Regarding Evil

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Our theme this month is evil, which right off the bat is pretty challenging because not everyone accepts the concept of evil.  Next week, with David Smith’s help, we’ll be looking at what sustains us in the face of evil or devastation, considering and celebrating what can lift us when we need it most.  But this week we’re just starting on the topic of evil and the thing is, we can’t even all agree on a definition – and I will be offering one later in this sermon but not yet – I need more time to set it up first.  And absolutely, as we sang earlier, we’d really like it if nothing evil might cross our door.  Also it would be very helpful if it actually was only once that every soul and nation must make an important moral choice.  But the truth is, evil can cross any door, against all wishes or expectations.  And the truth is that living requires both souls and nations, again and again, to make choices – sometimes truly hard choices – for good or evil – and because the choices can be hard and because of the power of huge corporations and even the corrupting power of power – often souls, and nations, make the wrong choice.  Make, even, the evil choice.  As the 19th c. English politician and historian John Dalberg-Acton famously wrote:  “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Or as the great, contemporary Baptist and United Church of Christ preacher the Rev. James Forbes has declared – “Enough money makes anything legal.”   Legal, regardless of moral.  Which is even, arguably, worse.  Morality is sidelined altogether.  Waste can be dumped anywhere, corporations are people, plastic is overwhelming landfills and seas and all the creatures who depend on those environments, people can be trafficked, opioids are everywhere, and enough oil will justify any war … or environmental devastation.

The thing is, that kind of evil – and yes I am calling those realities evil – they are obvious.  Whether or not we use the same name, whether or not we agree on which of those examples is the very worst – and we may not – it’s all pretty obviously venal and cruel and destructive.  Nobody’s going to fail to notice any of that level of bad when it’s going on.

But the part of the power of evil is that it doesn’t have to be obvious at all to be, still, insidious and profoundly destructive.  This is the point, in different ways, of the two profoundly different “texts” I’m referencing for this morning. The first is from a 1987 movie some of us may remember: Broadcast News.  It was written and directed by the award-winning writer, producer, and director James L. Brooks.  He’s a Jewish guy from Jersey who has had an almost unique impact on what we’ve seen over more than 50 years, creating an extraordinary range of shows and films, including The Simpsons, Taxi, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment, Jerry Maguire, Big, As Good As It Gets and of course, Broadcast News.  And the thing he says he’s proudest of is the devil speech in Broadcast News.  This is the tirade delivered by Albert Brooks playing a gifted, untelegenic reporter names Aaron Altman, to Holly Hunter, the gifted news producer who is falling for an ambitious and ethically questionable news reporter played by William Hurt.  I certainly can’t do Albert Brooks’ delivery justice, but here’s part of the speech in my nutshell version:

Aaron Altman:  I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil…  What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing… he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny little bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.

Back then, a lot of the way things happened seemed far subtler than they do right now – and so the very real danger inherent in the subtle, small, even tiny erosion of standards, principles, and ethics, of our capacity to hold onto the good, was a striking insight.

Nowadays our world is anything but subtle.  Frankly a subtle danger, even a subtle evil, feels like it would be a refreshing change.  But the impact of the lurid, rather than subtle, the lurid erosion of standards, principles and ethics, the lurid erosion of our capacity to hold onto the good, is just the same danger writ large, writ so large that it can be hard to take it all in, as if we were trying to read that famous Hollywood sign out in LA but standing with our noses pressed up against just one of the letters – all we can do is cut our eyes to the right and left – so that even having the scope to take in the whole thing feels overwhelming.

So maybe better suited for these lurid times is our second “text” for this morning, from a more recent source from another prolific movie and tv producer, Joss Whedon.  It’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog – a pet project Joss Whedon threw together during the writer’s strike of 2007-2008 which enforced had too much time on his hands.

