Sunday, October 25, 2009

The history of evil: a sermon

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 25, 2009
I was sitting at my computer on Tuesday morning of this past week, thinking about this sermon, hoping to set down a few lines before I went off to my first appointment of the day. I like to use the homiletic device noted by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said in his Divinity School Address, which was delivered to the senior class at Harvard, on July 15, 1838: "The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life---life passed through the fire of thought." Emerson was talking about boring preachers at the time and advising these new guys to put the fire of their own lives into their message..

Of course, Emerson had no idea that 160 years later, a “she” would be taking his advice! But I do like to share with you how I have discovered certain insights in my spiritual life, and nothing about our topic today was coming to mind last Tuesday.

So I called my sister, she of the creative memory, who tends to describe our childhood escapades in the most dramatic ways (and they’re often my fault, in her eyes), and asked her to tell me when she thought we Ketcham kids began to be aware of evil. Seriously, Jean, I said.

We talked about how right and wrong are usually taught to children by the adults in our lives and are not necessarily the same thing as good and evil. It’s wrong to cross the street without looking, but it’s not evil. There tend to be a lot of things, we noted, that are wrong without being evil; fewer, perhaps, that are right without being good. Right and wrong are influenced by culture, while good and evil have a more universal meaning.

In any case, my sister reminded me of a time when we were both teenagers, out in the generally peaceful Oregon hamlet of Athena, and the news came that a little girl named Sally, seven years old, had been raped while playing near the creek that runs through City Park. Sally was a child in our Sunday School and both Jean and I had babysat her.

The news was unthinkable. It was summer and the town was full of migrant workers so suspicion immediately jumped to that group of itinerant men who came through the town every year in search of harvest work. Though they occasionally got drunk and had to be hauled off to the town jail and often panhandled at back doors across town, sexual assault had not, to our knowledge, ever taken place at their hands.

No one was ever arrested and convicted for the assault; I don’t know whether little Sally ever received any therapy or assistance or whether she still suffers from those psychic and physical wounds. But even then, we recognized this offense as not only wrong, but evil. The fear engendered by this news infected my life for some considerable period of time after that summer and I was nervous about being around men I didn’t know for a long time, an extension of that one act which affected my life then and, to some extent, even now.

We were World War II babies, born during the last years of the second War we hoped would End All War. We knew nothing of the Holocaust until we were of an age to understand that millions of innocent people had been deliberately killed at the hands of the Nazis and that millions more citizens of countries around the world had died during that conflict.

As Peggy and I talked about this service, we exchanged our early memories, discovering that both of us had received advice about right and wrong, good and evil, from our church. Both our sets of parents were devout Christians---hers were Methodist, mine were Baptist. We learned the 10 Commandments in Sunday School and the story of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Holocaust turned out to be a turning point for each of us. How could human beings do this to each other? And how could anyone stand by and watch? The specter of war conflicted with the specter of moral evil in that moment. Could we U.S. citizens remain neutral as a nation under these circumstances? And then, of course, we found out we could not.

What seems to be the difference between natural evil and moral evil? Here’s one definition: Moral evil results from a perpetrator, one who intentionally inflicts the evil. Natural evil has only victims, and is generally taken to be the result of natural processes. The "evil" thus identified is evil only from the perspective of those affected and who perceive it as an affliction. Examples include cancer, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other phenomena which inflict suffering... Such phenomena inflict "evil" on victims, but with no human perpetrator to blame for it.

Of course, as our knowledge of cause and effect grows, we have come to understand that human failings and misdeeds often contribute to natural evil: pesticides and harmful chemicals contribute to cancer; poorly constructed buildings fall in earthquakes, taking human lives; overuse of resources and inattention to climate change has resulted in devastating wildfires and drought. So, though natural disaster inflicts damage upon human lives and property, human ignorance and willfulness also contribute to that damage and increase the sense of outrage among victims.

What is the origin of evil in human life? Let me read to you the words from the Hebrew scriptures which tell the legend of the creation of humankind and the awareness of evil: this is excerpted from Genesis 2/3.

In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up--… 7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

9 Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."
(In between these two passages, the first woman is created, according to the legend.)

(Genesis 3) Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" 2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'"

4 But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 8 They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" 10 Adam said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." 11 God said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"

12 The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate."

14 The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."

16 To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."
17 And to the man he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you… cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

From this ancient story, one of many creation stories that abound in cultures worldwide, has come the longstanding Christian doctrine of original sin, that human beings in the Garden of Eden disobeyed God, as a result of their own willfulness, and therefore were condemned to lifelong punishment in the form of endless work for the man, painful childbirth for the woman, and expulsion from the beautiful garden of Eden.

Their rebellious response to a warning by the Lord God caused the legendary “Fall of Man”, the original deed which, according to traditional Christian doctrine, started humankind down the primrose path of wrongdoing.

