From the Second Letter of John:
Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 2 John 9-11 (NRSV) – April 19, 2013.)
Reading this on a morning when parts of Watertown and Cambridge, Massachusetts, are “locked down,” when the entire city of Boston and its environs are under a “shelter in place” order as police engage in a massive manhunt for one of the two suspected perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing (the other having been killed already) is a bit strange.
“Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you” is exactly what the authorities are telling people. Of course, they are doing so for safety’s sake not because of some religious or philosophical concern for approving or participating in evil.
Nonetheless, this is precisely the problem that the incidents of this week present to each of us. How do we, by our “welcome” or by our silence, participate in the evil deeds that pollute our world? John Stuart Mill in the late 1880s said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Similarly, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” runs a saying often attributed to Edmund Burke. Although it’s unlikely Burke ever said that, it is true.
Mosaic law, to which the elder may be referring in this letter, provides, “When any of you sin in that you have heard a public adjuration to testify and — though able to testify as one who has seen or learned of the matter — do not speak up, you are subject to punishment.” (Lev. 5:1) By one’s silence, one participates in the sin and is subject to the law.
Are there any who might have prevented the Boston bombings simply by speaking up? If so, how many? We may never know. What we do know is that each of us has an obligation to do what we can to improve the world, to do something when confronted with evil. A verse in the Mishnah reads:
Humans were created singly, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul [of Israel], Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul of Israel, Scripture accounts it as if she had saved a full world. (Sanhedrin 4:5)
The Unitarian clergyman Edward Everett Hale, in the same spirit, is often quoted as saying, “I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” (This is often misattributed to Helen Keller.)
Most artistically, perhaps, is the expression of this sentiment of connection in the famous poem by Anglican priest John Donne:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
There are many big lessons to be learned from the events of this week, but this lesson of individual responsibility may be the most important: we are not alone, we are not disconnected, we not without responsibility — to welcome the perpetrator of evil, even to remain silent in the face of evil, is to participate in it.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.