When I was a young and living in the holy city of Teaneck, New Jersey, one of my favorite comedians was Flip Wilson. In 1974 he had his own TV show â€” The Flip Wilson Show â€” and even won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Variety series that year. My favorite â€” and his most famous recurring persona â€” was Geraldine Jones. Geraldine was played as a sassy, liberated Southern African American woman who was coarsely flirty yet faithful to her (always unseen) boyfriend "Killer." Poorly educated, she was nevertheless confident; she did not change her behavior to suit anyone. Several of Geraldine's sayings entered U.S. popular culture as catchphrases. You might recognize some of them: "When you're hot, you're hot; when you're not, you're not." "What you see is what you get!" and my absolute favorite, "The Devil made me do it.â€ť In my earlier, less woke days, my impression of Geraldine was as good as Flipâ€™s. Every so often, my wife still asks, â€śwhereâ€™s â€śKiller,â€ť and I reply with my next favorite Geraldine line: â€śWhen Killer was born, his parents left town.â€ť
As I said, in those days I was less woke like just about everyone else in my generation and I
thought that texts like todayâ€™s Gospel â€” texts which personified Evil â€” were the product of an unsophisticated mind and had little to no currency. In fact, I thought any talk about Evil as an independent force in the world was naĂŻve â€” even â€śstupid.â€ť I used to join in the well-intentioned speculation that there must be something in a personâ€™s early life that caused them to act maliciously. Nature, nurture, a little of each, or both? What happened â€” or as weâ€™ll hear at the end of this month â€” â€śwho sinned, his father or his mother?â€ť â€” to inflict a Charles Manson, Osama Ben Laden, Timothy McVeigh, George Zimmerman or Dylan Roof on us? You probably asked those questions too. Maybe, you still do.
But for the most part, I think weâ€™ve come to the reluctant conclusion over the past 15 or 16 years â€” and particularly over the past 15 or 16 months â€” that Evil as an independent, malevolent force in the world is real; maybe not as an independent, sentient being, but nevertheless very real. Few are laughing anymore. Paris, Nice, Gaza, Mumbai; Aleppo; vicious fundamentalist terrorists â€” Muslims, always in the news, Christians, Jews and Hindus always under the
surface; resurgent Nazis; surging racist, sexist, nativist violence â€” just to name a few â€” have made it clear that Evil has been unleashed in our world; that Evil is ubiquitous; and that especially among us, Evil now has been public license, granted from the highest authorities, to spew its venom without restraint. Now we see that what once was derided as â€śpolitical correctnessâ€ť was instead the tight lid of civility keeping Pandoraâ€™s Box closed and shut. Today the ancient apostolic warning, â€śBe sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devourâ€ť â€” famously paraphrased in the â€śpublic service announcement â€śIf you see something, say somethingâ€ť â€” doesnâ€™t seem so quaint anymore. Try as we might to explain our current reality away, we now know from daily experience: Evil, in a thousand different shapes and sizes, ideologies and forms, is loose and rampant in our world and that the whole of Evil is greater than the sum of its parts. In a Nation whose Supreme Court just a few years ago personified corporations, personifying Evil, calling it â€śSatanâ€ť or â€śthe Devil,â€ť no longer seems far-fetched. Unlike Jesus, we do not need to be led into the wilderness to find it.
Given the Evil we currently experience, our faith and our collective historical experience identify four immensely dangerous responses:
The first is to ignore it and hope it goes away; â€śGive it a chance,â€ť is the current buzzword.
The second is to fear it, as if Evil and its power to coerce is the ultimate word.
The third is to attempt to use evilâ€™s strategy and tactics to defeat it to, as some say, â€śfight fire with fire.â€ť
And the fourth is the most dangerous:
To allow Evilâ€™s persistence to go un-remarked and un-checked and reap the results of what Susan Arendt once labeled â€śthe Banality of Evil,â€ť allowing it to become commonplace, ordinary, acceptable, and ignorableâ€” as it did in Nazi Germany 80 some years ago. In case you are missing it, thatâ€™s the danger is the one that most animates me.
Today in the Gospel, then throughout Lent and especially on Good Friday, Jesus show us a yet
more excellent way. Here within this assembly of the faithful, through the outpouring the Holy Spirit through the Word proclaimed and the Meal consumed, Jesus gives us faith and courage to do it.
The Gospels tell us that, just like us, Jesus encountered the power of evil virtually every day of his life and ministry; and all these account illustrate Jesusâ€™ one habitual response whenever that occurred: his steadfast refusal to allow his sense of mission to be influenced by concern for his safety or mere practical concerns. His is an example of what the whole Church, and specifically this parish community, must strive to follow. The Gospels outline a pattern for us to do this.
First, Jesus confronts Evil directly and makes no attempt to avoid that confrontation. In the wilderness, Jesus did not have the luxury to avoid this. In our wilderness, the one labeled 2017; we do not have that luxury either.
Second, Jesus names it, not with one term, but in three different ways: The tempter; the devil, Satan â€“ names for evil conceived as a personal
will actively hostile to God. Naming it is precisely what we must strive to do also â€” many of us learned that at our antiracism training last weekend. Prejudice must be named, not excused. Racism â€” the result of prejudice and the misuse of power â€” must be rooted out of our systems, not excused as the only practical way to be. Hatred of others, springing fully grown from faithless fear, must be addressed in its every expression; politeness is not an option in toxic times like these. The list goes on and on, we get the picture.
Third, Jesus silences Evil, with grace, not threat; with non-violence, not force; with the truth of wideness of Godâ€™s love rather than with fact or â€śalternative fact.â€ť
Finally, Jesus does not succumb to the temptation â€” a real and present temptation for us â€” that if he or his disciples take control all will be good and just and right. Jesus does not offer Evil an alternative party or person. Jesus offers the world an alternative vision: the kingdom of heaven on earth as in heaven.
At the font, at this table, in the Word proclaimed
and in the community that is created around water, Word and Meal, Jesusâ€™ vision â€” the kingdom of heaven on earth as in heaven â€” is our communal experience, an experience Christ gives us as a template for the living of these days. More than a template, it is Godâ€™s Promise; a Promise we can sing about; a Promise we can depend upon; a Promise on which we can creatively shape all of life â€” in the Church, the city and the world. â€śThe kingdomâ€™s ours forever. When we trust that; when we act on that, Pandoraâ€™s Box will be closed again and â€śthe devil made me do itâ€ť will once again be a laughing matter.