THE GREAT CONFLICT
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on September 28, 2014 (Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
– Daniel 7:9-14
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. 4Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
– Revelation 20:1-4
This fall I am doing a series of sermons on “Why I Believe” – some of the reasons I have come to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ and to be a minister of the gospel.
But today I am departing from that series. There have been some stories in the news recently that I thought required some comment from a faith perspective. A couple weeks ago I spoke briefly about the issue of domestic violence. Today I have decided to devote an entire sermon to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and the decision to use military forces in an effort to stop some of the terrorist groups causing violence there.
But one of the challenges I have found – and this may be a sign of the times – is that it seems like in the time that it takes to craft a thoughtful comment on events that are happening, the events change.
First of all, let me share what I have read and learned about what is happening. There are several terrorist groups that have been at work in that part of the world. It’s hard to keep track of them all: for a while there was al Qaeda – the group that planned the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and others around the world. Now there is ISIS/ISIL/IS (they can’t even seem to agree on a name) that wants to establish a new Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. There is also now a new group – the Khorason Group – that wants to carry out attacks here in the United States. I’m sure there are more groups we will hear about soon.
These are dangerous groups – they are using brutal violence against westerners, and against non-Muslims, and even against their own people whom they believe break their laws. It is crucial for us to understand that although these groups claim to be Muslim, they are radical extremists. They do not represent the vast majority of Muslims, who can be very peaceful and generous. There are Muslim leaders and people who even now are saying these folks are wrong, they are misinterpreting the teachings of Islam, they are dangerous, and they must be stopped. It is significant that countries participating in recent airstrikes against them include countries that are majority Muslim, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
(Read portion of today’s article from the Huffington Post)
As our nation’s leaders have tried to decide how to respond to the threats these groups pose, there have been some people in this country saying that we need to use our military troops to defeat them so they do not harm Americans here and abroad. I am not an expert in warfare. I never served in the military. But it seems to me that warfare in the 21st century is very different from wars that were fought last century and before, and I think there are a lot of people who haven’t understood that yet.
A century ago, wars were fought between nations, with armies that wore uniforms, under the command of officers. If you could defeat the enemy’s military, and capture or kill that nation’s leader, they might surrender. The war would end. On September 2, 1945, the Japanese foreign minister and the general of the Japanese armed forces signed a document of surrender, bringing an end to World War II.
When we went to war against Iraq in 2003, I think many people thought something similar would happen – the government led by Saddam Hussein would be defeated, and a new democratic government would be set up, and all of Iraq would be thankful. It didn’t work out that way.
These days the enemies we fight transcend national borders. There is little regard for differentiating between soldiers and civilians. Their armies don’t wear uniforms and they don’t have any supreme leaders who can give them orders or surrender for them. If they are temporarily defeated, they lie low until an opportune time and then strike again. If a leader is captured or killed, someone eventually steps in to replace them. The war never ends.
War has always been messy. Now it is even messier than ever. We may feel like we have to get involved in order to protect our country and our citizens, but once started, it is becoming more difficult to end a war with anything like a victory.
That’s my thoughts on armed conflict in general. Take it for what it’s worth. But as a spiritual leader, the thing that really worries me is when people start to talk about armed conflict or war as a campaign to defeat evil. That kind of talk may be effective at mobilizing support for war, but takes us from the realm of policy decisions into delusion.
The Christian faith – and others — have recognized the reality of evil in our world. It is in the news everyday! Both Christian and Jewish theology has maintained that evil is not a part of the world as God created it – everything that God made was good – but the result of human rebellious choice – sin.
But — as our scripture lessons that I chose for this morning illustrate — I can think of no stories in the Bible in which humans have been able to defeat or destroy evil. Only God and God’s divine helpers (like angels) can do that – and it will happen sometime in the future. There are stories in which God’s people have fought battles against their enemies, and sometimes they have been victorious against seemingly impossible odds – with God’s help. But no human army has ever defeated evil.
There is a story in which Jesus was tempted by the Devil for 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus was able to resist the Devil, but not defeat or destroy him. That day may come – in God’s good time – but it will not be any human army that accomplishes it.
The reality of our human existence is that all of us have both good and evil within us. Christian theologians have long taught the doctrine of original sin – that Adam and Eve sinned, and we have inherited their sinful nature like a virus in every generation since. It is a doctrine that has been rightfully criticized in recent years, but which still conveys great truth. There is no person who is all good; we all have both good and evil within us. That is partly what the story of Noah and the flood teaches – even the very best person on earth and his family still got themselves into trouble after the flood was over. That is what Jesus meant when he objected to being called “Good Teacher.” Jesus replied, “No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17)
Some of the most horrific crimes in human history have been committed when people have seen evil in other persons, but not in themselves, and then used violence to try to eliminate those so-called evil persons. For now, the best we can hope for is to try to restrain people from carrying out their violent, destructive campaigns.
The great conflict between good and evil takes place within our own souls. We cannot destroy the evil in ourselves, and only God gives us the power to resist it and not let it control us.
Even if we could identify evil somewhere “out there”, we cannot defeat it because it cannot be destroyed with human weapons of violence and force. Instead, evil constantly morphs into new forms. All the wars that have ever been fought in the name of ridding evil from the world, and we are still threatened, because it keeps coming back in new disguises.
And when we try to defeat evil by violent means, we run the very real risk of becoming evil ourselves. Theologian Walter Wink has pointed out, when we hate people and use violence against them because we think they are evil, there is the danger of becoming what we hate. In our effort to defeat enemies who use brutal violence and torture, we have used brutal violence and torture. Of course, we are careful not to call it torture – but then, neither do they. When soldiers are ordered to fight against people who do terrible things, they often find themselves witnessing and even getting caught up in terrible things themselves. And the trauma they suffer in distant places comes home with them — if they are fortunate enough to come home.
One of the reasons I desire to be a follower of Jesus Christ is that he chose a different path for confronting evil in the world. He gave himself to God’s will. He resisted evil with love and faith. And even though he seemed to all the world to be defeated and destroyed when he was crucified, he made known the power of God in the resurrection. I hope for the day when we will learn from him a better way. But even if we do, I don’t see it becoming a part of our national foreign policy.
For now, my hope is that at least we will not fool ourselves into thinking that going to war against violent people is some noble effort to eliminate evil from the world. I fear it may be the best we can do in a messy, sinful world made up of very imperfect people. For now, the strategy our leaders have chosen to follow seems to be one of cutting off the funding for these extremist groups, and closing the pipeline of new recruits going to fight with them. Efforts are being made to build a broad coalition of countries who are taking part in the effort. I pray that we will find a way to at least reduce the amount of suffering and death that might otherwise take place – perhaps that is the best we can hope for.
But, as one person who studies international conflict has observed, even if we might temporarily defeat or contain a dangerous group like ISIS, our military efforts don’t do anything about changing the economic and political and justice issues that gave rise to them in the first place. And that means we will probably face violent evil again – in another form – sometime soon.
For me, the great conflict between good and evil is one that takes place within my own soul. And until I can recognize, and confess the evil within me, and allow God to heal it and transform it, I have no business trying to eliminate evil in others. I think that is what Jesus meant when he said,
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
I don’t think that means that when evil happens in our world it is none of our business. We do the best we can in the face of evil to say, “This is wrong.” We do what we can to protect the innocent and limit the damage. But I think we do it while also trying to understand what gives rise to violence, and to ask what part have we played in causing injustice and desperation.
Can we learn and model a different way?
Robert J. von Trebra