The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
I’m not a comic book superhero aficionado. But over the years, because I love my husband, and I am admittedly entertained by the temporary escape into a fantastical world, I have humored him and watched the seemingly endless stream of blockbuster movies and television shows about yet another superhero. They’re all fun and entertaining, but I confess, I feel no investment or gravitas in their quests. With one exception: the Netflix series Daredevil. As a priest, I found this character captivating. Blinded and orphaned at a young age, he’s taken in by a local Roman Catholic church and convent, raised by the nuns and priests there, and grows up a devout Roman Catholic. His superhero powers come from training his other four senses to be extremely heightened, but for me, his intrigue as a character comes from his internal struggle with good and evil. Like many superheroes, he works as a vigilante, bringing down the bad guys who evade the long arm of the law. And because he does this by way of physical violence, he finds himself turning to the sacrament of confession regularly, struggling with his morality, asking a priest for forgiveness for the bad things he has done, or knows he is about to do — for the sake of the good.
I couldn’t help but be invested in Matt Murdock/ Daredevil’s inner conflict as he grappled with what is good and what is evil; what is righteous, and what is sinful; who gets to play judge and jury to the actions of others, and what justice looks like. What makes a person an enemy, and how we respond to their wrongdoing.
Daredevil explored a complicated question: Is it OK — and does God think it’s OK — achieve good by means of evil? Is it holy to right a wrong by doing wrong in return?
In the world of comic books and fantasy, where you can neatly separate people into simple categories of “good guy” or “bad guy,” the answer was easy: yes, of course it’s okay. The goal is to get the bad guy. And good guys do what they need to in order to get the bad guy.
But in the real world, people don’t always fit into such neat categories.
And the Bible doesn’t give us the answer a vigilante might hope for.
In fact, the Bible seems to offer a pretty strong opposing argument:
Take, for example, Joseph’s embrace of his murderous, traitorous brothers. It’s a shame we don’t read the entire story of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and only get the tail end of it today, but hopefully this is a story you all know—a story about extreme betrayal and remarkable forgiveness.
Or these words from Psalm 37: Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
St. Paul, in another letter, his letter to the Romans, says “do not return evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.”
And Jesus’ words today: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”
The Bible sure seems to suggest that in our world, it’s not our job to put anyone in the “bad guy” box, let alone decide their fate.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
But what about when there really is a bad guy? What about when true evil has been done?
Do these words hold up if they were spoken to, say, an enslaved person being beaten for not working fast enough under a hot summer sun? What if they were told to my great-grandmother as she was marched to her death through the Ottoman desert? Or to the victim of sexual or racial violence?
The Bible has a lot to say about that, too:
For example, the prophet Isaiah reminds God’s people what God desires:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
The prophet Jeremiah says: Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. (22:3)
Or Jesus, cleansing the temple of the people conducting shady business there, turning over their tables and running them out.
After all, as the prophet Micah reminds us: what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?
It can seem like “loosening the chains of injustice” and speaking out against evil can stand in direct opposition to “judge not lest ye be judged.” Even Jesus’ own life can leave us confused. When an armed mob came for him in the Garden of Gethsemane, he did not fight back, told his disciples to lay their swords down, even healing the soldier’s ear that Peter cut off… but he also stormed into the temple, turned over tables, and let his rage take flight when he witnessed sinful behavior.
So which is it? Are we supposed to reject evil and stand up to injustice, or are we not supposed to stand in judgment of anything?
During this Black History month, I’ve been reflecting on the writings of Bayard Rustin, who introduced the method of nonviolence resistance to Martin Luther King, Jr. and organized the March on Washington. He had such a clear vision of the way nonviolence would change the world. It’s almost like he was guided by our Collect this morning: “without love whatever we do is worth nothing.” His movement of nonviolent resistance employed God’s unbounded love to confront the evils of racism.
Unfortunately, as an openly gay man, he was unable to stay on the front lines of the fight for civil rights — LGBTQ+ rights were still several decades away. But his impact on the civil rights movement reaches far and wide. And his stories about using nonviolent resistance in his everyday life — despite the frequent attacks he endured — are awe-inspiring. His capacity to love had superhero strength.
The nonviolent resistance movement take this question — whether we should stand up to injustice, or not stand in judgment of anyone — and says, yes. You must do both. In a speech, Rustin says:
“[W]e must remember that we cannot hope to achieve democracy and equality in such a way that would destroy the very kind of society which we hope to build. If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end. If we desire a society in which men are brothers, then we must act towards one another with brotherhood. If we can build such a society, then we would have achieved the ultimate goal of human freedom.”
Rustin knew that it was not holy to right a wrong with another wrong. And he also knew it was holy to name injustice whenever he experienced or witnessed it. He trusted in Jesus’ words: the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
He spoke truth but did not condemn. He found the difference between naming evil and doing evil in return.
In the examples Jesus gives: bless those who curse you, turn the other cheek, give your shirt if someone steals your coat…. In Jesus’ time, these would have been unheard of responses to that kind of wrongdoing. To us, it kind of sounds like he’s asking us to be a doormat. But In the social codes of his day, this kind of response would have completely disempowered and embarrassed the perpetrator. It was the original path of nonviolent resistance.
Loving our enemies is not weakness. It is the daring proclamation of the kingdom of God.
“Without love whatever we do is worth nothing.” Loving those who love you so easy, even the bad guys can do it. Our faith asks us: How far does your love extend? Does it extend only to those who reciprocate? Can it extend farther?
Summoning that kind of love may require superhero strength. And in this world, it is the only thing that will save us.