What do Unitarian Universalists do with this story? Our Christian and Judaic roots invite us to take it seriously but our knowledge of science and our devotion to reason cause us to run it through the filters of deeper understanding that science and reason offer and help us see it through the lens of metaphor.

We see that human beings do have to work to survive, do have to endure painful childbirth, must struggle to maintain a place to live, and we are rebellious by nature. (And we tend to distrust snakes!)

If you and I were Adam and Eve in the garden, chances are we’d do the same thing, being as how we crave knowledge and understanding. In fact, it would occur to us to wonder later if God set us up for a test, wondering if we’d succumb to the temptation. If He didn’t, you have to wonder how much He knew about human nature, even as He created it. Blame it on Free Will, I guess.

And what is Free Will? Well, in the religious realm, free will implies that an omnipotent God does not assert its power over individual will and choices. In ethics, it implies that individuals can be held morally accountable for their actions. So are we to blame for our own actions of evil or can we blame someone else?

Enter Satan, the serpent, the “Twinkie” defense. And out of the mélange of good excuses and bad ones, we humans struggle to sort out reasons why human beings often behave in inhumane ways.

I’ll tell you what I think. And your experience and reasoning may lead you to different results. Goodness knows, there are hundreds of scholarly and popular books and essays which deal with the problem of evil in the world and a myriad of questions and issues to consider: why do bad things happen to good people? Does evil human behavior come from genetic causes or from upbringing? What should be our response to evil acts by others? How can we resist the temptation to hurt others when we’re angry?

How can we help repair the damage done by evil acts? Are good and evil found in equal measure within our own psyches? Are atheists more likely to commit evil acts? Why has so much evil been perpetrated by religious groups? It wouldn’t be surprising if we do reach different conclusions on the many questions of evil.

But here’s what I think and I realize that I can’t possibly cover the whole waterfront in one sermon! Or even in 1000!

I see a continuum of wrongdoing that stretches from minor misdeeds on the one hand to major catastrophic actions on the other, from swiping a candy bar at the grocery story to assuage a physical or emotional hunger pang to killing one or more persons out of anger or greed or revenge. And on this continuum there are thousands of stopping places, degrees of wrong-doing that crescendo into violence toward others.

I’ve always been someone who looks underneath the surface facts to figure out why something happens, and the bedrock I find underneath acts of wrongdoing, whether minor or major, that bedrock is self-preservation, the will to survive, the will to put one’s own survival above that of others.

And that will to survive is shaped by our early experiences AND our genetic makeup. Whether by early violence in one’s life or negative teachings or lack of emotionality, it can be shaped in such a way that fear for survival is one’s first reaction to the events of one’s life.

Who knows what Hitler’s early life was like? Whatever it might have been, whether violent or neglectful or any other shaping kind of experience, it did not justify his actions toward the Jews, the homosexuals, the gypsies, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, the trade unionists, the many other nationalities who were imprisoned and killed during the Holocaust. The final toll of the Holocaust was closer to 25 million people, including six million Jews.

Something motivated Hitler to act as he did, seeking to exterminate all those who threatened his idea of a safe society, a society in which he alone had the power, a society in which there were no threats to his survival. The Holocaust is our gold standard for pure evil and the motivations of people like Hitler and his minions will never be fully understood.

As for Unitarian Universalists generally, we tend not to believe that a person is born and enslaved in the manner that the doctrine of Original Sin teaches. We believe that people are born innocent and that life shapes them for good or evil. We believe that all humans have inherent worth and dignity and that it is our job to respect and protect that worth and dignity. That’s our motivation for our social justice efforts, as well.

We have no quick doctrine-based answers to explain evil, pain and suffering, and the fact that life can be hellish at times. We’re optimistic about human nature, but most of us acknowledge there is a broken, fragmented or fallen side to humanity, and in each of our lives. We know it’s there and we try not to give in to it but to mitigate its effects on human lives.

In closing, I’d like to read something Peggy gave me from the work entitled “Spoon River Anthology” by Edgar Lee Masters. The character whose words these are is Seth Compton, the sponsor of the small library in Spoon River, a library which caused much controversy because of its selection of reading material, a common affliction for libraries which continues even today.


WHEN I died, the circulating library
Which I built up for Spoon River,
And managed for the good of inquiring minds,
Was sold at auction on the public square,
As if to destroy the last vestige
Of my memory and influence.
For those of you who could not see the virtue
Of knowing Volney's "Ruins" as well as Butler's "Analogy"
And "Faust" as well as "Evangeline,"
Were really the power in the village,
And often you asked me
"What is the use of knowing the evil in the world?"
I am out of your way now, Spoon River,
Choose your own good and call it good.
For I could never make you see
That no one knows what is good
Who knows not what is evil;
And no one knows what is true
Who knows not what is false.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that, as we obey our instinct for self-preservation, as all animals do, we also have a higher, a human obligation to preserve the lives of others, for we do not live within a vacuum. We are not separate from others and when we affect others’ lives for altruistic or for selfish reasons, we affect our own lives as well. May we seek to do good, not evil in the world. May we examine our deeds and atone for those which have hurt others, while rejoicing at those which have helped others. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Mile High Pixie said...

