Overcome Evil with Good

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest, I’ve felt a bit overcome by evil this week.  Monday brought with it yet another video of yet another black man, Jacob Blake, being shot by a police officer who reacted not out of his training, but out of a systemic and culturally engrained fear of black bodies.  Wednesday’s news revolved around the story of a white teenager, raised on steady diet of hatred and fear, who shot multiple protesters, killing two, with a gun almost bigger than he is, only to be allowed to walk right past police officers, cross state lines, and return home to sleep in his own bed. Lest Mother Nature be left out, we had two hurricanes, including the incredibly destructive Hurricane Laura, wreak havoc, throughout the southern United States.  And let’s not forget that amid COVID-19, school started this week for the students of Western, Warren County, and Bowling Green Independent while news of positive tests among school aged children and young adults rattled through our inboxes and across our television screens.  Fear and hatred and violence and pain and suffering seem to be ever present.  They weigh heavy on my heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Evil seems impossible to overcome.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

There was a point this week where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to say anything more to you than these words from Paul to the Christians in Rome.  They are a message of hope that feels almost out of reach these days.  In my heart, I know that I am called to preach the hope of the resurrection at all times, but as the week went by, finding that word of hope felt more and more difficult. By Thursday evening, when my sermons are usually fully drafted, I had nothing but a couple of false starts, as I searched for hope in the midst of systematic evil.  I kept searching because, despite it all, I know that earlier in Romans Paul promises that hope does not disappoint us as God’s love has already been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  Hope may feel beyond our grasp, evil may feel overwhelming, but by the grace of God, we have the opportunity to overcome evil with good through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Thursday evening, the Trustees and Council of the Diocese of Kentucky met via Zoom.  As is the custom at T&C meetings, the Bishop offered some opening remarks.  He noted, as I have here, how difficult things continue to be amidst the dual pandemics of racial injustice and COVID-19 before he reminded us of our call to shine the light of hope in our communities.  By way of a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bishop White called us as leaders in the Diocese of Kentucky to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.  “Christianity stands or falls,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”[1]

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In order to find our voice as harbingers of the goodness of God, those of us who claim to follow Jesus must side with the vulnerable, the weak, the outcast, and the oppressed.  On the broad scale, Episcopalians like to think we do this naturally, but we also tend to take a lot of pride in claiming 11 US Presidents as Episcopalians, St. John’s Lafayette Square as the Church of the Presidents, and the Diocese of Washington’s Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul as the National Cathedral.  Our collective past would have us aligned pretty closely with the worship of the kinds of power that since the beginning of civilization have threatened to overcome good with evil and violence.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In order to help us live into this call, Paul offers a few specific keys to success.  Love one another with mutual affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal.  Be ardent in spirit.  Serve the Lord.  In light of the dual pandemics and the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two of these are speaking deeply to me this weekend.  First, Paul calls on Christians to outdo one another in showing honor.  Honor is one of those old-timey words that gets used often in the church, but so rarely in society that I’m not sure we really know what it means anymore.  To honor someone simply means to regard them with respect.  In order to outdo one another with honor, we must seek to respect all who have been made in the image of God.  Christians who seek to overcome evil with good must learn to see the other, especially those whom we have been taught to hate or fear, as beloved by God, and worthy of honor.  Hearing that quote from Bonhoeffer on Thursday night, I realized why I struggled to find a word to preach this week.  I felt powerless to the societal evils that threaten to overwhelm and saw that powerlessness as a bad thing, when, in truth, powerlessness is exactly what is called for.  Setting aside our positions of privilege to outdo one another in showing honor is the beginning of our society’s path toward wholeness.  This is not easy work. Emptying oneself of power and privilege is a learned behavior.  More often than not, it is a lesson hard-learned as we work to overcome the things that our society, our churches, our politicians, and sometimes even our families of origin, have taught us.  Which brings me to the second admonition that is gnawing at me today, Paul’s call to be ardent in spirit.  Paul is always good for a word or two that need some exploration. I had to look up ardent. I’ll save you the effort and tell you that, in the Biblical context, ardent means to burn hot.  While the world has always taught humans to burn hot with anger, fear, and hatred at those who differ from us, Christians who seek to overcome evil must seek to burn hot with the Holy Spirit. It is only by the Spirit’s help that we can learn to give up the pursuit of power and seek to love our neighbors. It is only by the Spirit’s help that we are able to live lives marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  It only by the Spirit’s help that we can, ultimately, serve the Lord.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

In case you haven’t noticed, these words are becoming something of a mantra for me.  In a time when evil feels as real and as threatening as I’ve ever known, my prayer for myself, for you, for our nation, and for this world is that we might not be overcome by evil, but that with the help of the fire of the Holy Spirit burning within us, we might outdo one another in showing honor, setting aside our positions of privilege to listen to and lift up those who have been marginalized and systematically dishonored for so long.  It is a long and arduous journey toward self-emptying love that at times will seem impossible, but the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus has never been easy.  Do not be overcome by evil, my dear friends, but by the power of the Spirit, find comfort in the hope that one day, with God’s help, we will overcome evil with good.  Amen.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), ‘My Strength is Made Perfect in Weakness’ a sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9 found in ‘The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’

One thought on “Overcome Evil with Good

  1. Steve,
    Yor are right on. As I r read your teaching one of my favorite sayings” you know what you know, you know what you don’t know, but it is what you don’t know that you don’t know that will kill you.” (Donald Rumsfeld – a least favorite person). With respect to evil and racism, I am seeing how it’s what we don’t know about how we are racist that gives rise to the evil we would not do but are a part of (borrowing from Paul). To overcome evil with good we begin by seeking the evil we don’t know (recognize) within us; which we can do without fear, by trusting God/Jesus/Spirit is present to reveal how we are called to do good. Thanks JST+

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