Thursday, September 29, 2005

Sermon: "The Question of Evil for Religious Liberals" (Delivered 9/11/2005)

A colleague of mine recently wrote an entry on her blog on the subject of "evil" and quoted the lyrics of gospel singer, Shirley Caesar:

“Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down;
Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down;
You’ve been building your kingdom all over this land,
Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down!

The mothers are gonna pray your kingdom down;
The mothers are gonna pray your kingdom down;
You’ve been building your kingdom all in the house of God;
Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down.”

You don’t usually hear words like that in a Unitarian Universalist church. This morning I’m going to be tackling the topic of “The Question of Evil for Religious Liberals.” The fancy theological word for this is “theodicy” – the explanation of why bad things happen in the universe and what the forces and powers underlying those bad things are.

It occurs to me that religious liberals tend not to have a strong sense of a supernatural motive force of evil and ill that is at work in the world. Unitarian Universalists tend not to believe in a “Satan” lurking in the shadows. We do not think in terms of demon possession or the devil. We do not think in terms of a great Deceiver (as Jerry Johnston would phrase it) or the Antichrist (as Pat Robertson would phrase it) operating in the worldly realm that grows in power in order to overcome and afflict God’s good people. We haven’t been known to say, “Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down.”

We might even ask whether the term “Evil” should be the part of the operating theological language of religious liberals? Are we allowed to label anything as Evil? Or should we just avoid using the word, and call things “wrong” or “bad” or “not nice” or “in violation of the standards of our community, in my own humble opinion.” Is “Evil” a word that we can use to describe suicide bombers and Osama bin Laden? What about Hitler and Pol Pot? What about members of the Aryan Nation or the Ku Klux Klan? What about serial killers like BTK? Or maybe there is no such thing as an evil person, only evil actions, evil ideas?

In my own opinion, though, we can fairly use the term “Evil.” On some level it is an uncomfortable word to use. We are more comfortable expressing the ills of the world in terms of “neurology and body chemistry, in terms of socio-economic conditions and theological ideologies, in terms of social forces, family forces, ignorance and lack of education, bad parenting, oppressions and repressions, racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia.” This is analysis with which I am comfortable. This is the homework I have done!

But, it is a different sort of homework that is required in order to speak of “Evil” from a theologically-attuned position. For, when we speak of “bad” and “wrong” and “not nice”, when we speak of nurture and upbringing and social conditions and learned behaviors and oppression, when we speak of these things we are speaking as chemists, as biologists, as psychologists, as educators, as social scientists and political scientists, as political creatures, as pundits and observers – and to be fair, liberal religion has said that because these things inform our understanding of the true shape of our world and ourselves, our religion needs to be open to these teachings. But when we speak of Evil, we are speaking as something more than doctors of physiology and psychology, as scientists of culture and society. When we speak of Evil we are speaking as religious people as theologians, conjuring up an understanding of something transcendent, extraordinary. And the fact that we do not have a supernatural Satan, demon, or antichrist – a being with agency who we imagine stalks the Earth stirring up trouble and building a kingdom; since we probably do not conceive of such a creature, it becomes incumbent upon us to develop a more sophisticated theology of Evil.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with someone here at Church and I was getting very excited about preaching this sermon on Evil. That person asked why I had decided to preach on the subject. I responded that it was a fitting topic on the anniversary of September 11th. I also said that I wanted to preach on this subject because, theologically, it seems to be a topic that we do not easily think through, and linguistically, it is a word or concept many of us have difficulty with. The individual responded that he didn’t have any difficulty using the word… and it was upon hearing this comment that I really began to think about it. Because you don't want to be able to use the word too easily.

So, I began to make a list of questions I wanted for us to be able to arrive at an answer to:

What is it that makes something Evil, and not just really bad, or unfortunate, or wrong? And why does evil exist? What is the explanation for evil acts? And are there only evil acts and evil ideas or are there also evil people, “evildoers” we might say? And how does one resist evil? And then there are these big questions: what is the nature of our humanity? What does this study of evil tell us about ourselves? And what are the criteria we might apply so that our understanding is useful and helpful and true?

The first thing I might say about thinking theologically about evil is that we must always use extreme caution in not defining “evil” in a way that separates it from us or denies our own capacity for it.

The example of this that comes to mind is this scene from the Michael Moore movie “Bowling for Columbine.” "Bowling for Columbine" explores the fascination with and prevalence of violence in the United States. It uses the horrific school shootings in Columbine as way of opening up the psyche of the nation. There’s this amazing visual scene in the movie in which a citizen of the town of Littleton, Colorado is interviewed. This citizen works for a military contractor who builds intercontinental ballistic missiles. He’s interviewed standing in front of the missile he is working on, a missile that when armed with a nuclear warhead would be capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people. And this man basically says, “I’m at a loss to explain the violence. I mean, we live in such a peaceful town. We’re peaceful people. Violence is something that our community is not involved in.” There was in this interview, a remarkable lack of self-reflection, perhaps even self-denial on the part of the worker.

