Thursday, March 15, 2012

provoking evil

Hurt people, hurt people.

Sometimes even the nicest people get angry. And when they do, they're capable of remarkable hurt and meanness. There are usually good ways of dealing with that when it happens. It still hurts, but the road to restoration is well-paved with those kinds of folks.

But sometimes, the people who attack, criticize, and berate us aren't the good ones. Sometimes we're the target for petty, conniving, malicious jerks.

And they never stop.

And they never go away.

They persecute us, for one reason or another, and no matter how many times we “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5.39) or “overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19.11) or “respond with kindness in order to heap burning coals on their heads” (Proverbs 25.22) they simply will not quit.

What are we supposed to do in those circumstances? How are we supposed to respond to the well-meaning people around us who try to console us by saying we need to see things “from their perspective?” Or that we shouldn't be so harsh until we've “walked a mile in their moccasins?” What will make the clich├ęs stop or the pain finally run out?

My good friend Vince McLaren had a very biblical, even Christological, way of dealing with these situations. He used to tell me I should let angry, frustrated, mean-spirited people persist in their persecution. In fact, he taught me to encourage it. Vince told me that, eventually, their hatred would be exposed in front of everyone, put on display for the world to witness, and they would end up isolating even their closest friends and supporters.

It was great advice. Eventually, the mask always slips, and the evil beneath it is seen for what it truly is.

My dad used to give me the same advice, though he parsed it a little differently, and I never listened half so well to him. Dad told me to “give them all the rope they need to hang themselves with.”

One time, I had a difficult intern who was always criticizing me and second-guessing every decision I made. She would solicit other’s opinions, twist them, and bring them to me in an effort to build a case for why she was right and I was wrong. On every topic. From worship to teaching to mailouts and phone appointments, she knew better than I did. As her criticisms intensified, they also became less “differences of opinion” and more personal attacks concerning my character, my allegiance to Christ, and my capabilities as a pastor.

Those few times that the “others” came to see me directly about their perceptions concerning my leadership decisions, I tried to articulate my point of view without slandering my intern or defending myself. I was always surprised at the excuses the “others” made for my intern once the disparity between my instructions and her behavior was made known. They said “she’s just new” or “we all make mistakes” or “I’m sure she means well.” And never, not once, was there any acknowledgment that she might be purposefully out to cause me harm.

I understand why we want to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I’m also inclined to extend grace to the “others” since I had been unwilling to divulge either my personal hurt or perceptions on the issue. They were ignorant. But the fact remained, it was a difficult scenario and I didn’t know what to do.

This was the first time Vince told me to let my intern do whatever she wanted, and even allow others to see it. “She’ll burn herself,” he told me. “Just let her do it and you’ll be fine.”

So I did.

And one evening, during a worship rehearsal I was leading, my intern exploded in a high-intensity, high-volume, lambasting of my integrity and my competence.

In front of everyone.

Which, actually, was awesome. Because I didn’t have to defend myself. Everyone there saw how inappropriate her behavior was, and they saw that all her conniving and scheming was motivated by power and control. Several spoke up in my defense immediately, and several more confronted my intern later privately. The intern later apologized, asked for my forgiveness, and sought opportunities at another church.

Now, I’m not above a little correction when it’s due. In fact, I count myself among those particularly predisposed to instruction and betterment, but in this scenario I was right and she was wrong and all I had to do to get everyone else to see it was put her on display.

I understand if that sounds harsh. But remember we're talking about extreme circumstances here. We're talking about bullying that won't quit, humiliation that cannot be stopped, misery that is celebrated, cultivated, and broadcast to our enduring shame.

In those extreme circumstances, both Dad's advice and Vince's take a page right out of the book of Christ.

Tired of evil's triumph, God came into the world hidden in the man, Jesus. The mightiest power, hidden within the weakest body. Majesty in lowliness, suffering and death. This was a maneuver the powers of evil simply couldn't understand. Seeing God so weak, evil unleashed all its force to assail good, but that was its undoing. Evil overreached itself, and its power was broken just as it seemed to have prevailed.

God gave the devil all the rope he needed to hang himself.

That's what we should do as well—provoke evil, so evil cannot hide. Evil must not be mistaken for good any longer. Liars and social assassins must be exposed as agents of harm. When provoked, evil comes out with fangs bared, full force, and everyone watching sees how evil it truly is. Now exposed, evil can be judged. It must.

When you find yourself backed into a corner, don't fight evil with evil; put the evil on display. Let everyone see it for what it truly is. It's not neutral.

And neither are you.

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