The hardest thing in the world, wrote Soren Kierkegaard a century and a half ago, is to be a Christian. Given the order of difficulties it involves, he said, I counsel you to flee from Christianity. But, alas, where will you flee to? There is no other alternative; so long as you remain human.
At the heart of the agonizing difficulty that Kierkegaard perceived is the specific teaching of Jesus, as included in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not resist evil”. We are, instead, to overcome evil with good.
I wonder how many of us bother to encounter the complexity of this teaching. Culturally and historically, we are conditioned to value resistance to evil as a sign of moral vitality. So, the instruction to not resist evil runs contrary to the grain of our moral conditioning. By refusing to resist evil, don’t we allow evil a free run? Or, as Edmund Burke said, don’t we aid and abet evil by default?
Well, one thing is clear; moral in- difference is no spiritual virtue. Jesus was anything but morally indifferent. So, in the teaching, ‘do not resist evil’, he was not recommending moral apathy. If Jesus were morally neutral and naively tolerant of evil, he would not have been crucified.
So, the teaching in its totality includes the teaching that we should ‘overcome’ evil; but must do so with good. To ‘overcome’ is to come over. It is to engage with the dynamics of evil from a plane higher than that of evil. It is to be, as Jesus puts it, ‘lambs among wolves’ (Mtt. 10:16).
First, what is the problem with resisting evil? A likely problem in ‘resisting’ evil is that it could involve a misunderstanding of evil -that evil is a reality in itself and, further, that evil as evil can be targeted. For anything to be targeted and eliminated, it must have independent and objective existence. A human person can be resisted, not his shadow. There is, besides, the additional problem of our misunderstanding evil. It is quite human to think that what does not t in with our understanding or the norms we have embraced, is evil. So, in the sphere of culture, suffering is deemed evil. But that is not the case in spirituality, where suffering is a state of blessedness; but is so, only if it is suffering for the sake of Jesus.
Most thinkers on evil -from Leibniz to Nicholai Berdyaevrelate the problem of evil to human freedom. A world free from evil will be a world of moral automatons, not human beings who are morally free. If Adam were not morally free he could not have fallen. But being unable to fall has no merit. It is no great thing to say, for example, that my computer is sinless.
So, a practical question that presents itself is: at what point are we to engage with the challenge of evil? Evil in its seed? Or, evil in its expression? It is clear enough that we have to engage with the reality of evil; for how else can we ‘overcome’ it? We don’t overcome anything by overlooking it.
As human beings we have limitations. The range of our moral choices and actions is limited by time and space. So, we cannot access the origin of evil and nip it in the bud. We cannot, for example, fight evil intentions in others.
Human self-expression, good or evil, cannot be and should not be choked. To punish on the basis of mere suspicion about anyone’s intention is to make oneself prone to serious outrages and injustices.
An instance of resisting evil with evil is found in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear, in a t of madness, sees a parish beadle whipping a prostitute for her immorality. Lear denounces his hypocrisy. What could have inspired this passage in Shakespeare is the teaching of Jesus to take out the beam in our eyes before we dare to see the mote in our brother’s eye. It is the evil in us that impels us, in this instance, to fight the evil in others. That can be only productive of more and greater evil.
But before we consider this question, here’s a necessary aside. The one thing that law, for all its majesty, is unable to do is to refrain from resisting evil with evil. It is the business of law to resist evil with commensurate evil. So, if someone takes the life of a fellow human being, the state will take his life. It is an eye for an eye. So, what is limpidly clear from the teach- ing of Jesus Christ is that we cannot stop at the level of law in our struggle against evil.
The preference to overcome evil, rather than resist it, arises out of the awareness, in part, that offenders are, in some sense, also victims. He who has no control over himself is the worst of all slaves. On the spiritual plane, victims and victimizers meet and recognize that they are neighbors. The victim realizes, “But for the grace of God, there go I…” That is why Jesus urges us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” But how can God deliver us from evil, so long as we continue to insist that the evil in us is good? Or that evil is only in others?
To be able to ‘overcome’ evil one has to shift one’s foundation from the flesh to the spirit. Darkness is overcome by light. One degree of darkness cannot overcome another degree of darkness. Only light can.
So, we are to engage with the reality of evil and not hide our heads in the sand of smugness. But we are to engage with it from a foundation paradigmatically different from its genius. In the mystery of God’s dispensation, only the lamb that can reach out to the wolf and make a dent on wolfishness.
But we live in a world organized entirely on the supremacy of law. So, law must have its way. But the Christian task does not end with a verdict pronounced by a judge. It begins thereafter. Whether or not that happens proves the mettle of our spiritual culture.