How different it would have been if he had said, “I construct missiles that are capable of causing the annihilation of great cities. Our nation builds them in order to threaten other families like mine on the other side of the globe, so that they are deterred from shooting their missiles and killing my family. I believe and I pray that these missiles are used judiciously, by people that have the best interest of the planet in their hearts, but it is impossible to be sure that this will always be the case. I am then a part of a system that includes threats of violence and the use of extreme force. That is a part of the world we live in, and our local community is also then necessarily a part of that world.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in Stalin’s gulags, famously said, “The line between good and evil lies in the center of every human heart, not in some abstract moral, celestial space, but right here in each of our individual collective beings.” The line between good and evil lies in the center of every human heart.
Surely, that is a daring statement. Its implications are enormous. If it is the truth that the line between good and evil runs down the center of every human heart, then what is it that stops any of us from being the Unabomber, or a serial killer, or a suicide bomber, or a white supremacist? I think that the supernatural idea of a Satan, or devil, or deceiver, or what have you serves as sort of a distancing of ourselves from the potential illness of our own human natures. It is a way of removing human agency; because the idea that human beings are themselves capable of such ill is maybe a scarier idea than the idea of the existence of the devil.

Another distancing tactic is the labeling of those who perpetrate evil as “monsters” or “inhuman.” This is done, I would think, as a denial of our own capacity for evil. A human being could never do something like that! – Surely, that person isn’t human like I am.

Yet, I find myself agreeing with my colleague, Rosemary Bray McNatt, who says that, “people are born good and with the ability to make choices. So along with our inherent goodness there is also an inherent capacity for evil.” [UU World, 11/01] Stanley Millgram’s famous psychological experiment showed that two-thirds of his research subjects would be willing to give another human being a fatal electric shock if prompted to do so by an authority figure.

A theology of Evil will necessarily not define Evil as something that we cannot be involved in. It will not label others as evil while denying that we are part of systems that perpetuate and cause evil. The 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr made a very interesting comment on the nature of evil. Niebuhr commented: “Evil is always the assertion of some interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community or the total community of humanity or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels.” I think this might be a good working definition. Evil is a force leading us to some interest that is self-centered and does not take into consideration the integrity of the whole. Evil then is the attempt to get something without regard for the effect that that getting something has on others.

Niebuhr’s definition of Evil – that of have a self-interest that causes harm to others – is also the definition of being anti-social. So, is the person who talks during a movie, the person who takes up two parking spaces, or the person who leaves their dirty socks lying on the couch an evildoer? Clearly not. But, as the action grows from inconsiderate to harmful, as the self-centeredness increases, the action approaches evil. Similarly, when those actions are combined with a bias or hatred of another race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, it becomes all that easier to commit an evil act. The theologian Gordon Kaufman said that “evil is that which destroys life or prevents life from unfolding. Evil is that which dehumanizes.”

If you’ve ever seen the documentary about the rise and fall of Enron called, “The Smartest Guys in the Room”, you know this ability to put self-interest over the humanity. There’s this scene in the movie which plays recordings of the traders on the trading floor as they manipulated the California power grid during a Summer heat wave, jacking up the prices to rake in millions of dollars of profit. The traders try to out-do themselves, contemptuously mocking the clients depending on them for electricity. One trader squeals, “Sorry, grandma just lost her airconditioning! Ha Ha Ha.”

So, evil is the placing of self-interest over humanity’s well-being. It is exacerbated by our capacity to dehumanize others. There is a third aspect, however, and that is that evil is usually systematic. Evil tends to be systematic. And these systems tend to be enormous, so enormous that we are often participants in them, even if we are only passive bystanders.

One example of this is the Genocide in Rwanda. Here you have an extremely poor country, made up of two ethnic groups, one hating the other. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed, most of them by machete, during a three month period in 1994. But that is not it, there was also a profound failure of the United Nations and the United States to intervene when hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. That too falls under the definition of asserting a self-interest without regard to the whole.

I have come this far without mentioning today’s anniversary September 11th and the attacks upon our country designed by terrorist with evil plans. Four years into the “war on terror” and with no end in sight, we might realize that it is impossible to kill everyone prone to commit an act of terrorism. A theology of evil would tell us that victory achieved through annihilation does not constitute victory.
Nor have I mentioned the Hurricane and commented upon the human acts of desperation, which can be understood, and opportunism, which is reviling, that arose in the aftermath. Similarly, one cannot speak of the hurricane without speaking of the systematic evils of racism and classism and environmental degradation that exist in our nation. The systematic disregard of the poor and the non-white that occurred not only in the days of the hurricane, but over the centuries leading up to it, creating a vulnerable and susceptible population – that is the true shame.

I want to end with the words of the Unitarian Universalist minister, Victoria Safford, “Sometimes I think I use a very subjective, subconscious barometer in reading the paper or receiving the news of the day and deciding whether some event, some action, bears the weight of that word, evil. It’s not the size of the event, nor the cruelty or self-interest of those involved, or even historical impact. I find more and more that it’s the degree of heartbreak that I feel: beyond horror or shock or sorrow, that sense of something in me has been blasted apart, a shattering of hope, a collapse (and not for the first time) of what I thought I wished was true about the construction of the world and about human nature, the eclipse of optimism by a creeping cynicism, that I begin to call ‘realism.’ Some truths there are, some news there is, that breaks the heart not permanently, but utterly for a while. The wind’s knocked out of you, the light goes out, or flickers, as the realization forms perhaps for the hundredth time: this too is part of our humanity. Evil is the only word for this. And human is the only other for this.”

What can we do? Think of the whole, resist prejudice, build a better system.

Brother we’re gonna build this kingdom up. Sister we’re gonna build this kingdom up. The world that is, is a-fallin’ down. Friends, we’re gonna build this kingdom up.

Sisters, let’s pray this kingdom up. Brothers let’s pray this kingdom up. One day we shall dwell in the house of God. Friends, let’s pray this kingdom up. Amen.