Friday, March 8, 2019

"How A Christian Overcomes Evil"

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a short essay that is not well known but profound in it's simplicity. It's titled, "How a Christian Overcomes Evil." Perhaps the essay is not well known because it starts with introspection, a recognition that evil is not just "out there" but "in me" as well. We are usually quite competent in recognizing the evil in others, seldom in ourselves. So the first step in overcoming evil for King is identifying that evil in me that is most in need of change. What is my greatest temptation; envy, pride, lust, greed? You can go through the seven cardinal sins and a dozen more to find your change challenge. After all, if we can't change ourselves, what makes us think we can change anything external to us? 

Of course one can't overcome a personal evil until it is recognized and admitted, brought into the light of day. Sometimes it takes a shock to the system for us to recognize the evil. 
           Apparently Michael Cohen didn't admit the water he was carrying for President Trump, "fixing" things, over ten years of their relationship, was all that terrible, until it was exposed to the light of a criminal investigation. Now, he says he wants to be truthful, especially as he sees the impact the evil in his life is having on his family. How many of us do things in the dark, that if exposed to the light, would hurt those we love?

Evil in us has to be recognized and faced before it can be changed. To start the change process, King would have us first trust in the grace of God. We probably can't do it alone. 

Then we might add an inventory to our evening routine. How did I do today? How often was the temptation to do my evil apparent and what was my response? Instead of counting sheep, we count successes and failures and will to do better. We work to turn "the predominant fault into it's opposite virtue." It's not a passive project to change but an active one.

        Then comes the heart of the matter. "Concentrate not on the eradication of evil, but on the cultivation of virtue." Again, "Evil is never to be attacked directly, but indirectly. Evil is not driven out, but crowded out."     When our children were young and tempted to do things they shouldn't, my response was usually to force them to do something different. I would attack the situation directly with the intention of driving the misbehavior out of them. That's what I learned from my father and I expect from his father before him. On the other hand, my wife was a master of distraction. She could identify something the children would rather do than what they were doing and draw their attention to it. She was able to replace the misbehavior with something better. She crowded out the evil with a seeming treat.

                It's simple, really, if often hard to implement. Our reliance on the power of force, coercion, intimidation, violence and war is so inbred, it's often difficult to see the alternative. We forget the ends don't justify the means; that the means often determine the ends. Hate doesn't get rid of hate, only love can do that. War doesn't make an end to war, only peace can do that.

One of the examples King uses in his essay comes out of Greek mythology. He describes the different responses of Ulysses and Orpheus to the temptations of the song of the Sirens, luring sailors to their deaths. Ulysses puts wax in the ears of his sailors and ties himself to the mast of the ship. Orpheus, the divine musician, instead of using wax and rope plays such beautiful music, the song of the Sirens falls flat. The temptation is replaced by something better. The evil is crowded out.  

King's essay has application in so many circumstances, from child rearing to international relations. How can a superpower with thousands of nuclear weapons, convince another country without them they are sinful? What moral authority does the U.S. have unless we get rid of our own? I read just this morning a request that the UK dispose of their nuclear weapons, a small number that do them little good, and become a broker with countries like North Korea and Iran to stay out of the nuclear club. We need to ask ourselves, how is it that one country with a nuclear sin has managed to create a whole club, that continues to grow and welcome new members? 

        There is, in King's words, an "expulsive power for good." In the days of the Cold War, everyday citizens were going to Russia to meet their complements in that country, person to person, farmer to farmer, teacher to teacher. Women in South Korea have been walking across the DMZ to North Korea, seeking to reunite families. Different NGO's bring young Israeli's and Palestinians together to help them recognize their commonalities and crowd out their differences. Muslims, Christians and Jews come together in dialogue around common concerns. Once we confess our fears of the other and replace them with human relationship, the picture of our world begins to shift. We can't leave it up to Presidents or Parliaments. We all need to do our own inventory and take the first step to replace the evils of our time with the joys that can drive them out, the joys of music, beauty and caring relationships. With God's help and the wisdom of folks like M.L. King, we can do it.  

Carl Kline 

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