respecting freedom

We like to imagine that evil is some external enemy that we can attack and destroy, whether it be demonizing a person or a disease or doctrine or social system. But Jesus knew evil was internal, in the intentions of people’s hearts. In the people he did not want to destroy but save.

This makes the problem much more difficult. Evil cannot simply be attacked and destroyed; people must freely choose to turn away from it and turn towards God. We cannot force others to do this. We can restrain actions, or even end lives, but this does not help people give up their own willfulness and depend completely on God’s will in faith. Using force and violence on others does not help them open their hearts.

And we see that Jesus also responded to the evil in others without using force or violence on them. He named the evil and called them to change, but did not try to make them change. He addressed the evil in their hearts without trying to forcibly restrain their actions. An example of this is found in the scene where a woman who had been caught in adultery is brought to Jesus. Evil has been done by the woman (and her partner) and now others are prepared to punish her by stoning, right in front of Jesus. What is his response?

And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (Jn 8.1-11)
Jesus does not jump up to stop the killing, but calmly writes on the ground. He does not try to forcibly restrain the crowd at all. Instead, he points out their own sin (and the implied need for forgiveness) and so recommends forgiveness. In this case, the killing is avoided. But Jesus did not prevent it from happening; if they had not freely chosen to walk away, the woman could have died. Here Jesus shows that his struggle with evil (in others) is not a struggle to prevent external actions, but an attempt to free people from the evil in their own hearts. And we see that in the end Jesus also points to the evil in the woman’s heart, hoping that the mercy she has experienced will help her change too.

Our response to evil is almost always a resort to force and violence. Even those who avoid physical violence themselves often use legal force (which is backed up by the government’s physical force) or economic force, trying to pressure others into certain behaviors by hurting their business or source of income. This may be effective in controlling actions. But it does not soften hearts. It does not help people see and turn away from their evil willingly.

Jesus’ way of respecting the freedom of even his enemies and those who do evil showed the best way to love people in those circumstances. He did not try to restrain or destroy those who did evil, not even for the sake of protecting their potential victims, but tried to save every person. From the evil in their own hearts.