A Pepper Grinder Post

The Good Guys Win

I think the most depressing movie I ever saw was Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.  It started out like a typical detective movie, with a private investigator stumbling on a huge and wicked conspiracy in the course of a routine investigation.  Chinatown posterDuring the movie, it comes out that the leading lady has a daughter who is the product of an incestuous relationship with her father.  At the end of the movie Nicholson, rather than thwarting the conspiracy, is taken into custody by the police.  Dunaway, trying to rescue her daughter from a relationship with the man who is both the girl’s father and grandfather, is shot dead by the police.  The last thing we see is Dunaway’s daughter being led off by the same man from whom her mother had tried to protect her.

Maybe some people like movies that end like that, but I am not one of them.  The ending depressed me and made me angry.  I think for most of us, hearing about obvious injustice makes us angry.  I think that is part of the way God made us.  You cannot read the Bible without seeing that He hates oppression and injustice.  And yet, there are different types of evil.  There are things we have the power to change, and things we can do nothing about.  Even Jesus did not eradicate all evil in the world (though he WILL).  He did powerful acts to help distressed people and fight against evil, but his life ended with the bad guys seeming to win.
The question I want to ask today is:  How should we feel about evil that we cannot control?  To answer the question, I want to look at Psalm 37, focusing on verses 7-9, my translation of which is below.

Be quiet in the presence of Yahweh, and wait for him.  Don’t be angry when things go well for people who make evil plans.  Let go of your anger and leave your rage behind; don’t get mad, it only leads to evil.  Wicked people will be chopped down, but those who wait for Yahweh will inherit the earth.

At first glance, this might sound a little like some Eastern religious text.  Quiet yourself.  Release all anger.  Release attachment.  That kind of thing.  But, I see two crucial differences.  For one thing, the word that I’ve translated as “be quiet” at the start of the passage does not give the sense of having no strong emotions.  On the contrary, it is often used when some disaster has happened.  It is also used to speak of God silencing his enemies.  I think the best parallel passage which uses this word is Psalm 4:4 which says:

In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. (NIV)

Notice that Psalm 4 doesn’t say not to BE angry.  It starts with the fact that the person writing the Psalm IS angry, and it does not say that this anger is sinful.  What it addresses is how to respond to that anger (which, as in Psalm 37, is anger over injustice and wickedness).  It says to be silent.  This is not peaceful non-attachment—this is choosing to keep quiet even though something makes you angry.

The other crucial difference I see is the personal aspect.  The psalmist is not trying to eradicate all emotions to enter a more enlightened state; he is being silent in the presence of Yahweh.  He is waiting for Yahweh.  Unlike the impersonality of the type of Buddhism I used to study, this quietness is intensely focused on a person—on Yahweh, the creator of the universe.

Even the phrase I translated as “wait for him,” doesn’t sound calm in the Hebrew.  The Hebrew word is very close to a word that means “to writhe in anguish.”  Using a word like that certainly wouldn’t give you the sense of serene patience!  The psalmist is addressing people who are NOT happy about what is happening, but are making a deliberate decision to wait for God to act.

He then specifically tells them to let go of their anger and leave their rage behind.  Why?  Because it won’t do them any good!  It will make them worked up and upset, but they will not be able to change the situation.
If this were the end of the story, it would be very unsatisfying.  It would lead to a belief like fatalism.  We can’t stop some bad things from happening, so we might as well calmly accept them.  Sometimes mothers trying to protect their daughters from molesters fail.  Sometimes the bad guys win. 

paradiseBut that is not where the psalmist leaves us.  He goes on to say that wicked people will be chopped down, but those who wait for Yahweh will inherit the earth.  Does this mean that we will see bad people get their just deserts in this life?  I certainly think this often happens, but it does not always happen.  If we look, I am sure we can find examples of people who did wicked things, but lived a seemingly happy life.  It is very easy to make the mistake of Job’s friends and assume that if bad things happen to a person, he must have done something bad, and if a person has a good life, he must be good.  The power of the teaching at the end of our passage is that no matter how unjust things seem to be during a person’s life, the last chapter of the story has not yet been written.  The God who hates injustice will not rest until things are set right.

A time is coming when there will be a new and perfect earth, and the people running the show will not be the proud ones who pushed themselves upward by standing on the backs of the weak and powerless.  The ones to whom this new earth will belong will be those who waited and trusted that God would set things right.  They will be the meek who waited for God to honor them, rather than trying to bring that honor on themselves. (Matthew 5:5)

That’s an ending I like.


*Chinatown poster from www.movieposter.com