The Hard Truth about “Ends” and “Means”

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12

Of course, the evil one would have us believe that our struggle is against enemies of flesh and blood-such as immigrants, liberals, socialists, fascists, racists, conservatives, Muslims, Jews, people of color, etc. Victory over evil consists in overcoming evil people by banishing them from our neighborhoods and churches, preventing them from coming into our country, driving them from positions of authority in government, silencing their voices in the public forum and, if all else fails, killing them. What is war, after all, but the most extreme strategy for ridding the world of evil? Sure, its ugly, cruel and brutally unjust, especially to non-combatants that happen to be in the way of strategic military strikes. But the ends justify the means, don’t they?

I recently read an angry manifesto from a young woman who left my own Lutheran Church. She said, in part, “I’m done with being patient. I’m done with loving people who treat my people like s#$%. I’m done waiting. I’m done with hoping people are going to change, that the world is going to change. Ain’t no change gonna happen but the change we make any way we can make it!” I understand the anger, the frustration and the hurt. God knows that we who call ourselves church have managed to do a lot of nothing about everything. But I am not ready to accept the proposition that it’s finally up to us to make the change we want to see “any way we can make it.” The ends don’t justify the means but, as Alduous  Huxley reminds us, they frequently determine them. We don’t employ the weapons of violence, force and coercion without being shaped by them. Furthermore, we cannot truly know the “ends” of our deeds. At best, we can only hope they will work out for the best. But how often don’t good intentions lead to unanticipated consequences? If we are honest with ourselves, we have to confess that the ends or consequences of our actions are beyond our ability to control. The only thing we do control are the means-and Jesus tells us the means by which we are to live into the reign of God. Until that kingdom comes in all its fullness, discipleship takes the shape of the cross. That’s a difficult word. Most won’t accept it. But it is, as Peter rightly recognizes in this Sunday’s gospel, “the words of eternal life.”

In fact, no human being is an enemy. All people are created in the image of God. Some, to be sure, have been shaped by violence, hateful ideologies and false values. A few have become so thoroughly corrupted by evil that one can scarcely discern their humanity. Can one become so thoroughly twisted and perverted by evil influences that nothing of the divine image is any longer recognizable in him or her?  Does one ever reach the point where the Creator says of the creature, “I do not know you”? Since Jesus seems to allow for that possibility, we do well take seriously the corrupting power of evil in our own lives. Nevertheless, God alone is capable of making such a call. For our part, we must assume that everyone we encounter, however flagrantly they manifest evil tendencies, retain traces of their dignity as God’s human creatures. We cannot allow our determination to resist evil to degenerate into a campaign against the people held in bondage to its grip. To do so is to fall into the devil’s trap.

The Apostle Paul understands the evil one’s stratagem well. He knows that peace, justice and righteousness can never be achieved by violent acts against God’s creation and its creatures. So, he takes the imagery of imperial military might, the sword, the helmet, the shield and turns it on its head. The only weapons disciples of Jesus wield are truth, peace, integrity, faith and the word of God. This is the whole armor of God. Nothing further is needed nor allowed to the disciples in carrying out their struggle against evil.

“This is a difficult teaching,” Jesus’ disciples remarked. They were right. Internalizing the Spirit of Jesus, leaning wholly on the power of the Word and the strength of the Spirit to defeat the forces of evil manifested around us requires a willingness to lose a few battles, suffer some losses, perhaps endure persecution or death. Moreover, we may die without ever seeing any positive result from these sacrifices. In a culture that rewards only results and insists that the ends justify the means, it is all the more difficult to resist the temptation to seize hold of more “efficient” means than words, acts of mercy and peaceful resistance. Paul’s words and Peter’s witness keep us focused on the long game and the means necessary for winning it.

Here is a poem by Denise Levertov illustrating the power of the word, of imagination and courage that make for peace-not unlike Paul’s admonition to avail ourselves of the weapons of the Spirit.

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

Source: Breathing the Water, c. 1987 by Denise Levertov, pub. by New Directions Publishing Corporation). Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister.  Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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