Let's be honest: this world frequently looks like a mess. But, by faith, we can see that it is a "blessed mess." Below is one of the finest reflections that I have ever heard on the way that what seems evil can in fact be overcome by the grace of God. It comes to us from my friend Steve Calme, who is doing nonprofit work in Cincinnati.
|Steve and I (wearing similar shirts) on a bus trip|
You have heard that it was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
As I prayed with this Gospel, an image from the long retreat came back to me, from a contemplation of the Crucifixion. The setting was the top of the hill at Golgotha, at the climax of the frenzy of the event. Three men writhed with pain, suspended above the crowd on wooden crosses. The crowd was thick with people, and at that hour they all seemed to be against Christ. Soldiers taunted him and looked at him with disgust as a criminal. Parents brought their children and pointed to the gruesome sight, telling their sons and daughters “never to be like that bad man.” Members of his own worship community gazed at him with anger and hatred, hurling angry insults—and, when the soldiers weren’t looking, stones—at him. Curious Roman citizens came to be entertained by his pain, to laugh at and mock this contemptible animal. And as the desire to punish this man, the evil glee at the punishment that was occurring, the desire to see him suffer reached a fever pitch, suddenly the air was pierced by the criminal hanging at Christ’s left, perhaps the person at that moment who best understood what Jesus was going through and so who best understood the unfair consequence of Christ’s life. In the middle of this loud frenzy of mocking and suffering and hatred, which had become like a big party rejoicing at Christ’s suffering, the criminal, out of despair not for himself but for this inexplicable end for Jesus, pierced the air with a heartfelt scream: “All he’s done is loved!” Those words rang out over the entire hill, and for a moment—and only a moment before returning to shouts of hatred—the crowd stopped silent in the face of that truth. “All he’s done is loved!”
In the face of everything He encountered in His life, Jesus knew only one response: generosity of love. When with his friends, his family, when with strangers, and finally when with enemies: not violent resistance or retaliation but love. That’s the message we hear Jesus preach in today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount: respond to one who is evil not with violent resistance but with generosity.
From the world’s perspective, this is one of the most impractical pieces of advice ever given. “Overcoming evil with good” sounds like a nice idea—until you see its results. Every once in a while you’ll see a clear case of success, like Gandhi’s nonviolent movement, but way more often in the face of evil, generous love will lead to vulnerability and hurt. When we respond to evil with love, evil seems to win. The beauty of the Paschal Mystery, however, is that every such victory for evil is a Pyrrhic victory. As Jesus died on the cross, I imagine Satan’s response: “Yes!” only to be followed a second later, when the meaning and consequence of Christ’s sacrifice becomes clear to him, with a “No!” And that happens every time we participate in Jesus’s continuing victory by showing generosity of love in the face of evil.
When Maximilian Kolbe offered himself to die at the hands of Nazis, evil had its way. And lost some of its power.
When Fr. Lucid, a Jesuit I met in Portland, refused to stay back with other chaplains during the Vietnam War and instead—though unarmed--demanded to be with his men as they were dying on the battlefield, and his own name was added to the list of the injured (making it one more than would have otherwise been), evil had its way. And lost some of its power.
When a classmate of mine at St. X, one year after our graduation, offered a late-night ride to two young men in need, and was car-jacked and murdered execution-style as a result of his generosity, evil had its way. And lost some of its power.
When a teacher spends an extra hour preparing for after-school tutoring for a student who doesn’t show up; when giving someone a second chance results in being taken advantage of, whenever our generosity makes us vulnerable in the face of evil, evil often still has its way. But it always, always loses some of its power.
Because of the redeeming power of the cross, despite everything our senses tell us, there is no victory for evil that strengthens it; likewise there is no such thing as a generosity that yields no results.
Inspired by the example of the One we receive today, let’s pray for the strength to live in such a way that others will say of us, “All he did was love!”