Monthly Archives: April 2012

Resisting Evil

U.S. Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson (1943-2006), who protected Vietnamese civilians from his fellow U.S. Army troops during the My Lai Massacre

The British political philosopher Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” For every Hitler there are millions of good individuals who did nothing and thousands who willingly participated in horrible crimes. Far too few dared to speak out. Some of those who did paid the ultimate price for their bravery. Socrates said he would rather suffer evil than to do it. When I taught ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy, I would ask my students, If you were a German parent during World War II and had to  choose whether your son had to become a victim or perpetrator of the Holocaust, which destiny would you choose for him? Most didn’t like the question. They’d try to say neither. But then I’d rephrase: If your were FORCED to choose, which would you choose? The vast majority said they would rather their child be a victim, not a perpetrator. I would too.  But how could you stop your child from becoming a perpetrator? Is there a way teach our children (and ourselves) to resist negative peer pressure?

The following ten-step program to build resistance and resilience is adapted from Philip Zimbardo’s 2007 book The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil:

  1. “I made a mistake!” Start by admitting your mistakes, and encouraging others to do so too.
  2. “I am mindful.” Use critical thinking to keep from mindlessly going along with the crowd. Always keep in mind the ends don’t justify the means.
  3. “I am responsible.” We become more resistant to undesirable social influences by always maintaining a sense of personal responsibility and by being willing to be held accountable for our actions.
  4. “I am ME, the best I can be.” Anonymity and secrecy conceals wrongdoing and undermines the human condition. Assert your individuality and insist on the same from others.
  5. “I respect JUST AUTHORITY, but REBEL against UNJUST AUTHORITY.” We should always be polite and respectful to those in authority; however, only leaders who do good should be obeyed; leaders who do evil or encourage others to do evil should be resisted, not blindly followed.  
  6. “I want group acceptance, but value my independence.” We humans all naturally crave acceptance but sometimes the cost is too high. We must value truth and doing the right thing more than being counted as a “team player.”   
  7.  “I will be more FRAME VIGILANT.” Who makes the frame becomes the artist, or the con artist. We must realize that our surroundings have a great influence on how we think and behave.
  8. “I will balance my TIME PERSPECTIVE.” Moral evils are often tolerated “for the moment.” By putting them in perspective of the past and future, we are less likely to rationalize bad behavior. Ask yourself, What do I want to be able to tell my grandchildren I did at this time?  
  9. “I will not sacrifice personal or civic freedoms for the illusion of security.” Most people will trade freedom for safety. Don’t make that deal with the devil. The sacrifices are real and immediate and the promise of security is a distant illusion.
  10. “I can oppose unjust SYSTEMS.” Systems have enormous power, whether those of gangs, cults, fraternities, corporations, or dysfunctional families. Individuals can enlist the help of likeminded people to oppose injustice or to remove themselves from the systems altogether.

In addition to learning and teaching these helpful principles for resisting evil, we need to saturate our minds with the stories of people such as the Prophet Daniel, Queen Esther, Sir Thomas More, William Wilberforce, Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Will D. Campbell, Rosa Parks, and Hugh Thompson. We can draw inspiration for our ourselves and our children by studying the lives of heroes such as these who displayed moral courage and opposed evil.


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Believing is Seeing

The Gospel reading for this Sunday relates the story of Doubting Thomas, found only in John 20:19-31. The first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell us nothing about this obscure apostle. I don’t really like the epithet “doubting” Thomas. I think a better one would be “honest” Thomas, because he admitted his doubts, or “believing” Thomas, since he came to believe. Church tradition tells us that after Pentecost he preached the Gospel in India. When the first European missionaries arrived on the Indian subcontinent in the sixteenth century, they were surprised to find thriving indigenous churches full of “Thomas Christians.” But before Thomas could be used so mightily by God, he had to overcome his doubts.

The central miracle of our Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus. It’s the main theme of the apostles’ preaching in the book of Acts and is included in all Christian creeds and confessions. Paul even says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). But that doesn’t make it easy to believe. The idea of a bodily resurrection goes against all of our experience. Dead people stay dead.

We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with his fellow disciples when Jesus appeared to them postmortem, but we do know he wasn’t convinced by their story about seeing Jesus. He told them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas wanted proof, empirical proof, that it was really Jesus and not a ghost. And he got it. Jesus appeared again to the disciples, this time with Thomas present, but instead of rebuking Thomas for his unbelief, Jesus offered Thomas the tactile evidence he had demanded: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (20:27).

This offer for Thomas to touch Jesus is all the more surprising because just a few verses earlier Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my father” (20:17). (The NRSV translates the command, “Do not hold on to me.”) Although Jesus forbids Mary to touch him in his resurrected state, he gives Thomas permission. Immediately upon seeing Jesus, however, the former doubter immediately blurts out, “My Lord and my God!” It was enough to see Jesus is his resurrected form. The Bible doesn’t say Thomas manually inspected the wounds as he had said he wanted to. This fact is all the more interesting since so many artistic interpretations, like Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (above), show the apostle inserting his finger in Jesus’ side. For Thomas and the other disciples seeing is believing.

