Captain America: The Nature of Good and Evil

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My daughter and I are active participants in the Marvel Universe. We have seen all the movies, and even watched most episodes of ABC’s Agents of Shield. Captain America is perhaps our favorite of the superheroes, so we were anxious to see the new installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The movie certainly did not disappoint.

Captain America (Steve Rogers) was a soldier with the Greatest Generation in the first movie. He felt certain he was battling evil, in the guise of Nazi Germany, during WWII. Rogers found himself frozen at the conclusion of a battle, only to be awoken 70 some years later in our current day. He spends the early part of this new movie struggling with the nature of good and evil. Is he working for the “good guys?” Is he really fighting evil? Does the end justify the means? Without spoiling the movie, let me state that these answers are never resolved, but it is refreshing to hear a hero struggle with those concerns, especially in a summer tent-pole action movie.

As Rogers discovers that Shield (the agency for whom he works) has the ability to spy on every single person on the globe, he is concerned that the actions evolve from fear, not freedom. Much has been written in theological circles since 9/11 about the culture of fear which now pervades society. Countless freedoms have been eradicated based upon fear from real or perceived threats.

Fear is intricately tied to an understanding of good and evil. When we place ourselves solely in the “good guys” camp, it is easy to demonize another person or group as evil, or “the bad guys.” As long as we are the good guys, then whatever we do is necessarily right, and conversely so for the bad guys. We can do no wrong, and some might even say that is the case because God is on our side. When we demonize another, we live in fear of that person. All our actions are based out fear, because we believe the other is evil.

My district superintendent (my boss, and an extension of the bishop in my judicatory) gave me some sage advice during my first appointment at a local church. I was in the midst of a situation rife with deceit and misinformation, some from very long term members of the church. He could not have been a better support, and gave me books to read about church conflict and about the nature of evil. Evil had always felt like a distant entity – Nazi Germany, for instance. Yet, sometimes it can encompass individuals. I am always very careful about naming something as evil – it is a very damning thing to do, and naturally places me in the position of God. Yet, Fred told me one thing I have never forgotten – When we battle evil, we have to be extremely cautious, because it can easily encompass us as well.

There is real evil in the world. Each person has the capacity to commit acts of great good or great evil – it depends upon being in the right or wrong circumstances. Living a life based upon fear much more easily allows that evil to encompass us, to guide our decisions. Captain America: The Winter Soldier powerfully illustrates that point. The movie ends with Rogers, still greatly conflicted about the nature of good and evil in this world, but certain about one thing. He remains convinced that there is good in the world, and that redemption is a real possibility. I look forward to seeing how he follows that belief in future installments.

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Better Together/Be Blue Day

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People are wearing every shade of blue on college campuses across the nation today. Duke blue, Carolina blue, teal, aqua, and everything in between. Each year Interfaith Youth Core sponsors an annual day to take a stand against religious intolerance. Wearing blue means that one supports interfaith dialogue and shows respect for people of different faith traditions. Students are especially encouraged to find volunteer projects they can do together. Having a common goal – especially helping make the world a better place – is always a good way to build community.

College campuses are a perfect place to deepen one’s spiritual journey. Students are removed from the pressures of their homes, and can’t rely on being parasites of their parents’ faith. My mom once told me that the unexamined faith is not worth having. The independence of a collegiate setting provides the opportunity to delve more fully into one’s own faith – what do I believe, why do I believe it, how does this impact my life and the lives of others around me. The spiritual journey hits at the heart of all the existential questions in life.

So many people assume that interacting with someone of a different faith will harm or damage their beliefs. I don’t know how many times I have encountered first year college students whose home churches gave them the parting words, “Don’t let that school take away your faith!” The recent movie, God’s Not Dead, only encourages that mindset of fear. The movie tells the fictitious story of a college student whose professor makes his class disavow the existence of God or fail the class. One young man refuses to do this, and thus is given the alternate assignment of convincing his classmates that God is not dead. If he cannot achieve this, then he will fail. The well-meaning church members who fear for the faith of their young ones heading to college certainly supported this movie.

A protectionist, defensive mindset prevents people from developing a mature and real faith. A good college education encourages a young adult to think for herself, to develop her own ideas, to explore a variety of facets from multiple perspectives. College is not a place out to destroy one’s faith. It’s a place where one has the opportunity to create a deep faith that has true meaning, and will provide a spiritual foundation for all the ups and downs each life carries.

Encountering people of a different faith in a meaningful way does not harm one’s faith, but actually makes it stronger. I love seeing a student explain her faith to someone else. When she does, she understands it more fully. It becomes much more her own, instead of something she simply inherited from her family. It excites me to see students find commonalities across faith traditions. They realize we oftentimes have more in common than we realize with a surface or misinformed understanding of a different tradition. And it thrills me to see students band together to make the world a better place.

Our world is so incredibly divided today. This division oftentimes comes from ignorance and misinformation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once stated that college students are at the forefront of any real change in our world. Thousands and thousands of students across our country are leading that change today. They are wearing blue, signifying to all around them that they are taking a stand against religious intolerance and will find ways to live authentically in community with people of different faiths.

Thanks be for leadership of college students!

“Loneliness is the great affliction of our age.”

“Loneliness is the great affliction of our age.” I was only half listening to the author being interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition, but that one statement echoed throughout my small car. I repeated the phrase a couple times before asking my daughter to find a slip of paper and write down the sentence. I continued driving to church while Ava graciously recorded the statement. I listened more closely and soon discovered the author was Lawrence Osborne, promoting his new book The Ballad of a Small Player. I admittedly have not read anything by this British writer, but his insight spoke to me, especially as we were heading to weekly communal worship.

Humanity certainly has been afflicted throughout history. Sometimes it’s easy to spot the problems – violence, disease, fear, greed, discrimination, hatred. Each of these things is prevalent in the world today, but I believe Osborne is correct in his assessment. Loneliness is the greatest of all the ills facing our world today. The irony is that we are more exposed, more connected than ever before. Through the internet, and social media in particular, we oftentimes end up sharing far more of ourselves than is perhaps a good idea. We have hundreds of “friends,” place our every unfiltered thought on twitter, and post selfies of every size, shape and sensitivity multiple times a day. We create an interesting timeline of our lives, encouraging people to know how #blessed we are or sharing our outrage over poor customer service at the local store.

Yet, in the midst of this extreme lack of privacy, we are lonely. A recent study by the University of Chicago revealed that loneliness is dangerous for one’s health even, placing a person more at risk than poverty. During my years of working with college students, I know that isolation (real or perceived) is one of the biggest challenges. The teen and young adult suicide rate continues to increase. If one feels completely alone, the pain is often so great that death seems the only escape.

There are a number of reasons I attend church (and not just because I’m a minister). One of the primary reasons is for the community. God calls us to be in relationship, and we know God most clearly when we are connected with others. It is when two or three are gathered together that God is present. Even when we are not in the physical presence of another, knowing that we are connected with someone else in spirit holds a great power – a great power of grace.

Community doesn’t always need to be found in religious or spiritual organizations. That is obviously an easy place to combat loneliness and isolation, but we can create community with others in very powerful ways. Friends can oftentimes become closer than family. Our co-workers and neighbors can provide support and understanding in ways we can’t always imagine. To heal the great affliction of our age, we are called to connect with others. Social media is a great way to enhance relationships which are already present. It’s not a substitute for doing the deep face to face work required in friendships. Connection is not just about time – it’s also about quality. We must risk ourselves and that which is at the heart of who we are, so that others can truly know us and we can truly know them. That’s scary to do. Revealing ourselves is not always received as we would like, but when it is received with grace and love, it has the greatest power in the world.