The Line Dividing Good and Evil

Opening Twitter and Facebook these days is a harrowing experience for me as it well might be for you. We are the wealthiest, most prosperous, and most dynamic country in the world — and yet everyone seems to be angry. Usually, they are angry at a particular person in a public position; but they can also be deeply hostile to huge swathes of the diverse, American public. I’m not talking about passing, polite anger. I’m talking about visceral anger that speaks about and wishes for the most horrible things to happen, sometimes reveling if these things come to pass. It is a frightening world in which to raise one’s own children and in which to pastor the children of other families. It is this world into which they are born and which they must navigate as they come of age.

I’ve had to ask myself, though: Have things really changed that much over the years — or has social media just given louder voice to what has always been there? What would social media have looked like in the mid-19th Century in America — or in the mid-20th Century? How about during the election of 1828? That’s just in the United States. How about in Russia in 1917? Germany in 1933? Rwanda in 1994? The Roman Province of Judea at the start of the 1st Century A.D.? I imagine that, in truth, things were much the same and that people were just as convinced that, if their opponents would either convert or disappear, they would be able to continue to march to their own utopias.

A.I. Solzhenitsyn

Last night (on the eve of 9/11, no less), I was reading The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the part of the book in which he, amazingly, wondered whether he was just as capable of committing the same kind of malicious arrest, torture, and imprisonment to which he had been subjected. Even more amazingly, he responded in the affirmative:

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?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

Socrates taught us: “Know thyself.”

Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.

Part I The Prison Industry, Ch. 4 “The Bluecaps” (p168, The Gulag Archipelago, Collins 1974)

This is astonishing. Absolutely astonishing. More or less everyone acknowledges something like the Christian doctrine of sin. Usually, though, the real transgressors are “out there” somewhere — someone other than me or my tribe. The interesting thing is that “out there” somewhere there is also another tribe which believes that the main transgressor is you or your tribe. The Christian Faith tells us that, actually, we are all transgressors in equal standing before God (Rom. 3:10-11) — we are all capable of malice and self-delusion (Jer. 17:9).

I can’t tell you how difficult it is for people to acknowledge the depths of their sinful nature. I can’t tell you how difficult it is for me to acknowledge the depths of my own sinful nature and my own tendencies toward malice and self-delusion (Rom. 7:15-24). Absent the grace of God — the working of the Holy Spirit — it is, in fact, impossible to convince or to be convinced of this (John 3:3-8). Yet, the grace of God is the only way. We need the Holy Spirit to pour Himself out in that way so we can see just the way Paul, the Apostle, saw it and just the way that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn saw it.

What is needed now is new and fresh repentance before the God who forgives, redeems, and justifies. I pray for that so earnestly for the Christian church. We need that same God to give us new hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26) that operate in this world with faith, hope, and love — forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation. Only then will patterns be broken and relationships healed. Only then will we begin seeing something like we all wish to see.

From my favorite hymn, Rock of Ages by Augustus Toplady: “Nothing in my hand I bring/Simply to thy cross I cling”. That seems so miniscule and so unimpressive — a little too dark, even. Yet God announces in Scripture that it is the only way.