Matthew 5:43-47 & 7:1-6; Revelation 20:1-3; 7-15
Wendy and I recently watched a Channel 4 Documentary about the last Kaiser Willhelm II who in many ways was responsible for much of the carnage of World War 1.
He was the grandson of Queen Victoria. Her daughter Vicky had married into the German Royal family. After complications in the birth process, Willhelm had to be assisted out of the birth canal and in the process damage was done to the nerves and ligaments that went down into his left arm, leaving his left arm paralysed with what is known as Erb’s Palsy.
This was an enormous blow for Vicky and in line with the way most people thought back then, it is clear that she saw her son as being somehow defective as a result of it. It was an embarrassment and a source of shame for her. It is clear that she felt responsible and guilty that he had not, in her mind, been born whole and normal.
Two things happened as a result of this situation. For a number of years, great effort was made to get his left arm working again. This involved some terrible and horrific treatments. One of which was the daily experience for a prolonged period of time of having a rabbit slaughtered in his presence and the bloodied carcass strapped to his arm. Another was having his good arm tied up to try and force him to use his left arm. This only led to a deeper sense of frustration, failure and incompetence. Another, to keep his head straight when his neck began to twist to one side, was to have a metal rod fitted behind his back a leather straps fastened to his head to keep it straight.
These treatments obviously cause him great distress both physically and emotionally. Photos of him growing up reveal that he was a deeply unhappy little boy. Apart from the treatments themselves, he had to deal with all the emotional trauma of everyone around him constantly trying to hide his paralysed arm as a source of embarrassment and shame. Living in the shadows and being made to keep secrets is a deeply damaging way to live.
But perhaps more damaging than all of these things, the second thing that happened to Wilhelm from very early on, was that Vicky withdrew her motherly love and affection from him.
Not only did he endure traumatic treatments to get his arm right, but also the greater trauma of a mother who didn’t feel like she could love him because, in her mind, he wasn’t whole, in her mind he was somehow defective.
In his teenage years, from letters that he wrote to her, it is clear that he longed for the love and affection of his mother, but this love and affection was not forthcoming. She remained emotionally distant from him.
This left him with a deep, deep psychological woundedness.
In his younger years as a child, he had experienced a deep sense of connection with Britain, and this was primarily due to his deep love for his grandmother, Queen Victoria.
But as he grew into his later teenage years, in reaction to his English mother who had withdrawn her love for him, his relationship and attitude to Britain began to morph into a kind of love hate relationship. At the death of his beloved grandmother, Queen Victoria, his emotional ties with Britain became largely severed and it was his hatred for Britain that became more dominant.
At the young age of 29, with all of these unresolved emotional and psychological traumas of his childhood unresolved, it was a troubled and volatile young man, who became the new Kaisar of the recently unified Germany when his uncle and then his father died in 1888.
I would like to come back to this near the end of the sermon, but what the documentary suggests is that much of the destruction and suffering that Willhelm II brought upon Europe during the 1st World War was largely the tragic playing out on the stage of world politics of the unresolved psychological damage and trauma of his childhood that was then projected onto the country of Great Britain in response to his experience of emotional rejection by his English mother Vicky.
We’ll come back to the story in a little while...
Now, one of the central debates that happens across the pages of Scripture is about the causes of suffering. A dominant view expressed in the book of Deuteronomy said the answer was simple. Suffering and disaster comes upon people who are disobedient to the laws of God. If we obey the laws, it will go well with us. If we fail to obey the laws, it will go badly with us. And for the writer of Deuteronomy, this also played out at a national level. If Israel obeyed God’s laws it would go well with them. If Israel failed to obey God’s laws it would go badly for them.
This was also largely the views of many of Israel’s great prophets. When Israel was defeated by their enemies it was because they had been disobedient. This was largely how the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple were interpreted when the Babylonian Empire invaded Judea and took the leading Jews off into exile in Babylon. It was believed that God had punished them because the they had had been unfaithful.
And so the dominant answer to the question of why do people suffer, was: God has caused the suffering and God has done so because of our sinfulness and unfaithfulness.
But during their time of exile in Babylon, the Jews were exposed to new religious ideas. One of the religions they would have encountered would have been the Zoroastrian faith. According to Zoroastrian cosmology the world was a battle ground between good and evil, between Azhura Mazda, the Supreme Being, all good and all wise, and his counter-part Angra Mainyu, who represented evil, or the chaotic destructive forces in life.
After this encounter with Zorastrianism in their Babylonian exile, Jewish writers began borrowing ideas from the Zoroastrian cosmology, and in the process, the figure of Satan began to grow in the cosmology of Judaism. And in doing so, the figure of Satan became a new way for Jewish people to explain the existence of sin and evil in the world.
This new development in Jewish cosmology was most especially picked up by Jewish Apocalyptic writers.
