Confronting Evil

January 3rd, 2011

It was one of those quintessential parental moments. My son, who was thirteen at the time, and I were seeing "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," the first movie in director Peter Jackson's adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's classic fantasy trilogy. We had arrived at the film's climactic moment. Gandalf the wizard had just defeated the balrog, a malevolent creature of fire and old magic. Just as it seemed that Gandalf's victory was complete, he fell victim to the demon's final, desperate act of violence. Overwhelmed by the movie's power, I was taken back to the time when I had, as a teenager myself, first read Tolkien's novel. Just as then, I grieved for the loss of this wise protector and guide, and I wept openly and gladly. My son, casting a sideways glance at this display, hissed, “Dad, stop it! It's embarrassing!”

What would lead a normally undemonstrative, middle-aged male such as me to cry in a movie (other than to enjoy the guilty pleasure that all parents of teenagers secretly experience when they embarrass their children in public)? Why have I, across the course of my life, read this book so many times that I have lost count? What is it that draws me, and millions of other readers and now moviegoers, back to Middle Earth, the setting for Tolkien's tale?

For me, part of the answer lies in Tolkien's moral vision of the confrontation with evil, and the true nature of power. To explain what I mean, I have to tell you a bit about the story. As the novel begins we meet Bilbo Baggins and his adopted son Frodo, members of a race of half pint dreamers known as hobbits. A ring that Bilbo had found during an earlier adventure turns out to be the One Ring, an evil talisman created by the dark lord Sauron. Thought to have been destroyed, Sauron is on the rise again, and is seeking the Ring to use its power in enslaving the free peoples of Middle Earth. Frodo takes the ring to a council of the enemies of Sauron, which debates long and loud about what to do with it. Some would take the Ring and wield it themselves, using its power as a weapon against its master. Yet the wiser members of the council recognize that the Ring would corrupt anyone who would try to use it, bending his or her will eventually to the will of Sauron. In the end these wiser heads prevail, and the council decides that its only course is to take the Ring into Mordor, the realm of Sauron, and destroy it by casting the Ring into the fiery mountain in which it was forged. Rather than commissioning a powerful wizard or elf to undertake this task, the council gives the job to Frodo, the last person anyone would expect.

A question has plagued Tolkien's interpreters since he first published The Lord of the Rings: Why would a convinced and devout Roman Catholic like Tolkien create a literary world that makes no mention of God? The novel is all about goodness and evil, yet where is the transcendent? I don't pretend to have a good answer to these questions (but I would recommend Ralph Wood's book The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings as a place to look for one). I do, however, have a hunch. Tolkien's Christian convictions appear, however obliquely, in the council's decision to confront Sauron's evil, not by using his own weapon against him, but by trying to destroy it. In entrusting the Ring to a hobbit, the lowliest member of their company, the council has engaged in a profound paradox: to combat the power of evil, they must eschew power itself, putting their trust in the powerless.

Martin Luther, who reveled in paradoxes, would surely have recognized this one as the theology of the cross. The theology of the cross tells us that God operates according to rules that we simply can't understand. Luther knew that at its heart, the gospel is about God's decision to confound the powers of this world by being born the baby of peasant parents in a dusty little country tucked away in the corner of the Roman empire. Likewise Paul understood the Incarnation as God's emptying the divine self of power, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness (Philippians 2: 7). Even more, the climax of the gospel story—the crucifixion—demonstrates God's decision to confront evil, not by overpowering it, but by laying power aside and accepting an ignominious death. In so doing God in Christ reveals the true nature of God's power: the power of God's love to compel the recalcitrant human heart to love God with all one's heart, mind, soul, and strength, and the neighbor as oneself.

The theology of the cross is something that North American Christians would do well to remember these days. As has happened periodically throughout the church's history, we find ourselves awash in speculation about the Second Coming. Best-selling novels and countless nonfiction titles all tell us that God's final confrontation with the powers of evil is at hand. The problem with much of this discussion, however, is the way it glories in depicting the confrontation as a violent one. Having apparently learned a lesson the first time 'round, this time Jesus is here to do battle with the principalities and powers on their own terms: through the use of coercive force. This picture of the Lion of Judah returning to clean house loses sight of the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world.

Even more important is the fact that the events of September 11, 2001 have resurrected the language of evil in our culture in a way not heard since the second, and possibly not since the first, world war. Along with the other citizens of the United States, Christians have been confronted with the reality of a hatred so strong that it sought to destroy thousands of innocent lives. More's the point, this hatred was devoid of all possibility of mitigation or mercy because it was felt in God's name. Confronted by such monstrous hatred, we had no choice but to dust off the ancient language of evil in an attempt to comprehend it. Living comfortably in an affluent society, we had become uncomfortable talking about evil. We had preferred the psychological language of “inappropriate choices” and “unhealthy environments” to the theological language of a power that infests the nooks and crannies of human hearts and societies, opposing itself to the will of God. September 11 made us realize that evil is probably the only way we can name the horror confronting us.

Yet in our use of the language of evil Christians must not forget the theology of the cross. As Andrew Park's article reminds us, evil wounds its victims in a way that can lead them all too easily to wound others. Let me be clear: the events of September 11 require that we as Christians confront the powers of evil. Whether a proper Christian response to that evil can or should involve the use of coercive force is something that the proponents of just war theory and pacifism must continue to debate. Yet surely both would agree that the exercise of power—especially military power—will not finally defeat the powers of evil. Unfortunately, that is just the presupposition that seems to fuel much of our national debate about how to respond to terrorists and rogue states who threaten the security of our country. Having emerged from the last fifty years of history as the most powerful nation on earth, we have become infected with the attitude that we can use that position to bend the course of human events completely to our liking—whether others in the world like it or not.

Christians must remember that at the core of our faith lies God's decision to overthrow the power of evil, not by exercising power as the world understands it, but by laying that power aside. The paradox, of course, is that in so doing God demonstrated the depths of God's power–and taught us what true power is all about. Our calling at the present moment, then, is to remind the culture in which we live that the usefulness of power, especially the power of coercive force, is limited at best. The confrontation with evil will require more, much more, than a violent response to violent acts. It will require Christians to recognize that, in the words of John Howard Yoder, “The cross is not an obstacle to the Kingdom; it is not the way to the Kingdom. It is the Kingdom come.”

Oh, by the way: As of this writing, I haven't seen Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the second movie in the trilogy. I think I'll ask my son to come with me–and tell him to grab some Kleenex as we head out the door.

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