© Rev. Barbara F. Meyers 2007. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 19, 2007

At a Unitarian Universalist General Assembly meeting a couple of years ago, there was a workshop entitled, "Is Hitler in Heaven?" I heard that there was a turn-away crowd at that workshop, everyone hungry for some authentic dialog on evil and its consequences, given the Universalist belief that "All Are Saved." I wasn't able to attend the workshop, but looking at the on-line notes for the lecture later, I was disappointed not to find the answer to the question. I view this as a lost opportunity to address this important issue through the lens of the horrors of recent history.

Discussing the "e-word" remains uncomfortable for many of our faith. I include myself among them. Just what is evil in a faith that has as its first principle the Inherent Worth and Dignity of All People? Is evil personal? Can it be systemic? How do we know it? How do we respond to it?" Today, I will attempt to answer some of these questions and leave you with a challenge to do your own thinking on the subject.

Evil Exists

Evil. The Bible gives us a litany of things evil: avarice, deceit, envy, slander, pride, folly, depravity, adultery, decadence, theft, and murder. [For it is from within, out of the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Mark 7:21-22] Great literature often has evil as a key element in the plot line. Two examples from Shakespeare are the characters of Richard III and Iago in Othello.

There is no doubt of the potential for human beings to do evil. The history of the last couple of centuries gives us plenty of devastating examples of the reality of evil. They include the Holocaust and other genocides, including the current ongoing one in the Darfur region of Sudan; wars in Viet Nam, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, El Salvador; torture in its many forms; and the Trail of Tears for Native Americans. More are being added in the early years of this new century. When September 11 happened, horrors that happened in other parts of the world suddenly became real to residents of the United States. People on many sides in Iraq and Afghanistan are being visited by terror on a daily basis. The question of evil is very real right now.

Definitions of Evil

In searching for a definition of evil that works for me, I find myself in agreement with that of the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr said:

"Evil is always the assertion of some self-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."
So, for example, Niebuhr saw that the Holocaust was evil because it was the assertion by the Nazis that their problems were caused by the Jews and they were therefore justified in exterminating them. The point of view of what was best for the whole of society wasn't addressed, just for the class of people who were in Hitler's view the "Master Race". Niebuhr stated that the creation of justice and peace in an unjust and dangerous world often requires us to choose between greater and lesser evils. In particular, in a move that alienated him from other liberal theologians, he thought there was such a thing as a "just war" as he felt World War II was.

Forrester Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City talks about the impact of 9/11 on our thinking about evil. He says that "the liberal mantra is that people are born good but society makes them evil; the Calvinist mantra, against which 19th century Unitarianism rebelled, is that people are born damned and need salvation. Our challenge," he says, "is to find a balance between these polar positions. Considering the self-sacrifice of the fire fighters on 9/11 and the outpouring of generosity toward the victims' families," he says, "we know that the very worst of which human beings are capable can also bring out the very best." I know I've often observed the same thing after some catastrophe and observed that there must be some inborn tendency toward good within people for this to happen. Yet, there seems to be also an inborn tendency toward evil, especially in social situations that encourage it.

Rebecca Parker, who is the president of the Starr King School for Ministry, attempts to grapple with the question of whether the existence of evil is in conflict with our first principle of the inherent worth and dignity of all people. She says that "evil has to qualify acts, not human beings. We are all capable of doing either good or evil and everything in between, but our being itself is good, is worthy, is of value." I find myself in agreement with her approach which doesn't deny the existence of evil, but also proclaims the truth of the inherent worth of every person.

Sin, an Evil Action

Let's talk about sin. To sin is to engage in an evil action. Forrester Church believes sin is inevitable in the human condition. He says, "It's not only that good people sometimes do bad things or that in every barrel there are a few bad apples, but that the veneer of civilized behavior is thin, fragile, and of relatively recent application. There has never been a war in which we humans have not dehumanized our enemies, leading the victors to treat the vanquished like animals....Under stress, especially in crowds or small packs, human behavior easily becomes wanton and brutal."

"If you don't like the word sin," Church goes on, "substitute another - humankind's innate inhumanity - but don't underestimate the concept, or think that we are all born good and then somehow get destroyed or twisted by society. Given our natural egotism and instinct for survival sin is bred in the human bone."

This sounds pretty harsh, but upon reflection, I'm pretty sure that I agree with Church on this matter. We all have the innate ability to sin and many will do so when they feel it is necessary for survival. I think it is determining what provokes us into survival-mode thinking that determines how far we will go down that road. So, in addition to an inborn tendency toward good, I believe there is also an inborn tendency toward sin. As the prominent 20th century Universalist Minister Clarence Skinner says [in his book Human Nature and the Nature of Evil (1939)] "The line which separates the good from the evil runs not between men, but through them."

Systemized Evil

In seminary I took a class called "Pastor as Community Organizer" that focused on how a minister could be a leader of change within a community. One of the readings for that class by Robert C. Linthicum entitled "What Went Wrong? Evil isn't Solely Personal" was particularly memorable to me. It was about how in the early 1900s most modern large cities in the United States had efficient trolley car and light rail systems. General Motors, wanting to increase the number of people driving cars, would deliberately and systematically create dummy corporations to take over the streetcar systems, intentionally mismanage them so as to go bankrupt, and then go out of business. This would have the desired effect of selling more cars because there were fewer transportation options. In time, this created a society that we now have that requires automobiles and therefore is dependent on crude oil to function. It isn't hard to extend this argument to say that this practice led at least partially to our current problems in the oil-rich Mid-East. It struck me when the article referred to this practice as "systemized evil." The focus of my class, and I submit a right focus of the church, is to learn to recognize such instances of systemized evil and learn how to combat them before they do damage to our society.

