Proverbs 24:28-29 February 2, 2003
Ephesians 6:10-17 Byron C. Bangert
A couple weeks ago I had decided that I would title my sermon this morning "A Tale of Two Towers." You see, my wife, Hayden, and I had just gone to the movies to see the second installment in Tolkien's epic story of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, as brought to the screen by director Peter Jackson. "The Two Towers" is a good movie--actually better than good--and it touches on themes that seem particularly relevant for our time. There are actually three plots interwoven in the movie, each absorbingly portrayed, each with its own climax. The effect of each is compelling. Reviewer Steve Vineberg writes in THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY,
Emotionally . . , the structure is powerful; the themes play back and forth across the narrative, linking displays of courage, loyalty and selflessness while giving glints of temptation and treachery. It feels like one story, an essential story that the ages haven't eroded: the story of the fight for humanity to keep alive the sacred spark. And it's a complex story, because it illustrates that both that spark and the shadow of darkness lie in every heart. [January 11, 2003, 39]
The story is a complex one, and it does portray the moral ambiguity of the human condition, the
darkness that is ever-present, always threatening to over-shadow and destroy the good.
A major feature of the story, however, seems to fail in this regard. If there is a center of gravity
to "The Two Towers," it is the battle for the heavily fortified refuge, built into the mountains,
called Helm's Deep. The people of Rohan have retreated there with their king. The main
protagonist in this strand of the story is Lord Aragorn. With his compatriots, the elf Legolas and
the dwarf Gimli, Aragorn joins the king of Rohan in preparing his people for battle. Arrayed
against them are the forces that have been raised up out of a seething cauldron in the ground by
the evil Saruman at Isengard. They number 10,000 strong. There is nothing subtle or morally
ambiguous about this battle. The legions of Isengard appear as nothing more than heartless
beasts and ferocious monsters. They march relentlessly, mechanically, inexorably, across the
plain, like an undistractible army of red ants set to destroy their prey.
In short, the battle of Helm's Deep is portrayed as a cosmic battle of good against evil. The good
may be less than perfectly good, but the evil is absolutely and perfectly evil. As the battle is
about to commence, Lord Aragorn exhorts his compatriots, "Show no mercy, for the enemy will
show you no mercy." Before that moment comes, however, we see Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and
the king dressing for battle. We see chain mail and breastplate being put on; we see shinguards
being tied in place; we see the king pulling down his helmet; we see Aragorn tightening his belt;
we see swords and other weapons being wielded and tested. All the preparations are being made
for violence, mayhem, and destruction.
Reflecting on this scene, I could not help but think of our nation's current preparations for war.
No, we are not about to be besieged, and we are not threatened with an overwhelming force. But
the sense that there is an unavoidable battle to be fought against a force of unrelenting evil is very
much alive. The enemy appears to be a monster. The battle is construed in more or less cosmic
terms. Unlike the Gulf War of 12 years ago, unlike our nation's military interventions in Kosovo
and even Afghanistan, there is hardly any talk of just war, or justified war. The fact is, this war
can hardly be construed in terms that can be justified on traditional just war principles. And so it
must be envisioned more or less as a holy war, a war that authorizes a God-blessed America to
wage battle against the forces of evil, personified in Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, as holy wars
go, it is a problematic war. Saddam Hussein may be evil incarnate, but it is terribly difficult to
portray his armies as equally monstrous, and quite impossible to regard the people of Iraq in such
Reflecting on the battle of Helm's Deep in "The Two Towers," I was also reminded of our New
Testament text from the book of Ephesians. Ordinarily, the use of military imagery in scripture
makes me quite uneasy. It is so easy to misappropriate such imagery, to take it out of context, to
employ it in the service of a militant Christianity and a presumably Christian militarism. I once
overheard a member in a previous congregation, a man who had fought in World War II, describe
how his unit would sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" before going into battle. I can understand
such use of biblical military imagery, but I cannot celebrate it.
Notice carefully what is said in our text from Ephesians. It is a call to do battle against evil. Evil
is understood in spiritual if not cosmic terms. But just so, it is not understood in human terms.
That is to say, the battle is not against other human beings. "Put on the whole armor of God, so
that you may be able to stand . . . against the spiritual forces of evil." "Fasten the belt of truth
around your waist . . ." "Put on the breastplate of righteousness." Shod your feet with
"whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace." "Take the shield of faith . . ."
"Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God." This is a
call to battle, but it is not a call to arms! The great battle to be waged is not against flesh and
blood. It is a battle against evil. And note, it is not a battle to destroy evil. It is to stand against,
to withstand, to stand firm. It seems to me that it makes all the difference in the world whether
we think it is our calling to stand against evil, or to destroy it. To destroy it is not in our power.
