthew 13:33).
In quantity, the yeast is negligible compared to the lump of 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 out of even the bad. 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, advantages, privileges at the cost of others’ deprivation and misery.
Yet our intention to liberate not only the captives from their captors but also the captors from themselves ushers into this world the transforming force of love.