The scriptures referred to are Zephaniah 3:14-20.
The Netflix TV series Jessica Jones is about one of the lesser known superheroes in the Marvel Comics universe. She is actually an ex-superhero, having given up the costumed avenger gig to work as a private eye. Part of the reason, at least in the TV version, is to lay low after encountering a particularly evil supervillain named Kilgrave. While Jessica has superstrength and can jump far enough that it can be considered a form of flight, Kilgrave can control minds. He can tell people to do anything and they are powerless to disobey. It turns out to be a very devastating power. We find out that in the past he used Jessica as one of his henchmen and as his sex slave. Even after getting away from him, Jessica can't use her superstrength to take Kilgrave out because he usually has people under his thrall to protect him or alternately, who will hurt themselves or others if she attacks him. At one point, to save further lives being lost, she agrees to live with him nonsexually and tries to see if she can convince him to use his power for good. They end a domestic-abuse-turned-hostage-situation by having Kilgrave simply walk in, tell the abusive father to not move and letting the distraught wife and kids leave, with instructions not to tell anyone about them. Then Kilgrave tells the father to put the gun in his mouth. Jessica convinces Kilgrave to have the father turn himself into the police instead. And that's leaves Jessica wondering if she can try to make a villain into a hero.
Superhero stories are modern mythology. Though they use unrealistic ideas and heightened drama, they can help us explore issues of good and evil. One of the things I like about Jessica Jones is that it solves the whole “she's got superstrength; it's hardly a fair fight” problem that comes up in regards to superheroes. The reason they invented Kryptonite is that Superman is too powerful and by rights every adventure with him should be over in about 5 minutes. That's why he always seems to be up against other Kryptonians, other powerful aliens, robots, supercomputers, supergeniuses or magical beings. In Jessica Jones they show that superstrength is not a match for someone who make anyone do anything, especially if the hero cares about other people. Might can't solve all problems.
Another major theme however is how having your mind controlled would really mess you up psychologically. When Kilgrave gives someone an order, they want to obey him. But after this state wears off, people feel violated. Even one woman, whom he merely told to smile because she had such a beautiful one, finds it hard to smile again because at the time she had no choice. Kilgrave had ruined smiling for her.
Why am I nattering on about fictional characters? Because it illustrates two problems with the way we want God to act in the face of evil.
Last week we talked about the key problem with our world, namely that people frequently do not do what is right and often do what is wrong. We talked about the actions we have tried to rectify this problem. Education, therapy, and providing good alternatives all help when the difficulty is that people either don't know any better, are impaired or lack resources. But they don't solve the big problem of people who do know better and do have alternatives but do what's wrong—what's harmful and destructive—anyway. What do we do when people do the wrong thing simply because of their arrogance, laziness, lust for power, greed, hatred, envy or self-indulgence.
Some folks think there is another reason people do the wrong thing. Because they have been educated but badly. They have been taught the wrong things—the wrong politics, or bad science or the wrong religion or any religion. If you follow the wrong ideology, even with the best intentions, you can do the wrong things, thinking you are in the right. And let's grant that that can be true sometimes. But only up to a point. Believing the wrong thing can be inadvertently harmful, like, say, thinking that not vaccinating your children will make them safer. But the minute you start coercing those who don't believe in your truth, the minute you start trying to force them to follow your truth against their will, the minute you try to silence opposing viewpoints, you are acknowledging that you doubt the full truth of your position. Because if you really believed it was the truth, the most logical course is to broadcast it. If it is really the truth, then the truth will triumph. It may take a while. If the truth is unpalatable, people may resist it. But, like the fact that vaccination has drastically reduced the incidence of death and disability in children, the truth will eventually win most people over. It's only when you are losing the argument, that you feel you must resort to either deceit or force.
Brain imaging has shown that people tend to form their opinions based on their emotions and only then do the rational parts of the brain activate. First you decide what is right, and then you call upon your logical faculties to justify it. So people often dress up their rather nakedly emotional reasons for doing what they would do anyway with ideology. It doesn't matter if the ideology is political, economical, racial, religious, or even a mixture of the four, because the specific ideology is merely a tool and deep down it is all about getting what one wants. That's why the more extreme movements are, regardless of whether they are on the right or the left, whether conservative or liberal, the more similar their coercive tactics are. One could even argue that certain people choose an extremist position because it justifies the force they wish to use to get their way.