We are not called to violence or destruction. Instead of the sword that kills we have the sword of
the spirit, the spirit that gives life.
Now, I confess that even this text from Ephesians makes me a bit uneasy. For it reflects a
metaphysical worldview in which there are hostile "supernatural" spiritual beings and powers. It
is not at all evident to me that there are such beings or powers. But it is evident to me that there
are systems and structures of evil that are very much a part of our human condition. There are
principalities and powers that arise out of our corporate human existence, and that exercise a
pervasive and insidiously evil influence upon us. These principalities and powers take on a kind
of life of their own. They skew our perceptions, they play upon our prejudices and fears, they
insinuate themselves into our hearts, they set us against one another. We know many of these as
one form of "ism" or another--nationalism, racism, sexism, classism, communism, terrorism,
capitalism--the list could go on and on. Against the systems and structures that threaten to
dominate and destroy our spirits, against the principalities and powers, we need precisely what
Ephesians prescribes: truth, righteousness, faith, the gospel of peace, that salvation that makes us
healthy and whole.
Which brings me to the title that I did finally choose for this morning's sermon. In the 12th
chapter of Romans, the apostle Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome regarding how they are to
live as people of God in Christ. Here is how he begins this passage: "Let love be genuine; hate
what is evil, hold fast to what is good" [12:9]. Three exhortations, carefully juxtaposed. I take it
there is nothing accidental about these words. Paul is not simply stringing together some ideas.
The thought here is all of a piece. One cannot love and be indifferent to evil and good. One
cannot love and make no moral distinctions at all. Genuine love is not sentimentality, or
hypocrisy. Paul means precisely to say that a genuine love will hate what is evil. But a genuine
love will also hold fast to what is good.
Yes, we are to hate the evil. And there is little doubt that Saddam Hussein is a man who is
capable of enormous evil. If the reports about him are even half true, he is a sadistic, cruel, and
brutal dictator who intends to leave his mark on history. He has committed monstrous acts. But
he is not the first such person in human history, and--unless we all somehow manage to destroy
ourselves--he will not be the last. It seems that the world would be better off without him,
though we can hardly be sure what would take his place. Our nation's military forces may be
able to remove him from power, but we can hardly destroy all the evil that he has come to
embody and represent. We may rightly hate much of what Saddam Hussein has done and is
doing. We should not be naive or sentimental about the claims of love in our dealings with such
a man and his government. But how are we to go about holding fast to what is good?
Let me take us back for a moment to September 11, 2001. A great evil was perpetrated on that
day. As a nation we were stunned, we grieved, we mourned, and we got angry. It was not hard
to hate the evil that was done. And yet it was problematic hating the evildoers. Those who had
directly committed the crimes that resulted in four airline crashes, the destruction of the Twin
Towers in New York and the damage to the Pentagon, and the loss of over 3,000 lives, were
themselves all dead. Soon, however, it was determined that Osama bin Laden was the real villain
of the piece. Now, 17 months later, Afghanistan has been rid of the Taliban, but the world has
not been rid of al Qaida, and bin Laden apparently remains at large. It is estimated that 3,500
Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. military operations ["World-Watch," Nov.-Dec. 2002].
Long-standing civil rights and liberties have been compromised here at home. We are back to
huge federal budget deficits and all kinds of craziness in domestic economic policy. Yes, air
travel is probably safer than it has ever been. But the world is hardly a safer place, and we must
wonder whether anything is really being done to make it so.
What does it mean to hold fast to what is good? The great temptation, of course, is to fight fire
with fire, to meet violence with violence, to "do to others as they have done" to us [Prov. 24:29],
to return evil for evil. Jesus had something to say about this, and it was not an endorsement of
such practices. Some of the greatest ills in human history have been perpetrated in the name of
trying to root out evil. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr claimed that the prevailing human
tendency is to practice what he called "defense ethics," or the "ethics of survival." "With our
ethics of self-defense or survival," wrote Niebuhr, "we come to each particular occasion with the
understanding that the world is full of enemies though it contains some friends. Hence we
respond to all actions upon us with an evaluatory scheme: beings are either good or evil; they
belong to the class of things that ought to be or those that ought not to be. And ultimately the
distinction between them has to be made by reference to the way they support or deny our life,
whether this be our physical or spiritual or social existence" [THE RESPONSIBLE SELF, 99].
