In a New York Times op-ed published two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Steven Jay Gould wrote an encouraging reminder: “Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, while destruction requires but an instant. Thus [in what Gould calls “the great asymmetry”] every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoticed and invisible as the ‘ordinary’ efforts of a vast majority of people… We have a duty, a holy responsibility to record and honor the victorious weight of those innumerable little kindnesses when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behavior.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/26/opinion/a-time-of-gifts.html)
We seem to be living amid daily atrocities right now, and it often feels overwhelming to me. I’d bet it feels that way to many of you also. It’s not easy to look for the even 10 of those small moments of kindness and mercy, much less 10,000, when we are bombarded by day after day of injustice and abject evil.
This Sunday we’ll hear Jesus once again tell that familiar parable of the Good Samaritan. You know it well, so I won’t retell it here, but if you’re fuzzy on the narrative, here’s a link.
Notice that in this most famous parable, Jesus tells the truth about the violence and evil that occurred, about the seriousness of the attack, about the inadequacy of the response of the priest and the Levite. But Jesus DOES NOT dwell in any of these things. These things get about a dozen words and then Jesus uses the rest of the canvas to paint a picture of love, of mercy, and of generosity. This is NOT a parable about the robbers. This is NOT a parable about violence or an un-Christlike response to someone who is left for dead.
It is a parable about the merciful Samaritan. And so, as is always the case with Jesus, there is another way.
Looking for love, mercy, light in the world around us is not the same as pretending evil is not evil.
The choice is not either: (1) Ignoring violence and suffering and thus falsely insulating ourselves from this present darkness, or (2) focusing solely on the violence and suffering, thus falsely recreating a world of doom and gloom that is owned and operated by this present darkness.
Jesus gives us another way. Evil may have the news cycle, but it does NOT have the victory. The darkness does not get to have our hearts, does not get to fill our minds, does not get to steal our joy. I’m not talking about some kind of naïve and shallow optimism. I mean real joy—the things that breathe fresh air into your lungs, the moments that make you laugh, the things your mind wanders to when you daydream. The evil does not get to steal your joy.
As Christ’s followers, we always find the third (or 743rd) way.
We sit in the suffering with one another.
We tell the truth about evil, naming the forces at work in acts of violence and hatred and destruction.
We confess our own complacency, and then we lament and we protest and we work for change.
But what we do not do is concede more ground to evil than it has actually claimed.