Goodness is stronger than evil
Isaiah 2.1-4, Romans 12.9-21
World Communion Sunday 2006
Fairlington Presbyterian Church, Arlington VA
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, an the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Whenever I come across this passage in Romans, I have two immediate thoughts. The first one is almost always, “oh! I’d been wondering where that whole business about burning coals was! I just KNEW that was in the Bible!” and the second is about Desmond Tutu. Specifically his famous affirmation that “goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.” This is the kind of world I want to live in—a world where good can overcome evil, where love overcomes hate.
But it’s not really quite so black-and-white, is it? Personally, I am extremely uncomfortable with the label “evil.” I think we use it too much, often for things we simply don’t understand, and maybe we don’t always mean it—or perhaps we do mean it, which is even worse. I think I am equally uncomfortable with the label “good.” After all, even Jesus refused the label, saying “only God is good.” But if even Jesus isn’t “good” then how are we supposed to be or do good? If only preachers had answers! Instead, what I have for you today is my experience, my story, which is not so much about being good as it is about living and learning with people who are different than I am, people everyone told me to be afraid of.
One year ago today I had successfully passed my 30-day Arabic class and was preparing for my first day in a classroom. A classroom full of 40 Egyptian first grade girls. It was the beginning of the school year. They spoke very little English, I spoke only a little Arabic, and we were supposed to somehow read stories and talk about them together. The other teachers were all Egyptian women, some of whom spoke no English. I was living in a lower-class Egyptian neighborhood where I and my fellow volunteers were the only foreigners, the only English speakers, and most of the time the only Christians. In my house were three other American young adult volunteers, a French volunteer, and a South African volunteer. The six of us lived in a little haven of English in a sea of incomprehensibility. We quickly learned how to get around our neighborhood, how to buy bread and fruit and sandwiches and kusheri—a delightful dish of spaghetti, rice, macaroni, lentils, tomato sauce, garbanzo beans, and fried onions. We slowly learned how to get around Cairo—to use the Metro, to take taxis, to walk without looking anyone in the eye.
This walking around without looking at anyone was the hardest part of living in Cairo for me. I am a friendly person. I enjoy connecting with people, meeting new people, being open and accepting and approachable. But in Egypt, women can’t be like that. Culturally, a woman who looks a man in the eye has initiated a relationship and he now has the right to harass her in any way he wants. So I learned to put a blank, vaguely angry look on my face before I stepped out the gate of the school. I learned to look at the ground instead of the people—which, it turns out, you kind of need to do anyway because sidewalks and streets are not in good repair. In short, I learned to put on not only my long skirts and long sleeves but also my brick wall.
Unfortunately, as a Christian woman especially, the brick wall doesn’t always help. I was still harassed on the streets almost every day—sometimes just words, sometimes really foul words, sometimes touching and grabbing and other physical abuse. Some of those times, I brushed it off. A few of those times, I fought back—not the most Christian response. I was lucky—some Egyptian Christian women walking through my neighborhood were dragged down the street by their hair. Some had acid thrown on them from passing cars. Many don’t leave their homes unescorted, some don’t walk or use public transportation at all, some stay home around the clock. The situation there often made me really angry, and I had few ideas about what to do. It took a long time for me to recognize the example Egyptian Christians were setting for me, showing me how to follow Paul’s directions.
About 12.5% of the population of Egypt is Christian. Most of those are Coptic Orthodox, a denomination that split off from the Catholic Church in 451. The church in Egypt was founded by Mark, the gospel writer, who is known as the first Coptic Pope, the bishop of Alexandria. Today the Coptic Pope lives in Cairo, in a big cathedral complex about a five minute walk from my house. The complex has big walls, a big church, a big house, and lots of big buildings full of classrooms, libraries, a gym, a seminary, snack bars, and an icon painting workshop. There is also green space—some of the only grass in my neighborhood—with trees, grass, benches, and peace. The Cathedral is a busy place, always full of people ordinary and extraordinary. Inside people are kind and friendly. Inside there is no trash on the ground—it’s one of the cleanest city blocks in Cairo. Inside strangers are welcome. The atmosphere inside the gate is different from outside the gate. I could look at people, I could make friends, I could go to the Pope’s Wednesday night Bible Study, I could socialize and learn more Arabic, I could relax a little and be myself. It was my oasis. I think that is true for many Christians in Egypt—they need a place to get away, a place to regroup, a place to be who they are without constantly being on guard. The Cathedral is that kind of place, where the body of Christ can be itself.
