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Hope in the midst of evil

I recently spent several days on retreat with the group of bloggers associated with the Living Church Foundation, which seeks to serve the faith of the one Church and to promote visible Christian unity throughout the world. We gathered in the Diocese of Central Florida at Canterbury Retreat Center in Oviedo, just outside of Orlando. It was a wonderful time of fellowship, prayer, and discussion.

After having such a delightful time, I was absolutely stunned to return home and hear the news of what happened so near to where we had our retreat. A lone gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in an Orlando nightclub. It’s been called the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in American history.

And then less than four weeks later, a gunman ambushed police officers in Dallas during an otherwise peaceful protest, killing five and wounding seven others in the deadliest attack on law enforcement since the horrific events of 9/11. It was a well-coordinated act of murderous violence.

Outrage about the recent police shootings of African-American men in Baton Rouge and St. Paul appears to have motivated the Dallas shootings, or at least provided the opportunity for them. We do not know what was in the hearts and minds of the officers involved in those incidents. The proper authorities will have to investigate and make a determination of what justice requires. But we do know that the loss of life in these cases is a gut-wrenching tragedy for the family and friends of the deceased, and a painful reminder that we live in a fallen and broken world in which people cry out for justice, peace, and healing.

Episcopalians have repeatedly promised in our Baptismal Covenant to “persevere in resisting evil,” “to seek and serve Christ in all persons,” and to “respect the dignity of every human being” (1979 BCP, pp. 304-05); we do well to pause and prayerfully reflect on the enormity of this tragedy. Imagine the thousands of people whose lives have been forever changed by what happened to their loved ones. We must continue to pray for those who died, for those who mourn, for those who were injured, and for those who care for them. Pray that the love of Christ may bring hope and healing. Pray that each of us may be agents of healing and reconciliation in our communities.

One word has kept coming into my mind since the shootings, a word we don’t hear very often in Episcopal Church circles and that isn’t addressed from many Episcopal pulpits. And that word is demonic. When faced with the calculating and cold-blooded evil of premeditated murder, it’s hard to describe it in any other way.

When we turn to the Bible, we discover that the authors of the New Testament are not shy about describing the world we live in as one corrupted by demonic forces. Over and over again in the Gospels, we encounter people who are held captive to evil powers beyond their control. We encounter people whose lives have been wrecked by the demonic.

The Gospel reading on the Sunday after the Orlando shootings offered a striking example.

Jesus and his disciples crossed over the Sea of Galilee into Gentile territory. The first person they encountered was a very strange and tragic figure. Luke tells us that the man was possessed by many demons. Robbed of his right mind and enslaved to the power of darkness, this man lived naked in the town cemetery, completely shunned by a society that had given up on restraining him.

One can only imagine the depths of loneliness and hopelessness this man suffered. No doubt that’s why, in Mark’s version of the story, we’re told that “day and night he wandered among the tombs and through the hills, screaming and cutting himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). What a pitiful and degrading existence!

When Jesus encountered this man, he immediately confronted the demons head on, ordering them to leave. Jesus was moved with compassion for this man. And out of his great love and desire to end his suffering, Jesus set him free from bondage to the demonic.

In the Gospels, Jesus frequently confronts and exorcizes demons (e.g., Luke 4:31-37, 9:37-43, 11:14-28; Mark 7:24-30), most often with a few words and to the astonishment of onlookers, sometimes without even meeting the demon-possessed person.

These stories seems strange to us, as we inhabit a culture so very different from 1st-century Palestine. Not many people in our scientifically and technologically sophisticated world believe in demons anymore.

But regardless of whether we believe in literal demons, it’s not hard to see that evil runs amok in our world, corrupting, enslaving, and destroying God’s creatures. War, racism, slavery, concentration camps, genocide, mass shootings, terrorism, addictions: the list of the many ways that evil corrupts and destroys could go on and on.

And yet there is good news in the midst of it all. For our Christian faith tells us that when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, when we fell under the power of demonic forces that sought to enslave and destroy us, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. In his infinite love and mercy, God sent the one who is close to his heart. God sent his only and beloved son, Jesus Christ.

God sent Jesus out of love for every single human being, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what they’ve done or left undone. God sent Jesus to free us from demonic, dehumanizing, and destructive forces. He sent him to bring hope and healing. He sent him to overcome hatred with love and death with life. He sent him to make all things new.

The good news is that a power greater than evil and hatred has come into the world. And that power is nothing less than the love of God made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The powers of evil, hatred, and death did their best to destroy Jesus, even conspiring to get him executed on a cross. And Jesus took it all upon himself — all of the pain and suffering, all of the hatred and violence, all of the darkness and destruction this fallen world can dish out — and by rising from the grave he transformed all of it into the light of eternal life. As St. John tells us, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The kingdom of God has come near to us in Jesus Christ. That is the message our world so desperately needs to hear. It’s a message of freedom for those enslaved by addictions or by any other demonic or degrading power. It’s a message of healing for those suffering from heartbreak or disease. It’s a message of hope for those who have lost loved ones. It’s a message of justice for those whose lives have been damaged by greed, exploitation, or violence. And it’s a message of love for those who don’t believe themselves worthy of anyone’s time, care, and attention.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom. We are called to share the love of Jesus with a broken and hurting world. We are called to stand in solidarity with the victims of violence and injustice.

We have promised to persevere in resisting evil. We do well to keep that promise as best we can, even as we acknowledge that we cannot put an end to every evil that happens in our world. But we can proclaim the message that there is one who loves us so much that he can and will. In fact, he’s already won the decisive battle by shattering the prison of the grave. He died. He rose from the dead. And he will come again to put all things right.

The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge. His other posts are here. He also blogs at Creedal Christian.

The featured image is “Hope” (2011) by Steve Snodgrass. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


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