In previous prophetic writings, the sufferings of the people of Israel were interpreted as a punishment from God for their sinfulness and unfaithfulness. But in this new style of writing, apocalyptic writers had come to see that the sufferings of the people of God could not be completely explained simply on the basis of sin and disobedience.
Rather, they had come to see that Israel was in some way the victim of a monstrous power of evil that sweeps like and avalanche over the righteous and the wicked. In the midst of this avalanche of suffering caused by oppressive and persecuting political powers, apocalyptic writers described the present age as being under the dominion of dark and evil powers symbolized by Satan who had come to be seen as the arch-enemy of God. And so while oppressive political empires had been the outward source of evil and suffering, apocalyptic writing began to make the assertion that the real power behind these evil and oppressive empires was in fact a spiritual evil that could be named as Satan. This is the framework in which the book of Revelation was written.
When you are a helpless victim of suffering and are battling to make sense of it, there is often great comfort in being able to identify the source of that suffering, and to live in the belief that God, in a great spiritual battle, will eventually over-throw the spiritual evil that is responsible for all the suffering that has happened.
But there are also great dangers in this kind of cosmology that seeks to divide the world too neatly between good and evil, the righteous and the unrighteous as we see happening in the book of Revelation. While on the one hand it gives the comfort of being able to point with your finger to the source of ones suffering: “That’s where the problem lies. They are the evil ones and we are the innocent victims”, The problem is, questions of suffering and evil are never that simple.
The story of Willhelm II is a reminder that there are far more complexities in the problem of evil and suffering than a neat black and white categories of good and evil. Willhelm II was quite understandably depicted in British newspapers as the devil incarnate and being in league with the devil, in a very similar way to which Emperor Nero was portrayed as an evil beast in Revelation. The Kaiser’s provocations had unleashed the most terrible and devastating war the world had ever seen. But the evil he unleashed on Europe and the world does not need the existence of a cosmic spiritual power of evil like Satan to explain it. In fact it can be for more easily and understandably explained as a result of the deep psychological woundedness and brokenness that stemmed from his childhood, that never had the chance of being healed. And when given the reigns of power at a young age, it played itself out in the most devastating way. Behind all the evil that he may have unleashed on the world, was the story of a traumatised, broken and frustrated little boy who never received the love and care that he longed for from his mother. A tragic tragic story not just for him, but in the end for the whole of Europe and indeed the world.
Part of the power of a book like Revelation is the dynamic tension that is created in the simplistic distinction between good and evil. This battle between good and evil has been the basic storyline that operates as the driver for many of the world’s greatest stories and drama’s: It is the plot of the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and even Harry Potter. It is a very powerful plot that draws us in, because all of us, no matter who we are, like to see ourselves ultimately as on the side of good no matter how distorted that sense of good might be.
But this story line is also a simplistic one. As seductive as the story line is, it is in fact too simplistic. As the Russian Exile, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said: “The line, dividing good and evil, cuts through the heart of every human being.”
This same conclusion was reached by Roy Coad, who wrote “A History of the Brethren Movement”. One of the motivating factors for the Brethren movement was the desire to separate from what they regarded as doctrinal evil, but this inevitably also spilled over into the realm of disapproved behaviour. In England, the Brethren ended up splitting into the Open Brethren, who were still quite committed to the idea of purity of doctrine and behaviours, and the Closed Brethren, who enforced these ideas with even greater strictness. They would disfellowship family members who didn’t conform, and ostracised them causing families to split often never to be reconciled.
Roy Coad, who was a member of the Brethren himself, concluded the following: “When you set about separating yourself from evil, in the end you find that the line dividing good and evil runs through every heart.”
Jesus seemed to have been very aware of this, which is why in the sermon on the mount, he encourages us to be careful in judging our neighbours too quickly. He says, before you take the splinter out of your brother or sisters eye, first take out the log from your own. In this teaching, Jesus is warning us about too quickly regarding ourselves as the good and the righteous and designating others as the evil and the unrighteous, because all the while we have logs in our own eyes that need to be identified and removed.
Part of the power of the book of Revelation is the division it creates between good and evil, God and Satan, the Lamb and the Beast, Christ and Caesar, between the righteous and the unrighteous. It makes for a good plot that draws us in. But those neat and simplistic distinctions are also part of the book’s weakness and its danger, because rather than praying for our enemies as Jesus encouraged his disciples to do, and rather than seeking to understand the real source and origins of other people’s evil as manifestations of their deep brokenness and woundedness, which is often not completely unlike our own, it is too easy to simply dismiss them as manifestations of evil that needs to be identified and destroyed rather than objects of Divine love who God longs to embrace, heal and redeem.
In true Christian understanding, evil is not the opposite of good. Evil is not eternal. Only God is eternal. And so there is nothing in this world that can ultimately be called pure or absolute evil, because evil has no life absolute of it’s own. Evil is always only a distortion and a corruption of that which was originally good because everything and everyone comes from God, no matter how distorted they may have become.
I close with the full quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”