The experience of seeing the resurrected Jesus was so important and exclusive that it became a prerequisite for apostleship. At least that’s how I read Paul’s statement, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). The rest of us don’t get to see the proof with our own eyes. We have to be satisfied with historical evidence: “These [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Thankfully the Gospels give us reliable evidence based on eyewitness testimony. The lack of firsthand proof doesn’t make our faith weak or defective. In fact, Jesus praised those who believe without visual proof: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29). The writer of Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). For us seeing isn’t believing. For us believing is seeing.

Faith comes naturally to some but not to others. The story of Thomas—believing Thomas—teaches us that God can handle our doubts and wants to help us when we are struggling with our faith.

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The Resurrection – So What?

Sunrise, A Prayer of Hope by Thomas Kinkade (Jan. 19, 1958 – Apr. 6, 2012)

I often ask my history students the question, So what?  I tell them it’s not enough to regurgitate facts about the past: the Who? What? When? Where? I teach them to look for the significance of people and events: the So what? On final exams I sometimes include an extra credit essay with the following simple prompt: History—So what? On this Easter Sunday, I want to apply this question to the central miracle of Christianity: The Resurrection of Jesus—So What?

Does it really matter whether Jesus rose bodily from the grave? If he died and remained dead, he’s still one of the greatest figures of history. He still taught profound moral and spiritual truths: Turn the other cheek. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. His life still inspired a great religion—the largest in number of adherents. Maybe Christianity doesn’t depend on the literal truth of the resurrection. Perhaps we can believe the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith without the resurrection tying the two together. Maybe Jesus’ spirit lives on in glory, while his body remains in a tomb.

The same Bible that tells us about Jesus being raised from the dead—in all four Gospels and the Epistles—teaches the necessity of the resurrection for the Christian faith. This miracle forms the core of our religion. It’s the sine qua non, the indispensable element. Consider what happens if you take away the resurrection from Christianity.

If Christ is not raised, then . . .

  • Jesus was wrong when he predicted his death and resurrection (John 2:19-21)
  • The preaching of the apostles was false, since they emphasized the truth of the resurrection in their sermons in the Book of Acts
  • The promised return of Christ and coming Kingdom are fantasies without the possibility of fulfillment
  • Redemptive history ends in the cul-de-sac of a Palestinian grave
  • St. Paul’s desire to know Christ in the “power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:10) was a delusion
  • There will be no resurrection for us at the end of the world, since Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23) and his resurrection is the foreshadowing and promise of our own
  • Justification is not possible, as Paul says Christ “was delivered for our offenses, and was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25)
  • Our faith is pointless and we have no remedy for our sins; Paul writes, “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17)

The Good News is that the opposite is also true. If Christ is risen, then Jesus was right, and so were his apostles. If Christ is risen, then we have the hope of his Second Coming and our own resurrection. If Christ is risen, then redemptive history has meaning and direction. If Christ is risen, then our faith is not pointless and we have a remedy for our sins. If Christ is risen, then he can receive our worship and hear our prayers.

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, because the Bible teaches it, the creeds and confessions of the church proclaim it, and my experience of faith confirms it. Because I believe it, I can sing on this Resurrection Day:

Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose!
Hallelujah! Christ arose!

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Call Me Judas

Kiss of Judas (1304-06), fresco painting, 200 cm x 185 cm by Giotto di Bondone at the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy

Thich Nhat Hahn is a Vietnamese monk and poet, whom Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. During the Vietnamese refugee crisis he and his fellow monks were deeply troubled by the story of a 12-year old girl, one of the boat people, who committed suicide by throwing herself into the sea after being raped by a Thai pirate. It is easy to identify with the victim, hard to identify with the rapist. Still, if we  look deep inside ourselves, we will see the scary truth that, given the right circumstances, we could be just as evil as the man who violently assaulted that little girl. Nhat Hahn explored this idea in a poem he wrote titled “Please Call Me By My True Names.” Here are two of its verses:

I am the twelve year old girl, refugee / on a small boat, / who throws herself in the ocean after / being raped by a sea pirate, / and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable/  of seeing and loving. . . . Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up./ So the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.

It takes some difficult soul-searching to identify with the perpetrator, not just the victim. But as Nhat Hahn points out, we cannot show true compassion for others as long as we think we are superior to them.

Last Sunday I heard a pastor retell the story of the Last Supper at which Jesus dropped the bombshell that one of his disciples would betray him. Instead of looking around in righteous indignation, each asked the Master “with great sorrow” and perhaps with trembling lips, “Lord, Is it I?” (Matt. 26:22). All the disciples knew in their hearts that they had the ability to betray him. Although Judas turned out to be the betrayer, there’s plenty of blame to go around. If we could examine the hammer that drove the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, we would each find our own fingerprints on the instrument of his death.

As we move into Holy Week and hear the stories of Jesus’ last days, try to identify with Judas, who betrayed Jesus with a kiss; the angry mob that shouted, “Crucify him!”; Pontius Pilate, who washed his hands as he passed the death sentence; and the Roman soldiers, who mocked and beat Jesus before nailing him to the cross.

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