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Lent 2004 -- Reflection
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Issue Date:  March 5, 2004

An icon of St. Paul: "Pray that I speak as fearlessly as I ought."
-- AFP/Janek Skarzynski
Putting on the armor of Christ

Lent reminds us that we go to the underground to follow Jesus


Way too many people tell me they have been “wounded.” Priests and pastors complain of the tedium of complaints. Women speak of insensitive husbands. Mothers talk of insensitive daughters. We get angry a lot. Even political candidates are judged by how they measure their own madness. Indeed, many have been hurt and not just those who can articulate the hurt. Mothers who stand in welfare lines with hurt feet are also angry. They can’t get out of line because they have to feed their children, so they “eat” their anger.

What causes all this hurt? I fear the word is big. It is evil. Evil, estrangement from God, causes hurt.

The Bible doesn’t even bother sitting around asking questions about evil. Evil is assumed -- in the creation story, in Jesus’ encounter with a speaking devil in the wilderness, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from Evil” and in countless other places.

St. Paul doesn’t even think about doubting the existence of evil! He presumes it. In fact, he speaks from a chained woundedness as “an ambassador in chains.” His words come from deep within a confession of his own, “Pray that in proclaiming it I may speak as fearlessly as I ought to.” He knows he should be without fear. He is not without fear. Still he speaks.

For Paul, in Ephesians, the antidote to evil is the armor of God. We are to put on the whole armor, wearing truth as our belt, righteousness as our breast plate, evangelism as our shoes, salvation as our helmet and walk around with the sword or Word of God in our hands.

To think about evil in a 21st-century context, in the United States of America, I fear we have to start earlier than Paul does. We aren’t quite ready to robe yet. The reason is that most of us are not ready to disrobe yet. We are highly defended instead of highly armored. Indeed, despite our loudly proclaimed allegiance to scripture, scripture, scripture, very few of us think that we are in the grips of evil at all. Some other people -- the various evil empires -- may be in the grip of evil. But not us. We live on the perch of good, high above the underworld, safe, secure and evil.

Some of you know about Procrustus, the Greek god who guarded the gates to Athens. Athens was the center of culture and power and beauty in ancient Greece, but to get there you had to pass by Procrustus and his bed. Whatever part of you didn’t fit on his one size-fits-all bed, he chopped off. If you were too tall, your legs went. If you were too short, you stretched. Procrustus is a form of evil called conformity. We are all to be one size and one shape. As we approach this notion of evil, I ask you what part of you was cut off? What did you have to leave behind to fit in this world? What has Athens done to you?

Persephone is the maiden in Greek myths who spent life in a meadow picking flowers. One day the earth opens up and she is consumed, abducted into the underworld. Many people speak of the lives of adolescent girls this way: They figure out around 12 that they can no longer be either smart or athletic and still fit the bed of marriage and femininity. So they go underground. Many therapists describe underground as the place where you can’t act on what you know so you stop knowing it. This underground is not just about girls. Many Vietnam vets went crazy because they couldn’t believe what they saw. Their only solution was to go crazy. This abduction of Persephone is any major betrayal that abducts you and takes you to places you never wanted to go. I think of unexpected poverty and the man sitting on the beach with his wife, reading the paper: “Maud, we are no longer on vacation. The company folded.” Abductions into the underground happen to many people. We ourselves are not evil. But our responses can be evil. We can let disappointment kill us or we can find our way through.

I think of mothers who surely know that something has happened to their child when the child is abused by a teacher or a Boy Scout leader or a priest. Why don’t they let themselves know what they know? Because they are turning down the positive uses of their own power, which is minuscule, and refusing God’s power, which would let them not only know what they know but act on what they know. Is it really true that the Roman Catholic church did not know what the priests were doing to their children? No. But it was denied because the truth couldn’t be acted on.

Why don’t we know evil? Because we can’t figure out a way to act our way out of the conformity of not knowing it.

Our souls have been cut off in our own particular Athens. Evil is our cooperation with evil. Good is our knowledge of evil. We are the problem and we are the only solution to the problem.

Before we even bother with the whole armor of God, we’d have to believe that we need it. Inana, a Sumerian goddess, had a very different experience from Paul’s experience with armor. She is asked to take things off. Inana has a sister who is in trouble in the underworld and she thinks it will be a cinch to go down and save her. Because she is so much a somebody in the upper world, she thinks the lower world will also obey her will. On the first level on the way down, Inana is asked to surrender her headdress. At the second gate, she is asked for her necklace. At the third, her breast plate, at the fourth her girdle, and at the last gate she is asked to take off her gown. Naked and bowed low, she enters the underworld.

This reminds us of nothing so much as going to the hospital. We give up our role, our identity, our jewelry. In county hospitals they put this stuff in a paper bag. We are disabused of any specialness about ourselves at all.

Or is it actually Christ’s path to the cross that Inana is following? He, too, is stripped of everything only to come out victorious. How does he have the victory? Not by his earthly roles or upperworld distinctions. By the power and grace of God.

Many of us think we can get out clean and whole in life. Ancient myths and St. Paul join forces to say that isn’t so.

The alternative to evil is truth. But we have to help each other speak the truth.

Walter Lippman, the great journalist, defines procrustean behavior as a determination to make the evidence fit the theory. Isn’t that what we do when we deny evil in our lives? Don’t we become procrustean and chop off part of what we know on behalf of what we hoped would be true?

The Environmental Protection Agency announced recently that the National Security Council misled the public on Sept. 11 when it said that there were no or little adverse health affects for workers cleaning up the mess of the twin towers. Why? For “national security concerns.” This was a procrustean assault on the facts and the truth. Before we become too judgmental about our government, note that the personal security system is often hiding beneath something like personal security concerns. The government didn’t do this without help.

Utility plants have just been released from anti-pollution upgrades. Why? Because those of us who care about air think there is nothing we can do to save it.

The antidote to evil lies in our choice to brave the underworld. Whatever we repress comes back and is accessible and alive. Indeed, Persephone comes through her trial and emerges stronger and better. Inana is a much better queen because of her time in the underworld. And I do believe we will be better people if we let ourselves go through what we know but fear. Remember St. Paul: “Pray that I speak as fearlessly as I ought.”

We might pray with Paul that we become as fearless as we ought to be. That we enter the underworld aware that it brings riches. That we go to the cross aware of Resurrection. That we follow Jesus with the vigor that Paul followed him. When we make this decision, this turn, it is like what happens to Persephone at the crossroads. There she meets Hecate who tells her she can turn toward life or death. She “unrepresses.” She opens herself to truth. Or in Paul’s words, she puts on the belt of truth and puts in her hands the sword of the Word of God.

If you can’t act on what you believe, you stop hearing it. So act on the cross. We are a people of the cross. We have an underworld of which we are not afraid. We go there to rise. We follow Jesus.

Donna Schaper is senior pastor of the Coral Gables Congregational Church in Miami. Her latest book is Sacred Speech from Skylights Paths Publishing.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 2004

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