In preparation for Mr. Robot’s third season (premiering tonight), here’s a fantastic piece by Rebecca Florence Miller.

I’ve always wanted to change the world. As a child and young woman, I longed to serve as a missionary, perhaps translating the Bible for those who had never heard of Jesus. I dreamed of traveling to other countries and teaching English as a Second Language. As a teen, I longed to convert people to all kinds of different things, like being pro-life or Republican or just to being a Christian. Now, I live in a constant state of trying to engage in civil discourse with people from all sides of issues, convinced that if I can just reason with them well enough, they will see things the “right” way. If I can just show myself as fair and unbiased enough, I can be a healer of the world.

Mr. Robot, the prestige drama of the USA network, is deeply relevant to the idealistic longings I and many others have today. It portrays a young group of computer hackers, earnestly longing to “change the world” and rescue it from the machinations of the elite, rich, and powerful, personified in a business called “E Corp” (always referred to by the protagonist as “Evil Corp”). The central character, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek, in a brilliant performance), is a fragile, emotionally troubled young man with a compulsive but savant-like ability to hack virtually anyone or anything. He hacks his friends, his enemies, and everyone in between. He joins up with a group of like-minded hackers to pursue the goal of bringing justice to Evil Corp, the company that brought about his father’s death, and to do it by a massive “good deed,” on behalf of people all around the world. The show succeeds mightily in helping us care deeply about Elliot; he is goodhearted and compassionate, eager to use his power for good, not evil. He tries to defend the vulnerable, like a masked crusader of the darkest corners of the web. His gentleness is disarming. If ever there was a character to root for, to trust with this unfettered power to hack and expose, it’s Elliot.

And yet. As the show unfolds, we discover that Eliot and his fellow hackers’ idealized world may not amount to the utopia they dream of. In fact, we learn that the attempt to do good might result in more evil, suffering, and pain—even for the innocent.

While the young hackers display an admirable desire for justice and a repulsion in response to evil and injustice, and while their impulse to provide more accountability to the power structures of the world is noble, they vastly underestimate their own capacity for evil. They become the thing they hate when they operate under the cloud of anonymity, with no one holding their unfettered power accountable.

Throughout history, some of the worst evils in the world have occurred when people have been convinced of their own absolute goodness while simultaneously being convinced of their opponent’s absolute evil. We want to believe that we are the good guys and “the other side” is the bad guys. Yet, if we managed to obtain the control and dominance we crave, would we in fact change the world? Or would we be forced to look deeply into the mirror of our own original sin, our own internal evil?

***

Now that social media is a regular part of my life, I find myself constantly overwhelmed by the amount of suffering in the world—and the amount of sin and injustice. Hunger, war, homelessness, the plight of Native Americans, of black Americans, of refugees, of the poor. I am earnest. I am idealistic. I don’t know where to start, but I want to be a good person. I center myself as the hero in the world’s salvation project. I want to change the world for the better, but it’s become increasingly clear what a tall order that is and how small of a dent I’m likely to make in intractable problems. So I rush from cause to cause. I want to help! Over here! No, over there! But as quickly as I begin to get a grasp on the evil in the world, the focus shifts to another area of suffering or evil. I don’t know how to spend my one and only life. Because I don’t have enough energy or time to help everyone, I easily give a shallow part of myself, instead of a deep part, thus failing to make a real and lasting contribution to communities in need.

As a Lutheran, the level of bondage in the world—and in me—shouldn’t surprise me. It’s something I regularly confess in church on Sunday: “I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself.” I should not be shocked when even my attempts to do good are mixed with sin and brokenness, like a tangled web that becomes yet more snarled into a tighter, more chaotic knotted mess with every attempt to extricate myself.

Martin Luther wrote, “The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.”[1] In other words, we dig ourselves into a deeper pit when we think we can fix everything and heal the world or ourselves in our own strength and ability. In so doing, we fail to acknowledge the actual state of affairs. We put too much trust in our own inherent goodness, and fail to see our own need for external deliverance, for salvation. Casting ourselves as the rescuers blinds us to our own need for rescue.