This means, among other things, that we tend to see matters, not as they are, but as they favor our
way of being, our preferred self-understanding, our presumed interests. There is a saying,
familiar among journalists, that truth is the first casualty of war. It might also be said that truth is
imperiled in all our conflicts, in all those circumstances where we see others as set over against
us, on all those occasions when we perceive our own interests to be at risk. Holding fast to what
is good means fastening that belt of truth around the waist, doing all that one can to see matters
clearly, recognizing that the world is a morally ambiguous place and that there is nothing in our
own lives that escapes that moral ambiguity. The evil we need to resist is in ourselves, no less
than in those we regard as enemies.
The truth, of course, is often painful, and it cannot be counted on to serve our own perceived self-interests. Virtually absent from the current public discussion about going to war against Iraq is
any acknowledgment of the role that the United States played in Iraq prior to 1991. In his book,
SPIDER'S WEB, Alan Friedman provides a documented account of how the Reagan and former
Bush administrations illegally armed Iraq. Just as our government had a hand in the promotion
of bin Laden and the creation of the Taliban, so it had a hand in Hussein's acquisition of power.
The man now regarded as the personification of evil was once regarded as an instrument of U.S.
foreign policy in the Middle East, a secular counterforce to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in
places like Iran. The truth is that we would not be in the situation we are in today were it not for
many previous and failed efforts to counter perceived evils without holding fast to what is good.
It is a lesson that people and nations have been perilously slow to learn.
Holding fast to what is good also means doing justice, seeking peace, and keeping faith with the
best that we know. We live in a dangerous world, but we must not succumb to our fears. Evil is
real, but it is no excuse for further injustice. Some people are not to be trusted, but that is no
warrant for our own deceptions. I have long been an opponent of the death penalty, and not just
because we know that sometimes mistakes are made. And not because I believe there are no
criminals deserving of death. It is simply that I believe there is another and better way to uphold
life than to kill, a way that does not diminish our own existence, a way that does not place us in
the position of passing final judgment on another human being. Holding fast to what is good
means seeking creative alternative ways to respond to evil, to resist evil, and to embody the
gospel of peace.
If all the current efforts to avert violence should fail and the war that is threatened should come
to pass, there will still be many ways to hold fast to what is good. When the United States last
went to war against Iraq there was strong sentiment, once the war had begun, even among
opponents of the war, that we needed to put the debate about the war behind us. Could anything
be further from the truth? Christians, and every one who cares about human life on this planet,
must continue to raise the moral questions, the questions about evil and good. Holding fast to
what is good means holding fast to the tasks of moral discernment and debate. It means always
seeking ways to make peace when the opportunity arises.
Holding fast to what is good means using such a time as this to deal with the honest differences
that it brings to light. Most people do not relish disagreement, even fewer enjoy conflict. So we
generally brush over our differences rather than wrestle and try to come to terms with them. If
we really care to know and understand one another, if we really value the experience of growth
and change, what better time than now to explore with each other what would be good and right
to do to address the awesome dangers of our world in the interests of justice and peace.
Holding fast to what is good means keeping always before us the human dimension in the battles
we wage against the evils we deplore. The evils that threaten our very spiritual existence may be
embodied in structures and powers. However, crusades against these evil powers invariably
cause violence and destruction of human life. Remember, we are not called to destroy evil, but
to resist it, to stand against it, to stand firm while holding fast to what is good.
Perhaps above all, holding fast to what is good means doing all those things that make for
wholeness in our individual lives, in our families, and in our life together. It means carrying on
in faithfulness. Insofar as we have worthwhile work to do, it means doing well the tasks that are
set before us. Insofar as we meet and deal with other people, it means exercising all the wisdom
and courage, all the gentleness and compassion, that we are able to muster. We may or may not
be able to change the course of events in the Middle East, but we can do those things that make
and keep human life human in our midst. We can do those acts of justice and mercy, those deeds
of kindness and generosity and goodwill, those things that make for peace.
The time to make peace, or to do the things that make for peace, is not only in the moment of
crisis, however opportune that time, but in every situation of human affairs and every season of
the human spirit. Every time human beings resort to the coercion of violence and war, it is a sign
that they have failed at some other time to do the things that make for peace.
There are never any real winners in war. The building up of human life and human community,
all that makes life on this planet worth living, is never accomplished by war. However any war
proceeds, however it all turns out, when it is over the peace will still need to be won.
So let us covenant to be faithful to our respective callings, to each other, to the families and communities from which we come, and to all those members of the human community for whom this prospective war is not so much a moral or economic proposition as a matter of life and death. We are called to stand apart in some measure from the disorder and violence in our world, not in self-righteousness condemnation but in faithful witness to an opposing vision of universal community. Let us go about our living, not as those who have no hope, but as those who are confident that amidst the moral ambiguities of our condition, beyond the limits of human wisdom and the failures of human projects, is not the Abyss of evil, but the One Who Holds Us Fast, and in whose grasp we may yet hold fast to what is good. AMEN.