Deliver Us from Evil

In an interview by a Unitarian Universalism minister not long ago, Coretta Scott King said that she and her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had attended Unitarian Universalist churches many times during Martin’s graduate student days in Boston. In fact, she said, they had seriously considered becoming Unitarian Universalists. They decided against that move for two reasons. First, she said, it was clear to them that they could never found a mass movement in religion of people of color as Unitarians. For them to become Unitarians, she said, would be seen as a betrayal of their culture. To whatever extent that remains true today, it should give people of liberal religion a lot to agonize about.

The second reason relates to my topic this morning. The Kings believed that Unitarian Universalists (and liberals in general) have a far too benign view of human nature, are far too optimistic in their view of humanity, and do not take seriously enough the reality of humankind’s capacity for evil.

It is true that there is no real recognition of evil in Unitarian Universalist theology. Part of the reason for that omission is that, traditionally, the only understanding of evil has been embedded in the supernatural – which liberal theology generally rejects. Traditional Judeo-Christian religion cleanly divides the world into good and evil, with evil being the nature and the purpose of God’s nemesis, Satan, the antichrist. Whatever is not “good” comes from the will of this Evil One and from those human beings he has “converted” to his cause. In the traditional biblical view, evil came into the world through the disobedience of the first people, Adam and Eve, who were seduced into their fall by Satan in guise of the serpent.

When Mr. Bush refers to Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as “evil,” he is summoning an understanding of evil that is biblically grounded. Doing so, with conscious intent or not, puts us in the path of forces that are wicked and powerful almost beyond human comprehension. Identifying the enemy as “evil,” also has the effect of putting the other in a category fundamentally apart from us – we who, not being “evil,” are therefore “good.” President Ronald Reagan accomplished the same when he characterized Russia as “The Evil Empire.” Communism had long been identified with the work of the devil.

Liberals, rejecting the biblical myths and supernatural concepts of God, Satan, and Savior, have brought “evil” within reach of possible human control by replacing it with psychology, sociology and even cultural anthropology: that is, what is considered “bad” in one culture might well be “good” in another. “Evil,” then, becomes an anachronism, for the liberal, evil becomes a quaint idea that we need to get over, since it impedes our modern attempts to understand, “correct,” “heal,” or otherwise fix what is wrong. Thus the serial killer, the bomber, the arsonist are not evil or even unwitting agents of evil forces but may be themselves victims – perhaps of dysfunctional childhoods, poverty, or illness. It is not the devil that makes me do it but my genetic make-up, my environment, or my unfortunate childhood. It’s as if we haven’t seen all the over-fed, happy, brilliant people who spread evil over human beings like a pall over coffins.

We have also tended to turn our children away from the more unpleasant aspects of human nature and behavior. Lois Fahs Timmins, the daughter of the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs, said of her religious education,

“We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humanity.” “I was taught not to be judgmental,” she writes, “not to observe or report on the bad behavior of others. Consequently, because of my education, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent to observe it accurately, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed of talking about evil.”

As for the “bad things” that happen to good people (such as tornadoes, earthquakes, deadly diseases) even the more conservative among us have long since ceased attributing such events to “evil.” We can almost date to the day the time at which calamities of nature ceased to be seen as evil or the divine punishment of evil. It was November 1st, 1755. An earthquake leveled the city of Lisbon, followed by fires and floods that took the lives of thousands. Like the volcanic eruptions that buried the cities of Sodom and Gomorra, some believed that the devastation was divine punishment for the sins of the city’s inhabitants. But, for the theologians and philosophers, this was a day of such horrendous death and destruction that it could no longer be accepted as “natural evil.” It was deemed to be beyond all reason that God would use nature as such terrible “punishment.” From the time of the Lisbon earthquake, terrible as they are, natural disasters, whether they devastate individuals or entire cities, are seen as just that, natural disasters – except, of course, by insurance companies.

Part of what is known as “the problem of evil” still remains. How can a good God allow the unspeakable horrors that human beings inflict on each other? In liberal, humanistic theology and philosophy, the problem is easily solved – simply by removing God from the equation. If we take the supernatural out of the problem – refuse to attribute evil to either God or Satan – then what are we to make of Hitler, Stalin, Osama Bin Laden, the Columbine shooters, the snipers? Is there still a place for a concept of evil in liberal religious thought? I believe there is and I believe that nothing less than a recognition of the reality of evil will enable us to be empowered to deal with it.

Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of the Unitarian Universalist Starr King School for the Ministry, writes, “Like every other religious tradition, we have to examine ourselves to make sure that our religion is not functioning to numb or anaesthetize our awareness of evil, but instead allows us to face it fully and to engage in troubling and deep questioning.”

The troubling and deep questioning would have to do with a reconsideration of the liberal hangover from the good old sunny days of optimism when one could glibly chant, “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better” and “humankind, onward and upward forever.” This giddy optimism about human nature came out of an era in which heady new discoveries of miracle drugs, welfare, social reforms, and education seemed to promise the perfectibility of humankind. It was assumed that destructive behavior could simply be done away with by virtue of pharmaceuticals. Anti-social behavior would cease when everyone had warm clothes and enough to eat. Education would end ignorance and with the end of ignorance would come the end of meanness and selfishness.

The Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, referred to liberal religion as “religion in the optative mood.” “Optative” means optimistic. Liberal religion has been nothing if not optimistic – in spite of it all.

