taking the words of Jesus seriously

I teach American students at a study abroad center in Morocco. Each year, for Fall and Spring breaks, almost all my students go to Europe for a week-long vacation. Upon their return, I have them tell the class about where they visited and what they learned. I was surprised by the report of students who traveled to Romania and shared that Dracula seemed to be a national hero — with statues and pictures of him everywhere.

Dracula, or Vlad III (sometimes Vlad Tepes) was a real person who lived in the 15th century in the Wallachia region of what is now Romania. He was not a mythological vampire, but a prince who has become famous for his terrifying justification of torture to defend Christendom.

He famously nailed turbans to the heads of Ottoman emissaries after they failed to remove their headgear in deference to him. But what Vlad is most famous for was his impaling of his enemies. Chroniclers describe how Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II’s invading army of 150,000 was shocked to discover a “forest” of 20,000 corpses of men, women, and children impaled on high poles covering an area of about two square miles. Shortly after that, the Ottoman forces retreated from Wallachia, reasoning that it was not possible to deprive such a sadistic man of his realm without incurring unimaginable losses.

Vlad III is considered by many Romanians as a Christian national hero, not in spite of, but because of the depth of violence and murder he was willing to engage in to protect “Christian” territory and power. The celebration of his ends-justify-the-means approach to preserving Christian political power is shocking, but becoming increasingly relatable for Americans.

The question of how much participation in evil we are willing to condone in order to promote and defend “Christian” power and territory is one that we grapple with in the United States. Recently, Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, said that evangelicals are willing to overlook a certain amount of sin as long as they see their policies enacted. How can we tolerate evil and injustice in order to maintain or promote a “moral agenda?” How long can those committed to the way of Jesus embrace un-Christlike behavior? We are faced with the same question Romanians faced when considering Vlad III: how much evil are we prepared to tolerate in our actions or the actions of others in order to accomplish some good?

Jesus shows us another way. As he began his ministry he was led by the spirit out to the wilderness to be tempted. The third and last temptation that the devil tried was to take Jesus to a mountaintop and offer him all the kingdoms of the earth if Jesus would only worship him (Matthew 4:8-10). Think of how efficient this exchange would have been: Jesus would have been the temporal lord of the world instead of Satan. Instead of Jesus being murdered on a cross in order to rescue us from sin and death, he could have just purchased all of humanity by one quick act of idolatry. But Jesus chose against turning all the world, instantly, into Christendom, because it would mean him becoming a dracula, or son of the devil, instead of the Son of God. Jesus said, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” We are not to serve money, power, politics or even Christendom. Only God!

The early Christian community held steadfastly to this model of non-participation in evil. The letter to the Ephesians argues that those following Christ are not to participate at all in evil deeds: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly in darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light” (Ephesians 5:6-8). We are not to be children of disobedience, but children of light.

The message is clearest in the letter of James, the brother of Jesus and the first head of the Jerusalem church. He advised: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).

We are not doing God any favors if we make moral compromises with evil to gain power or influence, even when we would use that power and influence for Christ. This is a temptation from the evil one! Jesus refused the expediency of such a compromise and so should we. Let us live as children of light, refusing to participate in evil, and keeping ourselves unstained by the world.

About The Author

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Cory Driver is a professor of North African history and religion. He earned his Ph.D. in Jewish religious cultures from Emory University. Cory lives with his family in Rabat, Morocco. He blogs the weekly lectionary readings at corydriver.com.

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