For instance, Islam, like Christianity, has different schools of interpretation, some mainstream, some decidedly not. According to the Pew Research Center, which surveyed Muslims in 39 countries, the majority disapprove of ISIS and disagree with their tactics of suicide bombings and violence against civilians. That includes all respondents in Lebanon, 98% in Iraq, 94% in Jordan, 92% in Indonesia, and 86% of the Muslims in the US. Only 7% of Muslims said such tactics were sometimes justified.
So ISIS has chosen not just a minority view within Islam, but an extremely tiny minority view. Most Muslims view it like Christians view the Ku Klux Klan, which once declared that Jesus was the first Klansman! No one adopted these positions out of necessity; there were plenty of other options. In these cases, they chose to ignore the vast majority of their coreligionists and emphasize and follow the more violent passages of the Bible or the Quran rather than the ones promoting peace. They chose them because they appealed to them more than the other interpretations. In other words these views did not come from their heads so much as their hearts and then they used their heads to justify them.
It all comes down to the heart. And force will not change hearts. And so while we want to see Jessica and other superheroes beat down the bad guys, and at times we want, like Zephaniah, to see God as a warrior kick evildoer butt, mere strength will not solve all problems. Could Superman end racism? Could the Hulk solve the problems of the Middle East? Not unless you want them to kill all evildoers. And isn't that what people are asking for when they say, “If there is a God, why doesn't he end all evil?”
And where exactly should God stop in punishing evil? We may not be killers ourselves but we all do things that we ought not to do. Studies show that most people will cheat, if only a little, when they think no one is watching, Studies show that most people will pass by a suffering person lying on the sidewalk. A student video project showed that most people will not stop or intervene if they see a person beating up someone else in public. And we know that we ourselves do things like drive and text or go over the speed limit or pass when we shouldn't though we know that stuff endangers everyone around us. We scroll past that Episcopal Relief and Development or ELCA appeal on Facebook to help people in some disaster area, not even giving $5 and then go on to another site and spend $50 on some video game or gadget or something else not strictly necessary. We let slip that piece of gossip about the person who just happens to want the same job we do. We watch that porn, never asking if the girl is doing it consensually, though we have heard that sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar business. We stay quiet when someone says something racist or makes crude comments about a woman we know. Sometimes we do what is wrong and sometimes we let things we know are wrong go on. But we want God to stamp out evil. Just not ours.
So if strength will not solve the world's problems, because it doesn't change hearts and minds, why doesn't God simply, magically change people? Again when we ask “If there is a God, why does he permit people to do such awful things?” we are asking either that he kill these people or that he change them against their will. If people doing the wrong thing is the problem, why won't God just make it so people can't do what's wrong?
In the series Jessica Jones, Jessica puts together a support group of people whose minds Kilgrave has hijacked. Even though he makes them feel that they want to do these things at the moment, they feel violated. The word “rape” is used because they had no choice.
The reason God gave us free will is because he is love. Love has to be voluntary to be real. He could make a world where no one could do anything wrong or harmful. In other words, he could make a world of robots. And he could make them say they love him and one another and he could make them act in ways that seem loving. But it wouldn't be real. Just as it wasn't real when Kilgrave made Jessica act as if she loved him. Instead it drives her to drink. To self-loathing. One of the things that makes us human is our ability to choose. The most dehumanizing thing in the world is to have your ability to choose taken away. God wants us to choose to love him and others. As Paul says, “Let your love be genuine.” (Romans 12:9)
Of course, if you have the ability to choose, you have the ability to choose the wrong thing. Otherwise it's not a real choice. There is no getting around that. God was willing to make a world in which there was the possibility of people rejecting him and other people in order to have a world in which we have the ability to choose to love.
Choices have consequences, though. That's another avoidable fact. If you made a choice and it made no difference in what happened, your choice wouldn't matter. We live in a world where choices matter. If you choose to do the right thing, one series of consequences will follow. If you choose to do the wrong thing, another set of consequences are triggered. If I choose to hit you, things will proceed in a much different fashion than if I choose to hug you. That's not coercion; that's just the way a universe that allows for real choice works. When the Bible talks about God's judgment, it is primarily talking about people reaping what they sow. You can't set off a rock slide and then grouse when it buries your camp.
God has chosen not to coerce us, by either physical or mental means. And as part of our being created in his image, he has offered us choices. And if he is true to that principle, he must solve the problem of people doing wrong without resorting to manhandling or mind-control, for those two tactics close off choice. That means he must woo us. He must show us how much he loves us and do so in unmistakable terms.
Last week we looked at the diagnosis of the problem. This week we looked at what is wrong with two popular solutions for how God should take care of the problem. Next week we will look at how God actually tackles the problem. Next week we look at Jesus.