It is that very optimism “in spite of it all,” that dissuaded Dr. and Mrs. King from Unitarianism. Such optimism, they felt, whistles in the dark, ignores the elephant in the living room. They lived in and with what some consider the great evil of all – racism. Wishful thinking about the inevitable evolution of the goodness of human nature caused our spirits to crash into the dust and gore of 9/11 with the unmistakable evidence that evil abounds with terrible power.

I have a thought about what evil is and I have a thought about where it comes from. First, to set the context: I believe there is that in the universe that which is larger than ourselves – which wills us toward fulfillment, toward what Rebecca Parker calls, “the unfolding of our powers, the full realization of our humanness.”

And evil, in the words of Harvard theologian, Gordon Kaufman, “is that which destroys life or prevents the full unfolding of the full powers of human life. Evil is that which dehumanizes.”

Evil is that which destroys. Evil is that which is consciously destructive.

Where does it come from?

Evil, I insist, is not something merely individual to be evolved, socialized or “psychologized” out of us. We are born into evil. Our forebears knew that experientially and told the story of Adam and Eve, in whose fall “we sinned all” as a metaphor to explain the evil they knew they contended with.

There is a sense in which we inherit the sins of our forebears. Every destructive act of every human being remains fixed in the world – justified, institutionalized, weighing down our predilection to good and giving help and ease to every impulse to destroy. The Apostle Paul summed it up when he wrote, “The evil that I would not do, that I do; the good that I would do, that I do not.” And Shakespeare, that poetic parent of social psychology, wrote in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred in their bones.”

Surely it is foolhardy to deny the reality of evil and to insist upon some pure freedom to decide when we know that each of us is born into a society and culture built thought by thought, deed by deed, sense by sense with every foul thought, deceit and deed of every equally hapless being who preceded us.

Can we think that those two children who beat their father to death with a baseball bat had nothing more standing between them and their deeds than their own sweet reason and freedom of choice? That all they had to do was decide between right and wrong?

By no means. Each thought, each step, each act to the finish was encouraged as if by a demon at their elbows by the dysfunctional and destructive context into which they were born and in which they were nurtured. So, then, was it not their fault? The devil made them do it? Are they not responsible? No, the devil didn’t make them do it. Their acts were their fault, their own doing. They are responsible. But when we recognize the reality of evil, the evil that we do that lives after us, then we recognize that none of us is innocent. Each of us participates in evil and perpetuates it as surely as we breathe the air we are born into.

What difference is made by accepting this doctrine of evil? It has the advantage of allowing us to take evil seriously – as a force to be contended with that exists in the world – without having to admit the existence of Satan and a horde of devils. We cannot save ourselves or our children from destroying or being destroyed by thinking good thoughts, living by the golden rule, saying please and thank you and being all that we mean by being good. We live immersed in evil, the power of the destructive, and unless we struggle against it, unless we do what lies within our power to do to bring about change and make a difference, we will, inevitably, fall victim to it.

It’s not enough to teach children that guns are dangerous when we allow our representatives to play politics with gun laws. It is not enough to teach our children conflict management and allow them to sit transfixed before hour after hour of literally mind-numbing violence. It is not enough to teach our children honesty when dishonesty is a way of life in just about every adult endeavor.

The shallow optimism of liberal thought and liberal religion has been dealt another blow in the horror of 9/11. What has set dread at the heart of many of us is the awesome previously forbidden possibility that perhaps, not we, but evil, shall overcome. Can we struggle against the power of evil with assurance of eventual victory?

A major appeal of traditional religion, particularly of traditional Christianity, is the promise of eventual victory over evil. Satan will not prevail. Christ will return to earth to destroy all evil and evildoers. It is certainly easier to continue in the struggle if one is certain that, in the end, one cannot lose the battle. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, O what a foretaste of glory divine.”

But there is no such assurance in liberal religious faith. Faith is not assurance, after all – that’s why we call it faith. But in my faith there is in the universe a countervailing force that tends toward empowering the good over evil, toward the end that life will not be suppressed. If we saw the hand of evil on 9/11, we also saw the good. We saw it in the determination of firefighters pressing on up the stairs to save the injured, and in the countless acts of heroism and humanity that drew nations of people into a common conviction – that the evil would not overcome.

If we are to overcome evil with good, it is vital that we recognize that evil is as real, as present, as empowering, and as enduring as the good we see embodied in those acts of heroism and humanity. We are not given the luxury of standing by to wait for the final battle of angels and demons; or for the rapture, or for the Second Coming of Christ. We are not given the luxury of standing by to see how the struggle between good and evil will eventually turn out. We are given the task of joining the struggle, of lending our weight, thought by thought, deed by deed, and hour by hour, to the side of the good, of justice, of compassion.

Again, our choices are not made in a vacuum. When we choose, we choose in the context of all the conflicting influences, prior decisions, mistakes, blessings and abuses that have been piled on us in our lifetimes. But choose we must, knowing that, in all that miasma and chaos of intent we are as capable as any other of choosing wrongly – even of choosing evil.

But unless it is too late for us (and it rarely is too late for us) whenever there is a choice to be made, an action to take, a path to walk or to avoid, unless it is too late for us, the still, small voice of the good can still be heard in the whirlwind and the good is made known to us.

To that in the universe, to that in you and me and in every living thing, to that which wills us toward life and fulfillment, let us pray out of The Good Man’s Prayer, “Deliver us from Evil.”