“The problem is part of the solution,” Richard Rohr tells us.
Jesus was fully at home with a tragic sense of life. He lived, died, and rose inside it. Jesus’ ability to find a higher order inside constant disorder is the very heart of his message—and why true Gospel, as rare as it might be, still heals and renews all that it touches.[i]
There’s something hopeful here, I think, in Rohr’s insight—especially in these days when we are so attuned to political and social unease, to the distress of recent natural disasters and human suffering moving almost as if in slow motion.
Moses finds himself before the bush because God is fully at home with a tragic sense of life. God has seen the misery of the people of another time.
Paul seems to have understood this in Romans. Evil, hatred, persecution are all a part of the familiar landscape of the early church in Rome and true religion. There is no denial of it—things are rough. But there is also engagement with it, a way out, even: “Bless those who persecute you… Weep with those who weep.”[ii] The one that caught me this time around was a little farther down Paul’s list: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them…”[iii]
I suspect one of the big mistakes we have made in the church is that we mistake permissiveness for goodness. We let abuse go unchecked because we are supposed to love. So churches sometimes get overrun by people who are looking for a place to exert power. In the small things, this leads to centers of church power that effectively shut out those who are most hungry for living out the gospel. They come to see that there is no room for them.
In the worst cases, it leads to all sorts of trauma and abuse, including the clergy abuse that all churches and particularly the Catholic church is still learning to face.
Of course, Jesus, who was, as Rohr says it, “fully at home with a tragic sense of life,” had no illusions about the church of his day, and the way power had deformed it. So we read in today’s gospel reading of Jesus preparing his followers for what was coming—that he would endure great suffering at the hands of the church and its leaders. The very ones who are called to point toward God and to support God’s Kingdom would be the ones to turn against him.
I suppose that’s why the story of Al Letson caught my attention this week. Letson, who hosts the NPR program Reveal, an investigative news program, made news recently himself—something journalists are taught never to do. He was in Berkeley covering the “Rally Against Hate” last Sunday when he witnessed a man being attacked by a group of protesters. The man was balled up on the ground, fending off blows. Letson jumped in front of the mob and lay on the man, creating a shield to protect him from the abuse.
“I was scared they were going to kill him, Letson said. “So the only thing I could think was I wanted to get on top of him to protect him.”[iv] What is perhaps most remarkable about the story is that the man who was being beaten was a white supremacist and had likely taunted his abusers. And Letson is African American.
Bless those who persecute you…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In an interview after the event, Letson recalled what shaped him. “You know, I mean this sounds really high-minded and maybe a little nutty,” he said,
but I am a huge NPR nerd, and many years ago I was listening to Terry Gross and father Greg Boyle was on there, and he gave this quote that has just stuck with me ever since. He said, "I want to live like the truth is true, and go where love has not been found." And it's how I want to govern myself in the world.
Let me repeat Boyle’s quote: I want to live like the truth is true, and go where love has not been found.
"21“Do not be overcome by evil,” Paul says in Romans, “but overcome evil with good.”
And Jesus tells his followers, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
We have no way to know how Letson’s selfless act will affect this white supremacist, but the man, who is Keith Campbell, a video blogger with a conservative YouTube channel called Patriot Warrior Media, reached out to Letson after the attack.
“I wanted to reach out to Al,” he said. “It’s incredible what he did.”
Now I am not naïve enough to assume Campbell will somehow change his life overnight if at all, but it does seem to be the consensus of the scriptures that this kind of generosity, this going to where love has not been found, is the only thing that will ultimately change anyone’s heart.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
My daughter Claire, who stuns me again and again with her clarity of insight and principled life, posted something on Instagram this week about an incident in a store. She has given me permission to share it with you.
She was shopping at Home Depot to buy some things for a project she was working on—actually for a birthday present for her mother, although she doesn’t mention that in the post. She writes “an older man smiled at me, I smiled back.” But what she shared next shows that this pleasant exchange quickly turned as his actions grew inappropriate:
He kept smiling at me while continuing to walk in front of me then got close to me and said in a hushed tone, “you know you're extremely gorgeous?” Feeling super uncomfortable I told him that was kind and tried to quickly walk away while he continued to say things like “Oh I can't be the first one to say that to you.”
She removed herself from him and continued to look for what she needed, but soon found herself near him again. As she turned to walk away, she heard,
There's my beautiful girl", then [he] asked "You wanna be my girl, sweetheart?" I kindly said no and walked away, left the store without the things I needed, and cried in my car. I can't even begin to explain how belittling something like this is. How ridiculously infuriating it is that I have come to expect interactions like this happen to me on a daily basis. And how often this happens to women in general.
Claire’s point, is of course true. This happens to women all the time, and it is a heartbreak worthy of further conversation. But this is not what struck me the most. It’s what she said next, as she referred to the picture she had posted along with the story, and turned away from the evil she had encountered in this moment in the Home Depot and toward the good she had seen elsewhere—some men in her life, friends and the like, who act differently, and who testify to her resilience. Despite an infuriating and heart-breaking encounter, she turned to love.
Or as Paul says it in Romans, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”[v]
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I happen to be one of the people in that picture. And there are times when I live up to the compliment she gave me and that beautiful group of men. And there are times that I don’t. But this I know: as I read her post in all its vulnerability and heartbreak, in all its strength and resilience, and in all its principled, self-giving love, it enlarged my heart. It changed me. It made me want to be a better man, a better disciple, as I believe all acts of love do, as happens whenever we live like the truth is true and go where love has not been found.
The problem, you see, is part of the solution. This is the way of God. It has always been so. It always will be.
[i] “Cosmic Forgiveness.” Center for Action and Contemplation newsletter, Friday, September 1, 2017.
[ii] Romans 12:14-15.
[iii] Romans 12:20.
[iv] See “Reveal host Al Letson shields man from beating at anti-hate rally.” Accessed September 1, 2017 at: https://www.revealnews.org/blog/reveal-host-al-letson-shields-man-from-beating-at-anti-hate-rally/.
[v] Romans 12:17.