Sunday, January 29, 2012

Confronting Evil, Directly and Indirectly

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on January 29, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 1: 21-28.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday 2012]

It was direct and it was dramatic.


I’m talking about the manner in which Jesus confronted evil in today’s gospel story.  There we were told that, as he entered the synagogue in Capernaum one day, he encountered a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit.  Jesus immediately said to the spirit, “Quiet!  Come out of him!”—and the spirit was compelled to obey (although it’s clear from the details of the story that the spirit did not want to obey!).

Jesus didn’t waste any time.  He faced this evil directly—head on—and he disposed of it in dramatic fashion.

Every day we encounter evil in various forms: lies; vulgarity; immodesty; greed; impurity; anger; unforgiveness—the list goes on and on.  And very often God wants us to confront these manifestations of evil in the very same way that Jesus confronted evil here; that is to say, directly.  (He certainly wants us to do that whenever we find any of these evil realities within ourselves.)  

But I would say that at other times God wants us to deal with evil in a more indirect way.  And we have a precedent for this in Scripture, because this was also the approach that Jesus took on certain occasions.  For example, remember the story of the woman caught in adultery, which we read in John, chapter 8?  The scribes and the Pharisees brought this woman to Jesus; they told him that she had been caught in the act of adultery (so there was no doubt whatsoever about her guilt!), and they reminded him that the Law of Moses stated that such women should be stoned to death.  Then they asked him for his opinion on the matter.

Now Jesus could have confronted them directly about their own sinful motives—their hatred of him and their desire for this woman’s blood.  But he didn’t.  He simply bent down and started writing in the sand.  Then, when they persisted in their questioning, he stood up and said, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone at her.”  Then he went back to writing in the sand (perhaps at that point writing the sins of the scribes and the Pharisees who were questioning him).

And that solved the problem, because, one by one, they all left.

Then Jesus also took the indirect approach with the woman herself.  Instead of reprimanding her directly, he simply said, “I do not condemn you.  You may go—but from now on avoid this sin.”

This indirect approach to dealing with evil has been something that’s been on my mind for the last couple of weeks—ever since I read the book, Unplanned.

Some of you have heard of it, I’m sure.  It’s been on a number of best seller lists for over a year.  Unplanned is the autobiographical story of a woman named Abby Johnson, who was once the director of the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Bryan, Texas.  Abby wanted to help women in crisis situations, and so she volunteered for the organization in 2001, while she was still in college at Texas A&M University.  She started off as a volunteer escort (an escort at an abortion clinic is the person who’s responsible for taking a woman from her car and into the building—while at the same time keeping her from listening to the pro-life volunteers outside the gate who are appealing to the woman not to kill her baby).

Abby, who ended up having two abortions herself, believed the lie that Planned Parenthood really wants to reduce the number of abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies, so when she graduated from college she became more deeply involved in the organization—thinking that this was a way to show compassion and love for women and to reduce the abortion rate at the same time.  Her intentions, at least to some extent, were good.

She rose through the ranks rather quickly and eventually became the local clinic’s director.  Of course, there were some things that bothered her—like the pressure she was receiving from her superiors to do more abortions and more late term abortions so that the clinic would bring in more money.  But what finally opened her eyes to the truth of what she was involved in occurred in late September of 2009, on the day she was asked to hold the ultrasound probe on the abdomen of a woman during an abortion.  She had never done that before, but they were short staffed that particular day and doctor needed her assistance.  And so, for the first time (through the miracle of ultrasound) she was able to see what really happens to a baby in the womb during an abortion procedure.  Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty.  Actually, it was horrific—so much so that when it was over Abby dropped the probe because she was so upset.

She then left the clinic in tears. 

And where did she go?  Where did she go in her anguish and in her distress? 

Well, believe it or not, she went immediately to the nearby office of the Coalition for Life—and to the people of that organization who had been opposing her for years; to the people who had been protesting and praying in front of her clinic!

You might say, “Why did she go to them?  Why did she seek help from these men and women who had been her enemies for so long?”

It’s because they had been nice to her!  It’s because they had prayed for her!  It’s because they had gotten to know her over the years and had treated her with kindness and respect!  Sure, they had had some conflicts with Abby during the 8 years she had been associated with Planned Parenthood, but basically their relationship with her was a good one.

Let me explain that a little further . . .

On the first day that Abby served as a volunteer escort, she noticed two kinds of protesters outside the clinic: those who were confrontational, and those who were prayerful.  And what struck her about the prayerful protesters was that they showed concern not only for the babies who were about to be aborted and their mothers, but also for the workers and volunteers at the clinic!  Well, as time went on, the confrontational protestors became fewer and fewer in number, while the peaceful, prayerful protestors became more and more numerous.  And Abby actually became friendly with some of them.

In her book, Abby said this in the chapter where she wrote about her very first day as a Planned Parenthood volunteer:

In the years to come, though I didn’t have a clue at this point, I would actually come to value some of these pro-lifers as friends.  I would witness a careful and hard-won shift in the techniques, tone, and character of the pro-life advocates outside the Planned Parenthood fence.  By my first shift at the fence in September 2001, the Bryan clinic had been providing abortions for about two years, and the pro-life movement of the area was in its infancy.  Though I didn’t know it then, I’d already met one of the courageous and prayerful leaders who would go on to shape the Coalition for Life: Marilisa.  And one of the young college-age guys praying that day, Shawn Carney, would soon marry Marilisa and assume leadership of the organization.  Together with David Bereit, they would help transform the efforts here in Bryan into a powerfully positive pro-life force whose influence would reach across the country and other continents as well.  These pioneers would replace the shouting with gentle conversation, the waving of ugly signs with prayerful vigils, and the hostility with a peaceful presence.  They would also change my life.  But all of that was yet to come.  (Unplanned, pp. 39-40)

Marilisa, Shawn, David and their pro-life friends confronted the evil of abortion using an indirect approach.  They discerned—rightly—that this was what God wanted them to do outside that Texas clinic.  And because they had taken that indirect approach and had reached out to Abby Johnson in kindness and in love, Abby was confident that she would be accepted, and helped, and forgiven if she went to them in her desperation (the desperation she was experiencing after assisting in that abortion).

And that’s exactly what happened.  The members of the Coalition for Life welcomed her that day with open arms!

The rest, as they say, is history.  If you want to know more about that history, buy the book Unplanned and read it.

I can almost guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

The direct approach or the indirect approach?

When it comes to dealing with a particular evil, the first step is to ask God to help us to see which of those two approaches he wants us to use.

And the next step is to act on the insight God gives us—like those pro-lifers did in Bryan, Texas.

The bad news, my brothers and sisters, is that evil will always be there; it will be around until Jesus comes again at the end of time.  But the good news is that we can do something about it, directly and indirectly, if we choose to.

And we must choose to, because, as Edmund Burke said many years ago, “All that it takes for evil to triumph in the world is for good people to do nothing.”