Like all little boys, I loved superheroes. The idea of being super-strong, or super-fast, or invisible, or being able to fly, or climb walls, or bust through walls, or shoot rays from your eyes or webs from your hands was exciting. Early on, though, I started to gravitate towards heroes without superpowers, like Batman or Captain America, people who were at peak human condition and smart to boot. But I did go to the new Superman movie. And I was surprised when they reinterpreted the big red “S” on his chest. But then, why would a Kryptonian battle suit have an English letter on it? Superman explains that on Krypton, it wasn't an “S”; it was a symbol of hope. Nevertheless this living symbol of hope destroys a good deal of Smallville and Metropolis fighting the bad guys.
I still like superheroes but as you get older you realize that most of the world's problems would not be solved merely by putting criminals in jail or even by destroying doomsday weapons. You realize that the major problems we face are not external. They are self-generated. They come from within—from jealousy and greed and rage and lust and shortsightedness and arrogance and selfishness and laziness. We are not as rational as we like to believe. We are not as benign as we like to believe. We are not as decent as we like to believe.
Sunday we examined the conditions of Jesus' world and times that led his people to hope for a warrior messiah, a second King David to rout the Romans and establish a physical, political Kingdom of God on earth. They were an occupied country, under the thumb of the mightiest military the world had known to that point, the Imperial Roman army. It responded to opposition without mercy. When the capital of Galilee, not far from Nazareth, revolted after the death of Herod the Great, the Romans destroyed that city, enslaved all the women and children and crucified all 2000 men. Jesus would have heard the stories as a child. The crosses might have still been there, a warning to anyone who dared stand up to Rome. Jesus literally grew up in the shadow of the cross.
And you can see why the Jews wanted someone like a superhero—a strong good guy to defeat the bad guys. But just as Superman could not end all human conflict or solve income inequality or destroy all dishonesty, neither would such a warrior messiah. You can conquer people's lands but not touch their hearts. You can impose order over how people act publicly but you can't eliminate chaos from their thoughts or personal lives. For one thing, people do not like being told what to do. They do not cease to do things that harm themselves or others simply because they are told not to. Laws don't make people good. As Paul points out so brilliantly in Romans, even God's law doesn't magically make people good.
I'm not arguing here for the abolition of laws. Imagine just the chaos into which driving would devolve were we to do away with traffic laws. Traffic laws give us basic rules which, when observed by the majority of people most of the time, make our roads safer. But they can't make them 100% safe. Because traffic laws cannot make someone refrain from texting while driving or driving while drunk or passing when it doesn't make good sense or speeding. Laws tell us what we should or should not do; they can't determine what we actually will do.
The Bible acknowledges this. Even after giving the law, in Deuteronomy, God foresees the straying of the Israelites and thus their exile. And through Jeremiah, a prophet during the exile, God speaks of a new covenant in which “I will put my law in their minds and write it in their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:33) And in Ezekiel, God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you....I will put my spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26, 27)
We have a heart problem. Jesus says, “What comes out of a man is what makes him unclean. For from within, out of men's hearts come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” (Mark 7:20-23) If that is our real problem, that evil originates in our heart, then the solution cannot merely be external. No set of laws, no change of government, even the physical establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, will solve that.
This is also why posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms or in government buildings will not change society. It's not like the massacre at Columbine would have been prevented if Dylan and Klebold had seen the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” Their problem wasn't a deficit in knowing right from wrong; they knew they were causing harm to others. They even said in a video made beforehand that while they knew they couldn't kill all the kids in their school, they also knew that they would psychologically scar the survivors. They knew their plan was evil. They didn't care.
Neither laws nor raw force will solve the problems that arise from the evil that is in the hearts of humanity. So what will?
On a recent This American Life, I listened to the story of Heidi and Rick Solomon, who adopted a boy from an orphanage in Romania. Daniel had lived and slept upright in a crib with another child till age 7. While his physical needs were taken care of, no staff member ever showed Daniel affection. He did not know what having a family was like. And after a few idyllic months with his adoptive parents, a resentment of his earlier life welled up into an irrational hatred towards them. Daniel began to act up and left his new mother and father scratched up and bruised. As he entered his teens, at times someone large and male would have to be hired to be around when Heidi and her son were together alone in the house.
