Numbers 21:8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
I love comic books. I love comic books because the sides are pretty clear: there’s Ultron, very obviously the bad guy who wants to be evil, and does so unapologetically. Lex Luthor, the Riddler, Two-Face, Joker, clearly bad people, all eager in their purpose of being evil. It’s clear, and convenient in its clarity.
I suspect, however, our world is more confused. The people responsible for “evil” often don’t consider themselves doing evil. More often, they believe they are doing the right thing. Or perhaps they decide in the midst of collective passion and caught up in the moment. Perhaps we were told to do so and our own survival was at stake. Or we create distance between us and the evil we do. Sometimes I think killing animals is wrong, but I love steak, but I still refuse to kill Bessie.
A few weeks ago a friend asked me about the relationship between God, good and evil. He framed the question like so: “how can people who usually consider themselves good suddenly do bad things?” He echoed several recent events: how can good cops go about and beat someone who’s just standing there, and leave them to die? How can reasonable people not vaccinate their children? How can anyone deny climate change? He echoed Rwanda, the Killing Fields, the Holocaust.
I quibbled with the question. There are many questions about how we know what is true and false, and why don’t we believe true things. There’s plenty of evidence that says that we really don’t want to believe inconvenient things, and we really don’t want to do the work of changing our minds. This is our fall back position. A Republican and a Democrat can say the same exact thing, but our belief in its truth will depend on who said it. For example, when Fox News says that the Earth is round, I’m inclined to wonder if it’s true because of the source.
Further, most of us don’t like to be on the wrong or losing side, so we’re unlikely to change our mind, but simply find more sophisticated ways to keep our system of belief intact. The comforts of identity and tribe are hard to overcome. It’s what the people who are close to us think that matters, not the actual belief. And this is, perhaps, a double edged sword, because even the people we love can believe wrong things, and we also want to demonstrate our bonds by sharing the same belief.
So perhaps knowing false things, and being unwilling to correct them, indicates some aspect of moral blindness in ourselves. Instinctively we have reasons we refuse to revise or correct. Perhaps this is an element of being “evil,” although this should not overshadow the daily feed of terrible events that we observe regularly.
In the passage immediately before today’s reading (Numbers 21:4-9) the people of Israel had made a promise to the Lord of Israel: if you give us their land, we’ll completely take it over. The Lord does so. And so the Israelites destroy the Land of Canaan with the Lord’s approval. Let’s be clear: we don’t know if this actually happened, but if you were on a piece of land legitimately, it’s because some God approved of your conquest.
After they’ve been given the land, they leave and go to a new land. And they complain. The food’s not good enough. You gave us Velveeta when we wanted brie! Cheap Gallo when we’re deserved a Bordeaux? Lord, if you’re such a great God, you could at least raise your standards. They are dissatisfied, and what happens when they are dissatisfied? They turn on Moses and on God. Well, and so in the midst of all that covetousness, they are poisoned. Perhaps the cycle of envy, comparison, of rivalry is that poison, merely concealed in the metaphor of the serpent.
Rivalry, envy, covetousness. The illustrate our ambivalence toward limits and self-correction. Being forced to look at the serpent exposes, and hopefully inoculates us, against the poison. The urge to compare reveals a deeper anxiety that draws us in – the desire to be seen, acknowledged, and the fear of being shamed, exposed for not having any sense of self at all. The gospel says, For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
Perhaps evil is rooted in shame; and our need to cover up that which threatens to make us discardable, invisible. Like interest, shame compounds – we feel shame for not being able to control our shame. Anger substitutes for shame, but then to become ashamed that one is angry, and then further shame that one can’t control your emotions, until one’s fury is released.
We often think of shame when thinking about sexuality, but there are other fears. We don’t measure up in our intelligence, physicality, or competence. We fear that we are frauds. We fear that our strength is merely puffery. Often anger helps us conceal our fear that we are small, naked, and vulnerable, and in need of a love far more than we would like to admit. We are worried, about being ordinary, that we will not be noticed, that we are not lovable, that we don’t have a purpose.
Shame undergirds of violence. Nancy Sherman writes, “It is the fear of naked exposure, not just before others but before ourselves. You don’t have to be in an “honor culture,” such as the military, to be susceptible to it. Narcissistic injuries run deep in all of us.” We realize that we are powerless to do what we wanted, or hoped to do. The limits suddenly get in our way. As Brene Brown notes, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
This shame becomes the root of people violating themselves and others. The antidote is before us; seeing the serpent clearly; a cross that shows shame is not our God-given condition. Jesus on the cross is a God without power, humiliated, embarrassed, naked.
Our hope is that our spiritual practices allow us to understand there is no reason to be afraid. Our lack of power, exposed. Our lack of self, irrelevant. Now we can pick up what remains, and with the love that liberates us from all shame, keep moving. This is the power of grace, that space after brokenness that stops us from being paralyzed and keeps us moving. That moment of acceptance, when when we are neither paralyzed, nor driven forward. If our spiritual practices can demonstrate this, we will have grown.
Our traditions have practices that help us create this space: sabbath, for example, offers space to self sooth and be with those with whom we have affections; prayer, as a form of thinking, when done in a focused way, can keep us from ruminating.
Upon that cross is a man who has nothing before him, who is utterly naked and powerless, humiliated before all. It is our antidote to the poison of covetousness, the shame that fills us by not feeling as if we’ve been seen. It is meant to liberate us from the sense of lack that arises from our brokenness. We can be ordinary, we can be overweight, we can be verbose, and we can be shallow, but we are invited to live in truth as to who we are. We are each still deserving of empathy, and can receive the love of God.
The antidote for shame is empathy, and perhaps what Moses, and Jesus, are reveling is how we can be empathic, even in times where we have not experienced the sorts of violence that others have. It is enough to know that others have been humiliated, raped and slaughtered for us to take action on their behalf. We are not limited to our own experience. as a person who has never known violence personally, I can stand together with those who have.
As Brene Brown once said “You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” In spite of the darkness around us, it does not destroy the light. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows, not the dark itself. Our shame is not what we must hide, but may be the source of our greatest strength.