If you took the time to view the “blog,” you know it’s a brief musical in 3 acts, that it’s clever and silly, farcical and relevant, as all farce is. And it’s hard to take the whole thing seriously – until the end.  Neil Patrick Harris of TV and Broadway fame plays Billy, aka Dr. Horrible, who sees himself as a brilliant villain and wants to get into that nexus of villains, the Evil League of Evil… but “Dr. Horrible” doesn’t seem horrible at all, he’s sympathetic. He sees how messed up the world is, he decries what many of us decry, and he has a different solution which is his own world domination, that we don’t really take seriously because he’s so sweet and so inept with Penny, his love interest, … and because he has, as he himself points out, some standards.  He doesn’t do evil where kids could get hurt, and when the Evil League of Evil demands a murder as the price of entry he doesn’t think he can do it until he gets pushed over the edge by the insufferable and egomaniacal “superhero” Captain Hammer, wonderfully portrayed by Nathan Villion.  It’s all a spoof and we’re not really too worried about Hammer even if he is Dr. Horrible’s target because we’ve seen how narcissistic and hypocritical Captain Hammer really is.

And then it all goes wrong – and the freeze ray fails and the death ray backfires and Penny is accidentally killed and Dr. Horrible seems to have all he was working for, power – groupies, membership in the League – except he is shattered and empty.  And there it ends.  At the end of all the farce, tragedy.  And, after all, evil where we’d stopped expecting it.

That’s what makes Dr. Horrible relevant; we often don’t expect evil, even nowadays when the daily news throws us into despair and outrage, we don’t expect that gut-punch assault of evil in some new or horribly familiar form – and then there it is. Many of us don’t expect it in our own lives – even as our nation seems increasingly inured to these developments – to be assaulted, to learn that someone we know is being abused, for our town to be struck by a tornado, for our congregations or our schools or gatherings to be shot up.

But also we don’t really expect it as a faith.  In fact, Unitarian Universalists rarely mention evil.  In our modern religion, most of us definitely seem not to believe in the devil or hell, but to hear us talk we seem not even to recognize evil.  There’s very little written on it in the last 60 years or so.  After a lengthy search I found that there are only three or four hymns in our grey hymnal that mention evil, and none in the newer teal hymnal.

That’s really striking – and interesting. We focus on faith, on justice, on inherent worth and dignity – and, don’t get me wrong, I think we’re right to focus on all that.  But we really don’t address evil almost at all.  The potential problem with this is that if we ignore it, or deny it, or overlook it or reject it, or whatever it is we’re doing when we don’t talk about it, or write about it, or think about it, or sing about it, or pray about it, or name it, or evaluate it, then, if evil exists and if we can’t address it, then we can’t address it, which is another way to say we can’t deal with it.  As Dr. M. Scott Peck, a bestselling American philosopher and psychiatrist wrote in his book on evil, People of the Lie, “We cannot begin to help to heal human evil until we are able to look at it directly.  It is not a pleasant sight…  But the judgment needs to be made.”  (PotL, p. 10)  He thinks a psychology of evil can be a healing psychology and that it must be brimful of love. I hope a theology of evil can be a healing theology and that there is a place for love, even in considering evil.

Earlier this morning you heard an excerpt about Unitarian Universalist theology and evil from the work of a Unitarian Universalist colleague I greatly admire and like, the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.  And certainly, Mark is absolutely right, there is neo-tribalism and “axis of evil” rhetoric – but they are spoken of much in our nation more than our faith.  Our faith, as I’ve already said, usually almost silent – and perhaps stymied? – about evil.  Not Mark Morrison-Reed – he told us what he believes – there is only us and we are all beloved by a God who does not offer us free will and loves us all, God is love for everyone.  Period.  Mark is African-American and has studied and written extensively about race in our movement and beyond – so he’s pretty familiar with some brutal realities.  But what does it mean to say that God is Love and that all participate in that such that Bin Ladin or Idi Amin or Fred Phelps will be dragged, kicking and screaming into Heaven?  That Heaven is where they become magically delicious, beautiful and wonderful?  Are they changed in Heaven?  Is Heaven where they make amends?  Because otherwise, heaven’s looking a lot like, well, here – and here is definitely not heaven, even on a really good day.  Okay –  I’m off on a tangent now, for another sermon(s).  But goodness, evil, inherent worth and dignity, free will and agency, these are all inextricably tied together, and we can’t look at only some of it.