Most Christians in Egypt have a small cross tattoo on their right wrist or hand. This cross serves as identification, as well as a notice to anyone who looks that the bearer is a Christian. It also serves as a personal reminder of who they are, what they believe, who they belong to. Outside the churches, on the streets and in the workplaces, on the Metro and at schools, Christians act differently. They don’t have the same brick wall that others have. They treat people kindly. When they are harassed on the sidewalks, they greet the person and move on. They don’t throw trash on the ground, though everyone else does. They help older people across the busy streets. They have helped me push my way onto an overcrowded Metro, given me accurate directions when I’ve been lost, and been eager to talk to me about their faith when they’ve been my taxi drivers or waiters. Often, when a Christian saw my necklace, they’d smile and show me their tattoo. Basically, they act the same outside the church walls as they do inside. I wondered if their knowledge that everyone around them could plainly see that they were Christian changed the way they behaved.
I taught 240 first grade girls each week in 12 storytimes and 3 religion classes. We read a lot of books together, classics like the Very Hungry Caterpillar and the Polar Express. Toward the end of the year we were reading and talking about books like Red Hen and Sly Fox and The Rainbow Fish. In the religion class for Christian girls they learned the Lord’s Prayer in English, they acted out stories about Jesus and David and Elijah and Peter. We laughed and played and learned and read together. Those girls were my hope—every day they acted just like kids act. They loved each other, they played together, they studied hard together…though half were Muslim girls and half were Christian, it seemed that they had not yet learned that those differences can be barriers. They were just friends, classmates, study-buddies, my students.
Though I felt at home in the Cathedral and in the school, it was always very obvious that I was different. Egyptians almost all have olive skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. As you can plainly see, I do not. One of the things I missed most about America during the year I lived in Egypt was diversity. I missed the fact that in this country there are people with light skin, dark skin, red hair, brown hair, blonde hair, green eyes, brown eyes, blue eyes—the fact that not everyone looks the same. In Egypt, everyone knew I was different even if they only caught a passing glance out the corner of their eye. In my effort to find a place that was at least a little like home, I attended an international English-speaking church called St. John the Baptist. In this church something happened that was basically a miracle.
In Egypt, you see, people who look different generally don’t associate together. Egyptians, for instance, for the most part don’t like Africans, especially refugees. There’s a large Sudanese refugee population in Cairo, and they are victims of a lot of racism, abuse, and systematic oppression. People from other parts of the world are often treated badly as well, unless they have plenty of money to spend. But in this church, every Saturday at 5pm people from all over the world gathered for worship. African refugees, Egyptians, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, other Middle Easterners, a few Asians…we were all together every week at five, filling a little Anglican church with song, laughter and tears, and communion. Every week we gathered around the table, 8 to 10 people at a time, from all around the world, from different languages and traditions and countries, and we shared the meal Jesus prepared for us. We extended hospitality to one another, we rejoiced together and wept together, we fed the hungry and gave drink to the thirsty, we played and prayed, and we ate together every week at the Lord’s table. We were made into a multi-colored body of Christ every week, while the Egyptian society around us looked on as though we were crazy.
I think these are some of the things Paul may have had in mind. The example these Egyptian Christians set (and the example I would like to think we set at St. John) was exactly the kind of thing I needed to understand what it means to overcome evil with good. Lots of bad things were happening—not just to me and my fellow volunteers, but around the middle east. There were, as usual, issues in Israel and Palestine. There were demonstrations in Cairo that turned horribly violent. There was the whole business with Lebanon and with Gaza. There’s the continuing stuff in Iraq and Iran. And through it all, these people I lived among continued to love one another, to work hard to outdo one another in honor, to welcome the stranger and feed the hungry. They lived out the love they have received from the only One who is Good. And it wasn’t even about the burning coals. It was about doing what Isaiah suggests: turning instruments of death into instruments of life.
Thanks be to God for these witnesses, for these friends, for these living reminders that God’s goodness is indeed stronger than any evil, for these fellow members of the body of Christ. Amen.