The Nature of Evil

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on 3/16/14. It explores the nature of evil in response to the horrors of the Holocaust.

The video of the sermon can be watched here.

One of the oldest surviving stories in human history is about the birth of murder. In Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures, the story of two brothers – Cain and Abel – teach us about the mythic first atrocity. Brother killing brother. Both brothers are loved by God. Cain is a farmer, and Abel is a shepherd. Both offer a sacrifice to God from the fruit of their labors. The story tells us that God is pleased by Abel’s offering of meat, and that God held no regard for Cain’s offering of grain. At first God noticed Cain was disappointed. He asked Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Shortly thereafter, consumed by jealousy, Cain murders his brother in the fields where Cain toils. When God catches up with Cain and asks him what happened to Abel, Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

Am I my brother’s keeper? These words, to the scripturally-minded, would resonate through the eons as the quintessential backdoor confession of guilt; claiming ignorance and deflecting responsibility. Why should I know or care; that other person is their own man (so to speak) and no problem of my own. It’s an ancient story of murder, but it’s also an early story detailing the roots of evil. We divest of our personal responsibility for those around us – especially when we know they are in trouble – whether we’re to blame or not. Implied in the story, we are our brother’s keeper. Or at least we’re called upon to account for the well-being of those around us.

We often get lost in in the doctrines of original sin. These are interpretations that would come much later in time in the Christian Church.. But from early on – the text itself tells us that evil, that sin, is found when we fail to honor our essential interdependence. When we throw compassion away. It’s found both in acts of harm that are obvious to our sense of morality, and in acts of neglect. Sometimes through complicity, and sometimes through apathy we come to witness evil.

But the nature of evil is not indicative of everything bad we do. Humans make mistakes. Sometimes we’re jerks. We’re short of temper. We’re flippant or rude. We forget to recycle the can of soup. We don’t tip our waiters. Evil is a word I prefer to reserve for the bigger crimes against life. The smaller things are the smaller sins or errors of our ways. Moving forward today though, I’m going to stick with using the word sin to describe the smaller human errors – for our smaller intentional errors.  Calling a bad deed an error or a mistake is sometimes appropriate. But sometimes it sounds like we’re talking about a math problem and not human crisis. Separated from the notion of Original Sin and Heavenly Judgement, neither of which I believe in as a Universalist, sin is still relevant. Sometimes we wrong life, in small and big ways – intentionally or not – through our actions or through our lack of actions – and that’s sinful.

Our choir music this morning references the acts of genocide central to the horror of World War II. With the dead reaching beyond 12 million souls – Jews, LGBT folk, dissidents, Gypsies and so many others, the mind can not grasp the loss easily. … Germans killing their own for the differences we pretend are bigger than our humanity. … For us, that staggering number would be akin to the death of two thirds of the people who either live or commute through NYC everyday. Most of our family, most of our friends.

When our music director, Richard, first sent me the lyrics to the choir’s anthem today “Written in Pencil”, I wrote him and said, “I think the lyrics are cut off. Can you resend the document.” All I received was, “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway-Car” “here in this carload – i am eve – with abel my son – if you see my other son – cain son of man – tell him that i”…. Richard wrote back and said, “‘Written in Pencil . . .’ isn’t cut off.  That is where it ends (poignantly), and it’s as if the writing (in the railway car) has just stopped there.  Eve doesn’t have a chance to say anything to Cain.  This may be the poet’s way of indicating that the railway car reached its destination and Eve was put to death.  It may also be an indication that there is only an unspeakable response to unspeakable horror, even from a mother.” …

And there are no words to finish that thought…. The Holocaust left humanity reeling from what seemed unimaginable before it wheeled into the 20th century. It was grounded in the abject loss of any human sense of interdependence. Evil separates you from I. It teaches us we are alone in this world, and its ok to act from that sense of separateness. On the small scale, being an island to oneself leads to greed, or hate, or fear, or jealousy. Each props up the ego, strengthening the ego’s identity through isolation or group think. Taken to the extreme, these sins lead to horror. It’s a sobering reason to check ourselves when we succumb to the smaller vices lest they rule us.

In Unitarian Universalist circles, we have a propensity toward accepting human goodness in the face of the reality of evil. Even saying “the reality of evil” may get some to raise their eyebrows in polite conversation. We’ve moved away from Original Sin, so we try to throw out all that relates to it, rather than look the  difficult parts in their face. This is a great weakness in an unreflective UU theology. One can refuse to believe in an essence to evil, while still recognizing the practice and experience of evil. Hatred that ruins lives, fear that endangers lives – they’re not mistakes. They’re not errors. They’re a perversion of life.

From the big picture, it’s impossible to configure every safeguard, every step along the way, that might have prevented such an atrocity. If war is ever just, war to end genocide is certainly counted amongst the acts of justice. From a practical pastoral level though, we can diminish the roots of evil every day when we offer one simple act.… Being present to one another…. Being present in our messiness, our highs, our lows, and our joys and our sorrows. Being human with one another. This won’t remove the great evils of the day, but it will contribute to reducing the evils of another day – in ourselves, in the people around us. Every act of personal hatred, or fear, or jealously – begins from someone who can’t face the world as it is. They’re either building up their own sense of self by diminishing another, or they’re craving some solace or satisfaction they falsely believe can only be achieved through another’s sense of loss. But with every greed or jealously, the satisfaction of the thing once obtained, rapidly disappears.

The spiritual discipline of Presence teaches us that our souls are not built upon the acquisition of stuff, or in dehumanizing another. Our souls are grounded in the profound reality of being alive, being a witness to life, and being a part of something whose vastness exceeds our imaginations. Presence calls us back to our depth, our breadth, and our essence. It’s opposite, leads us to a road of pain and misery; a road that often drags others along the way. I can’t imagine a form of evil that doesn’t involve ceasing to be present to another’s humanity. