catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 14 :: 2005.07.15 — 2005.07.28


The fellowship of the guilty

Sitting in my easy chair, munching a Gala apple?hands-down my favorite kind?I?m moved by the power of this little piece of fruit to change the world. I?m thinking about the part it had in the Genesis story of the fall; and, of course, I know we have no real way of knowing it was an apple. It was almost certainly not a Gala apple. But one fruit is as good as another to make the point. And I?m not eating a peach right now. I am moved by this apple because I see in its crisp, fleshy depths a window to the mystery of evil. Biting into it, I glimpse a hint of who holds responsibility for the suffering in this world.

Responsibility for evil is a heavy weight. A cursory look at history both ancient and modern reveals that humans have been wrestling with the problem for at least as long as their have been humans. I am reminded of my favorite novel, The Brothers Karamozov. In this powerful work, two of the brothers, Alyosha and Ivan, have a conversation about God. Alyosha is a believer considering the priesthood; Ivan is an atheist and intellectual. As the conversation unfolds, Ivan?s arguments demonstrate that his atheism is less about intellectual conviction than it is about justice. Ivan holds God responsible for the evil in the world. He will not believe in God because of the suffering of the innocent, particularly because of the almost unspeakable suffering of one little girl. In Ivan?s analysis, since God did nothing to stop her torment, he is responsible. Of course the conversation as presented by Dostoevsky is more complex than I?ve indicated. But the point to be made is that Ivan cannot see his own responsibility for the world?s evil and will have nothing to do with God. Alyosha, however, sees himself as responsible in a two-fold manner: he is responsible for the suffering, but he is also responsible to relieve the suffering. Alyosha believes that he is God?s means for intervening in this world.

If we examine an older story, a pattern emerges. Considering the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18, we discover two other men with minds similar to Ivan?s and Alyosha?s. A Pharisee and a Publican travel to the temple to pray. Both address God but do so in strikingly different ways. The Pharisee declares himself righteous, thanking God that he is not sinful like other men?particularly the Publican. Like Ivan, he locates evil in another and will have nothing to do with him.

But the Publican had a different perspective, a perspective that marks a radically different approach from either Ivan?s or the Pharisee?s, a perspective much like Alyosha?s. He located evil in himself and sought pardon. According to the story, he also received forgiveness. Since Jesus praised the Publican in this story, I think it valid to point out that his own life showed much the same tendency. In fact, a later interpretation of his life and work states that he became sin for us (II Cor. 5:21). Jesus, according to Christian scripture and tradition, took our guilt, then redeemed us. In fact, the paradox goes a step further in that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus proclaim his own goodness?in spite of orthodox teaching that he was, in fact, sinless. And when one young seeker called him good, he rejected the appellation as appropriate only for God. He was not, I believe, denying his divinity, but he was emphasizing his humanity. And as a human he accepted responsibility for evil in the world.

Which brings me back to the Genesis story and a parallel passage in Romans 5:12 that states, ?by one man sin entered the world, and death by sin and so death passed upon all men.? We can read both of these as dealing with the origin of sin and suffering in this world. But we can also read them as indications of how evil continues, by the actions of one human being. They speak of the great responsibility of every human. If Adam?s small act of disobedience (he ate a piece of forbidden fruit) is the source of evil in this world, then it follows that every single act on our part is also responsible for the evil in the world. The power of these two passages for me lies not in their statements about where evil came from, but in their testimony to the unbelievable power of human action, namely that a single act of selfishness or unkindness holds the same power to destroy that Adam?s disobedience held.

But here we must be very careful, for it is precisely at the moment that we realize the gravity of all our actions that we can become like the Pharisee. You see, the Pharisee was the man who, realizing the great destructive power of sin, tried to keep himself from it. He was the man who tried to be good. But in becoming good, he declared himself righteous, rejecting his own responsibility for the evil and suffering in the world. The Publican, on the other hand, realizing the same thing, declared his own guilt and sought pardon. He never got away from his own responsibility. Neither did Christ, and his taking of our sin and guilt became the grounds of our fellowship.

I attended a strict religious college whose president said his rules were designed to allow the students to go to bed each night with a clear conscience. His emphasis was on personal morality?no drugs, no sex, etc. But we have no right on the basis of any set of rules to a clear conscience. I have known those who recycle religiously and give much to the poor hoping thereby to absolve themselves of responsibility for the plight of the poor and of the environment. But again, Scripture leaves us no right, on the basis of our actions, to a clear conscience. We are the body of Christ; if he took upon himself the guilt of the world, we must also take it upon ourselves for we are laborers together with him. If our faith has become a place for us to keep ourselves clean. If our notion of Christianity has become the means by which we assure ourselves of our own righteousness, then we have become like Ivan and the Pharisee and are condemned by our very lack of guilt.

Redeeming this world requires that we overcome the tendency to think that the work of the church is a battle between the church and this world. The fellowship of our faith is the fellowship of the guilty. We have received the righteousness of Christ only because we have first accepted our guilt. Thus we can no longer blame any particular group for the evil in the world. Neither liberals nor conservatives, neither Republicans nor Democrats, neither homosexuals nor homophobes, neither terrorists nor capitalists are the enemies of God or humanity. Christ declared us all to be fellow hostages. And unless we can see ourselves as responsible, as guilty too, we will never redeem a guilty world.

There is little hope in trying to be merely good. Sin is not the greatest hindrance to redemption, self-righteousness is. If each of us sees himself or herself as responsible for the evil and suffering in this world, if we choose to redeem through love as shown by Christ (a love which may demand our lives as it did his), we can overcome evil as Christ did.

The solution to war, to poverty, to environmental degradation, to social disintegration is the same as the solution to my most private sins. For the church, there is not battle between us and them, between the good guys and the bad. Rather, each person accepts his own guilt and acts with love toward his fellow guilty humans. There is only one law in this world. It is the law of love. The one way we can be assured of overcoming evil is to redeem with love?not from the pinnacle of our own goodness, but from the humility of shared guilt.

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