Linthicum says that the typical pattern by those perpetrating systemized evil is that the system charged with maintaining a society "through justice for all, instead becomes oppressors of the most vulnerable people and groups of that society" - and this is "done purely for its own material gain." Can you think of examples of this? The one that comes first to my mind is how under Ronald Reagan the State of California systematically dismantled the mental health system without putting into place community services for those who needed them. These were some of the most vulnerable people who weren't in a position to advocate for themselves. Many ended up on the streets. Another example, as I see it, is the series of events leading up to the war in Iraq. Our political system deliberately lied about and demonized a country leading to the deaths of tens of thousands, largely to secure access to oil.

Some of you may remember the Stanford prison experiment in which college student volunteers were assigned roles of prison guards or prison inmates and placed in a mock prison environment. The study had to be canceled in less than a week because the students became either sadistic guards or emotionally damaged prisoners. Philip Zimbardo, the creator of the experiment believes that some societal situations are evil and corrupt the people living within them. "Abu Ghraib fit this type of situation to a T," says Zimbardo. "The guards, never trained for their work helping military interrogators, worked 12-hour shifts, 40 days without a break, in chaotic, filthy conditions, facing 1,000 foreign prisoners, and hostile fire from the neighborhood. They operated in extreme stress, under orders to impose fear on their prisoners." He believes that the people who set up this evil system need to be punished as much as the individual guards.

How to Recognize Evil

We come to the question of how to recognize evil. Sometimes it comes disguised.

One recognition technique is to ask the question: "Is the action we are examining affirming or denying of life, liberty or faith?" If it is denying, then it may be evil. If it is affirming, it may be good. Or, of course it could be somewhere in between.

Another question to ask: "Is it dehumanizing a person or a group of people?" To do so creates an enemy, or, if you will, an "axis of evil." As I just mentioned, we have some contemporary examples of this as defined by the current US administration. Some would maintain that publicly defining and creating an enemy is an evil itself. I'm not sure I completely agree with this, but it gives me something serious to think about. The reasoning is that it is evil to allow the commission of barbaric acts in the name of patriotism to one's cause.

William Schulz, former president of the UUA and Executive Director of Amnesty International, says "If something is considered overwhelmingly, irredeemably, incomprehensibly evil, the very embodiment of the satanic, then may we not be justified in using virtually any means to eradicate it? That is certainly how Osama bin Laden and his ilk feel about us." Further, Forrester Church reminds us, "Events in Iraq tragically prove the first law of history: Choose your enemies carefully, for you will become like them."

What To Do About Evil

What Do We Do About It Once We See Evil?

The religious scholar Elaine Pagels in her book The Origin of Satan said that "the response to evil can be witnessed in the lives of Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who stood up for what they thought was right without demonizing their opponents." I might add Gandhi and the Dalai Lama to her list. Their response to evil embraces the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and they show by their example that this can be a workable way to live one's life ethically.

Another view is that people in association with each other can combat evil. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rev. James Luther Adams claimed that the only way to practice faith in the modern world was to be within a voluntary association in small groups. He believed that small groups, and churches in particular, are one of the only social structures that allow for development of courage, meaning, conscience, hope and fortitude so that one could effectively challenge the forces of power in modern society. With him, I believe that congregations like this one provide the best places to discern in beloved community what is real, ultimate, and worthy of our love, worthy of devotion, time, and commitment. And they give us a solid base from which to transform the world. As Adams said, "The voluntary association is a means for the institutionalizing of gradual revolution."

The actor Kirk Douglas was told by a Jewish woman, whose parents and grandparents had died in concentration camps, that she had been saved by many ordinary "little heroes" who harbored her from the Gestapo for a couple of nights or a couple of months. "Her story had a great impact on me," he said. "Of course we're always looking for a big hero to emulate, and often we see them topple from clay feet. How much better to reach for the little heroes in life - and try to be one."

The story for all ages [The Evil Wizard by Joshua Searle-White] tells us much: Esmeralda thought that before she could go on her journey, she had to stop the Evil Wizard. But by doing this she gives the Evil Wizard too much power. She finally discovers that the Evil Wizard will always be with her and she must find her own way in life, knowing of her dark companion.

We can learn that this will happen to us. My colleague The Rev. Kathryn A Schmitz reminds us that like Esmeralda, we will meet Evil Wizards. We have to learn how to find our own way knowing we have such companions on our journey.

Questions/Thoughts/Actions to Take Home

Now for your assignment, if you choose to accept it. I invite you to think about the following questions:

The Rev. Bruce Southworth, minister of the Community Church of New York says: "Our Unitarian Universalist faith helps us to understand that we do live in a tragic world." But our faith also helps us to understand that, "there are also creative, healing forces: the power of love, the ability to seek justice, to celebrate beauty wherever it is."

Finally, I'll leave you with the question: "Is Hitler in Heaven?" To answer this, you first need to establish whether you believe there is such a place as "Heaven" and if you do, what it consists of, and how someone gets there. Unitarian Universalists are known to have very different answers to these questions. What do you believe? You see, like that workshop at General Assembly, I'm not answering the question either. But in typical Unitarian Universalist fashion I am giving you an assignment to do some free and responsible searching for your own truth and meaning in this matter.

I'd love to hear your answers.

So may it be. Amen

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