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by James M. Kushiner
Just three days before last Thanksgiving at a gas station in Chicago, a professional mugger strong-armed me, threatened to blow my head off, and emptied my pockets of cash—in less than ten seconds. I had no time to respond.
Two days before Christmas, I finally did respond. I did the only thing I thought a Christian should do: repay evil with good. Or, as one biblical text puts it, “overcome evil with good.” No, I didn’t find the man who mugged me, instead I found the Angel Tree program of the Prison Fellowship Ministries.
This program lines up volunteers to distribute Christmas gifts to the children of prisoners—those in jail for crimes like armed robbery. A friend asked me to help him deliver some of these gifts. So we spent part of the day before Christmas Eve in some of the worst neighborhoods I have seen in Chicago (and I have been in many) delivering gifts to various homes.
We told the children that we were delivering these gifts to celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus, on behalf of their father or mother. In this way a small measure of dignity was given to the parent in the eyes of the child. I felt I was doing a favor for the man who had robbed me, or perhaps someone like him. In retrospect, it was a very small thing to have done, and I really can’t take much credit. After all, Angel Tree provided me the opportunity, and my friend provided the personal invitation.
As Christians we are taught to overcome evil with good. This obviously doesn’t mean that every wrong, every effect of sin, will be directly and immediately overturned, counteracted by a good deed. Nevertheless, we are called to regularly, faithfully do good works in order to witness to the grace of our Father in heaven. This is so even when the deed may, to all appearances, be swallowed up by the darkness around it. We are expected to start where we are and to do good where we live—and to make that a top priority in our lives.
Any good that I do may appear futile in reforming the world. But grace always begins in the particular and concrete and from there may send out ripples, occasionally great ripples, but usually small ones. This always has been the case. The biblical “great light” that shone in Galilee, according the prophecy in Isaiah, ultimately becomes the messianic “kingdom without end.” But at first sighting the great light is only a poor Galilean who begins to preach to his fellow Galileans. When God reaches out, he usually begins with someone, sometime, someplace. And that is all that I have to offer: my self, my time, and my place.
We should not denigrate even the smallest of deeds. Many times the effects are not seen until years later. A year ago, my wife was collecting food for our neighborhood food pantry. At one house a woman began to empty her pantry. The reason? She said when she was a little girl living down South, neighbors helped to feed her destitute family. Her generosity was a direct result of the deeds done by those neighbors—they, in a sense, also helped to feed the hungry in Chicago last year. Grace does abound, and a good deed ultimately will not return empty. So the call is to overcome evil with good—one deed at a time.
The mandate to overcome evil with good could not be more timely. If the moral decay in our country is as bad as conservatives say it is, then the work of us conservatives becomes more urgent, more demanding. Reeling from overwhelming defeats in the culture war, the so-called Religious Right (and everyone else) faces a moral disorder that has affected every area of life. Our society is degraded by abortion, child abuse, spousal abuse, drug abuse, family abandonment, pornography, sexual perversion, dishonesty in business, greed, and so forth. There are broken people, abused children, unwed mothers, orphans, and unwanted people as a result of this moral chaos. The more evil, the more good that needs to be done.
Overcoming this kind of evil lies beyond the power of institutional and political solutions, for the causes lie within every selfish impulse of the heart. And the only way to overcome or confront this evil is by doing good, in specific personal ways that cost us something.
Understanding this point is imperative, I believe, for American Christians who feel that recent political victories of the so-called Christian Right will hasten the coming of the kingdom or somehow make our nation more Christian. Many are content now to let the political process simply work itself out, thinking that righteousness and justice may be secured by casting a vote. We are warned by the Psalmist, “Put not your trust in princes, the sons of men in whom there is no salvation.” Anyone who thinks that the cause of Christ must be equated with tax rates, welfare reform, and military spending, or that the kingdom may lurch forward under the inspiration of a political revolution or a realignment of the power-brokers, is missing the point.
And the point is that the Lord shall ask each of us whether we fed the poor, clothed the naked, visited the prisoner, and comforted the sick. Whether or not the government is good at these things is another matter. As Christians we are supposed to be or to become good at them, and we should be known for them. If we believe that Christ is the answer to the moral devastation about us, it is time for us, who are to be filled with the Spirit of Christ, to step up and prove that we can do good, and that we care enough to. Otherwise, we can take our savings from imminent tax cuts and spend them on ourselves. But in that case, we should not be surprised if the Lord of Matthew 25 reminds us that it is possible to be sheep in theory only and not in practice.
If you are interested in Prison Fellowship Ministries or the Angel Tree program, contact: P.O. Box 17500, Washington, DC, 20041-0500. Phone (703) 478-0100; fax (703) 478-0452.