Well put, Rev Kit. In a way, there is certain evil that we all know instinctually, but after the "big stuff" of the Holocaust and the assault of children, it does become murky, no? And while people do shy away from hearing about all the "bad stuff" in life, you have to know what it is so that you can indeed differentiate it from good stuff.

Volly said...

Very nice and infinitely thought-provoking. I'd be interested to speculate how many people hearing or reading this might think back to their earliest recollections of the concept of evil (or, as many of us first heard it, "bad")and recall that it was something our parents said, and often applied to us. I'm thankful never to have been grievously victimized in childhood as your neighbor "Sally" was ... but also know fully well that if such a thing had befallen me, it would not have taken too long before one or both of my very loving, concerned, protective parents would have brought the subject around to what I might have done to prevent it.

"We told you never to walk alone."
"We told you to be in before dark."
"We told you never to talk to strangers."

And as a young Catholic, one of the first lessons we learned, as described right there in your sermon, was that of Adam and Eve, who "disobeyed" God and then "tried to hide from" God. Never mind that the snake was full of evil knowledge and schemes and Adam and Eve were innocent enough to pass their days in utter nakedness. Never mind that God had warned them, not about a snake, but about an insensible tree. No, it was all their fault, and victim-blaming most likely accounts for half, if not more, of the total experience that accompanies an act of evil. My parents did try to warn me about kidnappers and rapists, but they were always painted as "creepy," "weird," "nuts" or "screwy," and my only assignment was to "stay away from them," and, of course "listen to your parents."

Perhaps "true" evil amounts to something you can't avoid, even if you do listen and obey. Something like 9/11.


ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Pixie. I always appreciate your thoughts.

Volly, you've mentioned an important issue when it comes to "bad" stuff. Thanks for sharing your experience. It's a piece that I hadn't yet thought of.

kimc said...

Have you read "We Are the Other People" by Oberon Zell? It's another viewpoint of the Garden of Eden story. Quite amusing.

good sermon, very even-handed.

ms. kitty said...

Kimc, thanks for the link and the kind words.

Yewtree said...

The Jewish interpretation of the Garden of Eden story is rather different than the Christian one.

I don't think so-called natural evil is evil. It's painful and unpleasant, but in my view, for something to be evil there has to be intentionality (i.e. what you are referring to as moral evil).

I think that evil can often result from projecting one's internal "demons" onto others and then trying to eliminate them.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Yewtree, for your thoughts. It's the intentionality, I agree, that makes something truly evil. I borrowed the definition from another source.

Joel said...

G. K. Chesterton (pbuh) said once that original sin - the innate tendency of humans to do wrong - is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically verified.

In the light of which, this is kind of intriguing:
Something motivated Hitler to act as he did, seeking to exterminate all those who threatened his idea of a safe society, a society in which he alone had the power, a society in which there were no threats to his survival. The Holocaust is our gold standard for pure evil and the motivations of people like Hitler and his minions will never be fully understood.

Well, young Adolf's early life was pretty unpleasant, but not more so than millions of other children. His ideas about Communists, Jews, and homosexuals were the PC positions of his time. I submit that his evil was more a matter of degree than of kind. His intent was to rid the world of something he (and most people around him) saw as evil. He did that on a huge scale, because he had the opportunity to do so. How many people would take equally sweeping measures to erase evil (subjectively defined) if we had the chance? I'd like to think I wouldn't murder people wholesale, but what would I do if given the power? What would you do? There's the rub.

It's always easier to resist the temptation we don't have the opportunity to succumb to. It's always possible that you or I aren't as evil as a Hitler simply because we've never been put to that test.

Mile High Pixie said...

Joel makes a good point, a point that was highlighted by Stanley Milgram's infamous experiment in which 37 of 40 subjects gave "dangerous electrical shocks" to his experiment's accomplice, because they did what they were told. What degree of evil were these people? Milgram set out to prove that Americans were not as weak or morally bad as Germans, but he ended up proving that humans are scared of (real or perceived) authority and will often comply with a direction, even if that direction is morally or ethically wrong. When we obey some such directive, are we just as evil? Are we Evil Lite, with 30% less evil than Original Sin? "Mmm, Evil Lite smells like apples and fabricated shame!"

Okay, the Comic in my head just overruled the Semi-Literate in my head, but you get the gist. How much of evil, we must ask ourselves, is just average people not standing up and saying no to things that are wrong? How much evil is people not fixing their issues (my parents abused me, so I'll take a gun to school/work/the Carl's Jr drivethru.)? I suppose there are no easy answers, but it leads to reconsider the ease with which we may use the term "evil."

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