It probably says more about me than about the relative memorability of Sunday’s service that I wanted to run right home and watch Season 3, Episode 23 of The West Wing, “Posse Comitatus.” I’d forgotten how great, and momentous, this particular episode is. Exit Mark Harmon as Secret Service Agent Simon Donovan, the only man worthy of C.J. Cregg (sorry, C.J./Danny shippers); enter Lily Tomlin as eventual Secretary to the President Deborah Fiderer. There are about six plots going on—a night at the theatre, an assassination, the search for a new Secretary, the tension between C.J. and Simon, a major domestic bill in consideration and wreaking havoc with Josh’s love life, a pissing match between President Bartlet and his Republican rival Governor Ritchie involving a Yankees game and a traffic jam on the Major Deegan (reminiscent, now, of the traffic problems in Fort Lee)—and a recurring motif of the white and red roses of the houses of Lancaster and York, respectively. Throw in some Gilbert and Sullivan and it would really have been Peak Sorkin.
I digress. The episode was alluded to in our Modern Testimony, an excerpt from Megan Garber’s Atlantic essay, “How Trump Obscures Mass Shootings with Doublespeak.” The essay alluded to Governor Ritchie’s flaccid response to Agent Donovan’s death in an armed robbery: “Crime…boy, I don’t know.” It’s not so different from the responses of too many of our elected officials to mass shootings, not so distant from thoughts and prayers.
But are we off the hook, those of us who wouldn’t know an AR-15 from a paintball gun? What evil elicits little more than shrugs of the shoulders from us? In our Ancient Testimony, Isaiah really leans into the whole righteous anger of God thing from the opening verses of the book. It’s not just the evil God sees among God’s people in Judah and Jerusalem that’s stirred up the divine fury; it’s that they’re trying to buy God’s favor back with meaningless sacrifices and feasts, instead of just, you know, not being evil anymore. Micah suggested that questions of theodicy similarly miss the point: whatever the answer to the question of why a benevolent God permits evil to exist may be available to us (or not), we always have the choice to do better, to cancel the “theatre of goodwill” that substitutes shallow concern, generosity, or piety for actual goodness, to triumph over the everyday evils we all have a hand in permitting.
What are some of those everyday evils? I have no idea what to say to the man who seems to be living on a bench in the pedestrian plaza down the street, much less how to help him, and I haven’t even taken the incredibly easy step of placing a 311 call and asking someone from Homeless Services to check on him. I’m itching to buy a new phone even though the one I have works fine. I don’t bring a lunch from home nearly as often as I could, generating paper and plastic and food waste on a planet that can’t bear much more of any of it. The list goes on, the Whack-a-Mole game of cutting down my Amazon Prime game or taking public transportation only revealing more everyday evils.
After President Bartlet and Governor Ritchie chat for a little while, President Bartlet realizes he’s not getting through to him, finishes his cigarette, and stands up and says, “In the future, if you’re wondering, ‘Crime. Boy, I don’t know’ is when I decided to kick your ass.” In the chapter from Isaiah, God invites the people to engage in a vigorous debate about how to make evil right: “Come now, let us argue it out.” The worst thing we can do in the face of evil is to give up, to refuse to argue it out or kick some ass. We can’t answer all the evil in the world, but we can’t just wait for God to answer it for us or, worse, continue to act in the theatre of goodwill. Thoughts and prayers are necessary, but not sufficient.
Steff Reed helped to close our service with a singalong of his “The Power of Love,” and it was a good reminder that we don’t need to be presidents or prophets to answer evil in the world. “What if we believed we could actually triumph over evil?” Micah asked. What would that world look like? Some days, maybe more days than others, it’s hard to imagine. But if it is, maybe we can imagine doing just one thing.