Universalism first came into being because people could not believe in, literally could not believe in, let alone worship, a God who would condemn perfectly innocent infants to burn forever in hell, which is what Protestant Calvinism proclaimed – that most were damned from even before birth, only a few elect would get to heaven. They found another theology that they could believe and be part of – Universalism – that everyone is born stainless and saved – and we may condemn ourselves by our own actions – but we are not fated for evil and hell, we are free to choose them or not by how we live.

I’ve told you before about James Luther Adams, a renowned 20th century liberal theologian and a Unitarian Universalist.  Dr. Adams believed that ‘”unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident.”  Authentic faith is an examined, self-critical faith.” (UU World, Jan/Feb 2005)  National culture, for example, the “soil of a people, language, poetry, music, common heritage is also the ground for nationalism, one of the most destructive forces in the whole of human history.”  This related closely to what Adams believed about evil, that “evil is not something foreign to human creativity, but a perversion of its greatest accomplishments….  No human good – no principle, goal or institution – is innately virtuous and free from evil.  It is impossible to live with pure motives and perfect vision, therefore the need for ongoing self-criticism.”

Theology is always changing – Mark Morrison Reed nudges it one way – we have no choice and we all go to heaven, regardless of, well, regardless.  My experiences nudges me another, not that I wish to deny his belief, but my experience nudges me another.  My life experience includes experiences of agency, which suggests to me that sometimes I have had choices and made them.  My sense of inherent worth and dignity comes from my belief that we each have something sacred in us that we need to live up to and allow others live into, something that every human being has the right to honor and nurture.  But it is not inviolate – we may nourish that spark and make it strong and life-giving, or we may allow it to be quenched by our own or others’ actions.  Sometimes we are born into circumstances that will quench most divine sparks – and it is up to all of us to work so that doesn’t happen – so that all people may be safe and whole, with opportunity and dignity.  But our inherent worth and dignity are inherent only in that we all possess it, not that nothing we do can end it.  I am responsible;  we are all responsible.

Evil is what challenges the spark, or quenches it.  I don’t just mean big natural catastrophe level stuff like a tidal wave or earthquake. Mostly I’m talking about not the evil of natural disasters which are often no one’s fault, but evil we wrestle with, human-generated evil.   Human-generated evil is no accident.  Human evil is a choice; it is deliberate; it is something known or intended to hurt or destroy; it is fast friends with selfishness and absence of compassion and violence.  Or to use M. Scott Peck’s words, evil is “…that which opposes the life force… that which kills spirit….the force residing either inside or outside of human beings  that seeks to kill life or liveliness. “ (People of the Lie, p. 46-47)

It’s challenging to look at what tips us over into evil as opposed to just troubled or misled or embracing different values.  The examples Dr. Peck gives are people who are cold and destructive to their family members who depend on them.  These evil people maintain a façade of being good – even to themselves – which is why he calls them people of the lie.  To be clear, they don’t wish to be good, they wish to appear good, even though at heart they are not and do not wish to be, despite their church-going, despite their jobs and homes and duties, they are destructive and he goes so far as to say evil.

But it’s also important because we can get stuck on the excuses and reasons and justifications for evil behavior and choices.  Maybe we’re afraid of perceiving evil.  Maybe we’re afraid of misjudging something or someone.  Maybe we don’t want to judge lest we be judged.  But none of that saves us from being judged in this real, and really flawed, world we live in.  It doesn’t absolve us of the ability, and responsibility, to consider evil.  We need to be real about our world.  Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil, isn’t a responsible option. I remember my shock at Unitarian Universalist colleagues who from the first, after  9/11, were at pains to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the planes’ hijackers.  I seemed to me then, and it still seems to me now, that the hijackers’ inherent worth and dignity were at least questionable, and any discussion of it, of them, required time and evaluation, absolutely not knee-jerk affirmation.  At what point to do we draw the line and say we’re not going to focus on cultural differences and the impact of poverty or disenfranchisement or ignorance, we’re going to go ahead and say we, or in this case I, consider the Taliban was evil, not only because of what they did on 9/11 but also because of their cruel and violent ways towards all dissenters, especially towards women, towards the brilliant young Pakistani leader, Malala Yousafzai for advocating education for girls, for her anti-Taliban and secular thoughts which they consider to be capital crimes, for their promise that they’ll try again to kill her if they can. In this complex world with all its different understandings about morality and human rights, we can say yes, differences exist and some are cultural and social and human constructs – as evil itself is always a human construct – but all society is a human construct and societies are real in that they have very real consequences for all the people they impact – and we can also still say we believe this construct that the Taliban operates by is evil and the evil we knowingly commit to becomes evil that defines us.

