This summer, I’m playing with the book of Mark every week! Check out my original post about why I’m studying Mark, and Mark 1:Authority, Mark 2: Avocado Toast, Mark 3: So You’ve Left Fundamentalism…, Mark 4: Our Patch of Earth, Mark 5: What is Your Name?, Mark 6: WWJD! What Could Go Wrong?, and last week’s Mark 7: Talking Back to God.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
I’ve always loved the hard sayings of Jesus. I’m a sucker for heroism – William Wallace screaming freedom while his intestines are being pulled out, Katniss shooting her last arrow into the dome, Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom.
I want to lose the whole world and gain my soul. I want to give all I have to the poor and follow Jesus. I want to deny myself and pick up my cross and go wherever Jesus goes. I want my lived religion to look and feel like stories of moral heroism and sacrifice that I ate up as a kid. (OK. OK. I still eat it up, I saw Wonder Woman three times in theaters).
Heroic movies sell. Heroism sells. It sells because it tells us something true about the world, and it sells because we all desperately want to be part of something that feels meaningful, and it sells because, I think, it helps us keep Good and Evil in the category of Huge Cosmic Forces. So that we don’t have to wrestle with the banality of them both.
A lot has been said lately about Hannah Arendt’s phrase the “banality of evil.” In reporting on Adolf Eichmann’s trial, she argued that Nazis aren’t boogie monsters under the bed, vile and vicious and somehow inhuman. They’re nice people. They’re family men. Psychologists who examined Eichmann remarked that his attitude towards his family and community was overall “highly desirable.” This pleasant, family oriented gentleman then committed war crimes. (Whoops?) Genocide. Ethnic cleansing.
If this shakes you up, it should. Evil isn’t as clearly demonic from the inside as it looks from the outside. Anyone can get trapped in cruel systems once cruelty becomes paper pushing. Anyone can make a set of small decisions in polite society that lead us to something too terrible to look at head on.
So when we only talk about evil as something “terrible people” do at night with torches, we see ourselves as untouchable. We aren’t those people, so we can’t be evil. We don’t have Nazis flags, so evil is far away, perpetuated by Them.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” – Solzhenitsyn
But the truth is that evil is so banal. Evil starts as a set of ordinary decisions that we make about our job, what we ignore in the people that we vote for, which moments we keep silent in, which moments we decide to speak up in, how we protect the people in our life, the boundaries that we choose to disrespect. Walking through a hallway, one small door of small door. Each decision is so small, but each one leading further and further away from what is kind, what is good, what is holy.
Then when something terrible happens like last weekend in Charlottesville, all the well-off and privileged among us can look shocked (shocked!) because how could something this terrible happen in 2017?? What year is this?!?
But historians and theologians have been pointing to all the small steps that our society has taken, doors that we were walking through as a country that were getting more racist, more violent, more systemically oppressive, and like a frog in a frying pan nobody noticed. We didn’t think twice, because the doors our country walked through weren’t marked Pure Evil This Way. They were marked “law and order.” They were marked “but the police officer felt threatened.” They were marked “The War on Drugs.” They were marked “he’s not calling all Mexicans rapists.”
It’s just so easy to walk through one door, and then another door, and then another. Small choices, through small doors, until you find yourself making bigger choices with more at stake, and it seems less difficult to do and say and believe terrible things – one step at a time.
I want evil to be less banal.
I want goodness to be less banal, too.
Goodness is so small. Small choices, through small doors, down a long hallway.
I am often irritated by the banality of goodness. I’m frustrated by how petty my decisions seem in the bigger picture. I want to be trekking through Middle Earth to throw the Ultimate Evil into the Ultimate Volcano to Destroy Baddness Forever. I don’t want my choices to feel so – small.
But team, we don’t know where the doors lead. Our faithfulness with the small decision create moral muscles, just like my one mile runs five years ago were building muscles for half marathons years later, and hopefully one day full marathons.
Small choices. One run at a time. One door, one choice, one moment.
Our obsession with large heroism, and large evil, means that we can spot them both only when they’re big, larger than life. We can spot the white supremacist because he’s carrying a torch and has a swastika tattooed on his neck. We can spot the hero because he’s dying to protect a woman being attacked on a bus for her ethnicity.
But how did they get there? What doors did they walk through on the way? I’m sure the doors weren’t marked “Nazis -> This Way” and “Martyrs -> This Way.”
I think we all have courageous doors that we can choose to step through.
Listening well. Voting wisely. Not spreading malicious gossip even when we’ve been hurt. Apologizing well. Being friends with people that are different from us. Teaching our kids careful and true history, especially about their country. Leaning out of our defensiveness and asking good questions. Biting our tongue. Showing up at a protest. Showing up at a town hall meeting. Speaking up for a coworking even if it hurts us with management. Protecting each other’s boundaries. Reading books and articles and news written by people who look and think differently from us. Entering into community with people that we can learn from. Stepping into leadership even if we feel inadequate. Being brave in small moments and sacrificing our dignity or comfort to take care of each other.
Maybe it’s time to risk being single and finally give up on that relationship that is hurting you both.
Maybe it’s time to take your money out of that big bank and put it in a smaller, minority owned credit union or local bank.
Maybe it’s time to count the cost, and come out to your congregation as LGBTQ affirming. For what good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your soul?
Those doors all lead somewhere.
If we don’t practice bravery in small choices, when we get to the large ones, those muscles won’t be ready.
I know none of us need shame these days. The last thing I want to do is to weaponize shame and then we all end up shutting down and tuning out and rolling into little shame balls because damn there is too much to do and we don’t feel brave enough for it.
Don’t be scared, team. Gaining the whole world but losing your life doesn’t happen in a day or in a moment, thank God.
And losing the whole world but gaining your life – gaining your healing, your centeredness, your empathy, your ability to fight injustice and your ability to even see it clearly – is a morning by morning, day by day, door by door set of decisions.
I know that sometimes it’s one step forward, three steps back, dearest.
But let’s take hands, and open up another door, and build some muscles, one day at a time.