Heidi and Rick sought help and what eventually worked was attachment therapy, where Heidi and Daniel spent every waking moment together, never more than 3 feet apart. They spent 20 minutes at a time looking into each other's faces. Daniel would lie on his parents' laps and they would feed him ice cream. They sought to give him the experience of being held and adored that he never had as an infant or toddler. And after years the therapy worked. The irrational hatred left and at his bar mitzvah Daniel expressed his love and gratitude towards his long-suffering parents.
Love can do what external measures cannot. But that love must be tough. It must be willing to suffer even at the hands of those it loves and seeks to save.
Jesus knew that what the world needed wasn't another holy warrior; it needed love and healing. It needed someone to take the brunt of all the evil that the world can muster and not react with anger or even justice but with love and mercy.
This is also found in various Messianic prophesies. One obvious verse is Isaiah 9:6 where he is called the Prince of Peace. The mother lode, however, is Isaiah 53 where the Messiah, the Servant of the Lord, is pictured as anything but a triumphant warrior king. He is seen rather as someone who would take on the punishment for the people's sins. In verse 5 it says, “He was pierced because of our transgression, crushed because of our iniquities, the punishment for our peace was upon him, and we are healed by his wounds.” This suffering servant is the true picture of the kind of Messiah Jesus is.
People did not see that at first. Isaiah says they wouldn't. Jesus wasn't the Messiah they wanted. He was the Messiah they needed.
And we do, too. Our external problems and conflicts largely arise from our internal war between who we are and who we were created to be. We were created in the image of the God who is love, and we are to live and act like him. But we don't. We don't behave lovingly toward God, nor towards our fellow human beings, and not even toward ourselves. We sabotage our lives, our communities, our world by our inability to love. We find forgiveness difficult if not impossible. We see the gifts of God in creation as things to accumulate and fight over rather than to share. We see our talents not as gifts from God but as personal attributes about which we can be proud and which entitle us to special treatment. And we alternately envy those who have what we want and fear that others might get some of what we have.
It sounds pretty bleak. I don't start my day anymore listening to the news because it's hard to face the day when, while you are brushing your teeth and getting dressed, you are being told about war and abuse and drugs and hunger and racism and ignorance and murder and hatred and human trafficking and all the rest of the ways we have taken the paradise God has given us and turned it into hell on earth.
How do we fix that? If might and laws can't change people, what can? We all need new hearts, as Ezekiel said. And we can only get that if we open our hearts to the healing power of God's Spirit, the same Spirit that empowered Jesus. We know we can trust him because Jesus was willing to stand up to those who used external physical force and external religious rules to try to remake the world in their image. He did not fight as they did. He let evil do its worst to him. And he forgave those who did it—as they were nailing him to the cross. He invited an executed criminal to join him in paradise. He arranged for his mother's care.
If he had only done those things, he would be a great martyr. But Jesus didn't stay dead. He came back. And did he go all Dirty Harry on the bad guys then? No. He reassured the doubting. He reconciled with the denier. He filled them with his Spirit and sent them to all the corners of the world with the good news of God's love and forgiveness and life-changing power. Jesus didn't get rid of bad guys the way they do in the superhero and action movies, and as we think we can do with might—by killing them. Jesus got rid of the bad guys by transforming them into good guys. And he's doing it still.
In my work at the jail, I don't so much see crises of faith as crises of hope. I see young men and women who think they have totally screwed up the rest of their lives. I see older men and women who have been in and out of jail for years and who think they are destined to follow that pattern for the last part of their lives. And I tell them how Paul was changed. And how Peter was changed. And how Matthew was changed. Because of Jesus, your past need not determine your future. As Oscar Wilde said, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. As Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
I still like superheroes. But I know that they are not what the world needs. We don't need more power to defeat and dominate our enemies. We need a different power--the power to heal and reconcile and forgive. We need the power to share and to collaborate. We need the power to pay back evil with good and so rob it of its power to reproduce by provoking a reaction. We need the power to transform lives. We need the power of love, love which “knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope...” * We need love that never quits, no matter what you throw at it; love that never gives up, no matter what the odds are; love that is still standing when everything else collapses. We don't need another warrior. We don't need a man who flies; we need the man who dies...for our sake. We need the man who rises again because he is life and gives life. We need Jesus, God's love Incarnate. We need to let him into our hearts to end the war within, to bring us peace and healing, to help us grow into what we were created to be: images of God, reflections of his love, God's children, called to be peacemakers and to follow in the footsteps of the Prince of Peace.
*(1 Corinthians 13:7, 8; J. B. Phillips)