At this point it’s important for me to say that “Regarding Evil” isn’t really a good name for this sermon because when we regard anything, we regard it from a distance, don’t we?  This takes me back to that Hollywood sign.  And it’s easy to point at the Taliban or blood diamond traffickers or human traffickers and call them evil without acknowledging that there might be anything wrong with me, in me, that is evil.  But I can be cruel.  I have prejudices and ignorance in me.  I can be violent.  I can be mean.  I can be selfish.  I have been all those things and likely will again to my sorrow.  And it is not noble, nor enough, to stand up here and say so, it’s only worthwhile to acknowledge all that if I also commit to be better, to wrestle with my own evils.

It is not just, or even possible, without hypocrisy, to spy out evil only in others and not in oneself.   Part of building a better world depends on identifying evils that are part of the construction, around and in us as well as another, before they can be dismantled.  We may be comforted by Dr. Peck’s point that evil deeds do not always an evil person make.  Otherwise, as he says, we’d all be simply evil since no one is wholly free of any evil deeds. But wait – listen to that.  No one is free of evil deeds.  Does that sound strange? We’ve all done bad things… sure.  We’ve all done evil things… really?  Yikes.  Small lies and betrayals are not the same as large lies and betrayals – but they are also not nothing, and we do ourselves and those with whom we are in relationship no favors when we let ourselves off the hook for small lies and betrayals, the little evils that could comprise every day if we’re not careful.  It brings us back to James Luther Adams and the need for an examined faith and an examined life, re-examined pretty regularly.

And there’s also what Dr. Peck calls the blessing of guilt, which turns us away from an evil impulse or act, back to the good.  He writes, “Evil originates not in the absence of guilt but in the desire to escape it.” (Peck, p. 85)  In other words, it is not our unwillingness to consider anyone or anything evil that will save us, but acknowledging evil, including feeling guilt for our own burdens of evil.

One last thing about evil.  It seems to me that it requires isolation.  It seems to me that it requires the belief – or the experience – that we are not connected, in mystery and miracle, to each other;  not connected, in an interdependent web of all things, to each other – and to all.  Only then, in that singularity, do we feel the distance, the distrust, the separation, the elitism, the resentment, the defensiveness, the anger, the insecurity that is so perceptibly at the foundation of the evil choices people make at the expense of others.  Which suggests that part of the solution to evil is community, by which I mean not the community of like-minded aggrieved and isolated people, but community comprised of different people coming together in commitment to the rights and beauty of each other and also those beyond their circle.  In which case such communities are not only sources of strength or solace, celebration or wisdom, but also in real ways, sources of goodness that support and refine us in the face of large or small diminishments and erosions that are often all around us for the taking – or even just for the allowing.

Wow.  Evil.  Guilt.  Maybe I’m not addressing sin only ‘cause I’m out of time this week.  Is this Unitarian Universalism? Can we hear the word evil and take it seriously?  Or is evil just too big and bad for us to bear?  Can we hear it about ourselves?  And others?

I think we must.  We must keep evil in our theological vocabulary and awareness.  The Sing-Along Blog is, among other things, a cautionary tale.  We cannot flirt with evil and emerge unscathed. And Broadcast News warns us, we cannot diminish evil or explain it away if we are truly to help build the world we dream about.  We may have left some old-time religion behind, but reality these days is not for the faint-hearted or rose-colored theology.  We may not always love these days we have been given, but the seeds of better understanding and real goodness are still in them, if we have the strength and clarity for them.  So let’s make sure we’re real.  Amen.