Luther goes on to say, “It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.”[2] This statement cuts against the idealistic grain of our culture (and of any human culture that has ever existed). We cannot save ourselves. We cannot save our society. We cannot change the world. To the liberal, if progressive policies could be implemented unhindered by pesky conservatives or obstructionists bound and determined to halt the spread of the federal government, well, the bad news is that evil would still exist and new problems would emerge. The world might well be changed, but maybe not entirely for the better. And for the conservative determined to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, to halt the spread of progressive sexual ethics, and to reclaim a 1950s world of Leave It to the Beaver morality, unhindered by the resistance of the left, well, the bad news is that if such a world came to be, evil would still exist and new problems would emerge and the world might well be changed, but maybe not entirely for the better. The 1950s weren’t great for all Americans—especially if you weren’t white. We are not the good guys, whoever “we” are.

Luther tells us we must despair of our own ability, but despair is a difficult emotion to face—and of course that is why we resist acknowledging how broken and sinful the world is. And worst of all is facing the intractable evil in our own hearts. Denial is easier, safer.

But the person diagnosed with a deadly cancer who refuses to admit they are sick or to accept the treatment that would save their life might find a momentary comfort in their denial but they are prevented from any restoration of health until they admit their need. Until they despair of their own health, there is no possibility of healing.

All this sounds like terrible news, and it is, but when we hear and accept the truth, the way is opened for good news to come to us. No one wants to go through chemotherapy unless it will lead ultimately to life. No one wants to accept the truth of death and bondage, unless it will lead to life and hope. Luther writes, “It is apparent that not despair, but rather hope, is preached when we are told that we are sinners. … Yearning for grace wells up when recognition of sin has arisen.”[3]

Luther continues, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” He goes on to say, “Sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”[4] When we realize the depth of our own internal brokenness, when we acknowledge the consequent and collective brokenness of this world which is made up of other broken people like us, we must face our human limitations and our own capacity for evil. We must confess the sin we have done as well as the good we have failed to do. We must acknowledge our own daily sin, which is hidden by a mask of good intentions. And only in this self-critical confession are we freed to do good. Because we are able to acknowledge our own darkness and to be forgiven, we are freed to try, however imperfectly, out of love for neighbor instead of desperate clawing for self-salvation and self-aggrandizing world reformation. Our preoccupation with self and “virtue signaling” both to ourselves and to other humans leads us deeper into brokenness. But confession leads us into the freedom of a person aware of their own limitations and evil, but free from the paralysis and fear that would hinder us from trying to do good. Only when we humbly acknowledge our own badness are we free to take baby steps toward doing good.

It is humbling to admit that the good we will be able to do in this world may be small and humble. The dream of “me changing the world” is exposed for the prideful hubris that it is. Our tendency to make doing good all about us instead of about our neighbor is exposed too—and what a painful exposure that is. But there is no running from the truth. There is only confession, daily confession (for this self-centered tendency is a lifelong foe), and the daily experience of forgiveness. And from this dark death can come the small, humble, and beautiful resurrection, daily animated by the breath of Christ in us. In a life that has been given back to us and is no longer lived for ourselves but for God and neighbor—and yet a life that we must daily confess we try to take back for ourselves—in this one small life there is hope. This is a given life, not a life we take for ourselves. It is a life given to us and then poured out again as gift. It is impossible to live in a state of givenness and be assailed by pride. It is impossible to live in a state of givenness and externalize evil to the “other.”

In the characters of Mr. Robot, I recognize myself. I see my own battle with injustice and evil in the world, and my own idealistic desire to find a simplistic solution to it all. I see my earnest longing for the opposition to my ideals to be eliminated so that the good “I stand for” can triumph. I see the natural consequences of my wishes coming to be: the world is changed, but maybe not for the better. And I see my mistake. I located evil only outside myself, not in myself. That makes me capable of horrors. I must humble myself. I must confess. I must despair. Only when I die may I live.

[1] Martin Luther, “The Heidelburg Disputation,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989), 41.

[2] Ibid., 42.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 48.