In the Halloween dusk, our front porch began to swarm with heroes and heroines. Captain America stood proud, resplendent in red, white, and blue. Spiderman dropped by. And an adorable little Wonder Woman graced us, too.
Tiny humans with giant heroes. Cape-wearing, shield-bearing saviors of our woebegone race. My wife and I smiled, dropped candy in their bags, and watched them walk away into a future brimming with true heroic possibility.
Who will these little ones grow up to be? God only knows. But one thing is certain: whoever they grow up to be, their growth will be stunted until a moment of awkward revelation dawns upon them. It will be stunted until one day they awake—truly awake—to gasp in knowing horror at the countenance of an anti-hero reflected back in the mirror of their lives.
Thank God for heroes: they inspire us to be better, to help others, to live and work for the good of our race. And thank God for villains, too: they incarnate our shadow side, our nocturnal soul, the dragon within us that must incessantly have its throat slit on the altar of repentance.
When We See Evil
Here’s what I think about: whenever school lockers are splashed with blood, whenever churches or synagogues or mosques echo with the blasphemy of gunfire, whenever university girls are roofied and raped—I think, “The one who did this evil, that person is inextricably linked, body and blood, mind and soul, not to some other race or species but to my own humanity.” Our own humanity! Be they man or woman, old or young, racist or religionist, drunk or sober, that person shares 99.9% of our DNA.
What have they done? They’ve ridden astride the same god-hating, life-destroying, inhumane dragon slithering and breathing fire within us. And you know what? I hate it. It scares the hell out of me. And—most importantly—I damn sure believe it.
And you better, too. Unless you want to live a stunted life pregnant with lies.
Bless You, Prison!
Seven years into his imprisonment as a political prisoner in the gulags of Soviet Russia, Alexander Solzhenitsyn lay in a hospital bed stricken with a malignant tumor. He had every reason to devote the entirety of his thought to how horrible his conditions were, how unjust his incarceration was, how evil his captors were. But there, on that bed, he went down a different path. He came to grips with who he really was.
He writes, “I saw that for my whole conscious life I had not understood either myself or my strivings.” He realized that “in the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good” (Vol. 2:615).
There, unjustly imprisoned, encircled by the ugly horror of these hellish camps, he turned his eyes inward. He gazed backward over the years of his life, to see that villainous though Stalin was, villainous though the executioners were, nonetheless, “Were we any better?” And due to that epiphany of self-knowledge, when he looked back on his imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn would sometimes shock those around him by uttering this benediction: “Bless you, prison!”
If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then the fear of the evil of which we are capable is a close second.
Spelunking Our Souls
Human maturity is not only growing up but growing wise. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then the fear of the evil of which we are capable is a close second. Knowing ourselves, spelunking the caverns of our souls, and being truthful about what vile and violent things we spy there, is indispensable if we shall flourish as lights in this world.
It’s indispensable because it’s the doorway to a necessary death. Step inside, follow me, and let us die to the people we are, and could become. We may never murder a congregation of worshippers, but we will hate a person—and thus spill their blood on the floors of our hearts. We may never rape a woman, but we will use razor-sharp words that penetrate her soul. Dear God, the things we could do—and have done. Have mercy on us. Lead us through that doorway that we may die with you.
It’s a violent, cataclysmic death. The foe within us doesn’t play possum. He wars like a madman. But inside that doorway is a Roman cross. Down goes the hammer, nails through flesh, so that we are pinned atop of Jesus. Skin to skin with God, the crimson fruit of his veins and ours commingling in a pool of hope. We who are evil die alongside he who is good. And a good death it is because unless we die with him, there is no resurrection to new life. New hope. A new man, a new woman, a new person recreated in the image of God’s Son and our Brother.
We return to the place of death and life repeatedly as the Spirit draws us into the habit of repentance. A new way of life. An ongoing killing of the dragon within that the Lamb might reign on our soul’s throne.
Bless you, prison! Bless you, villains! For in you and through you we see who we are if left to our own twisted and manipulative ways. But you meet us there, God of Life, to crucify and vivify us. To empty and fill us. You refashion us as stars in this dark world that we might sparkle with the brilliance of your mercy, and—as a star once did—point to a manger where lies the infant hope of the world.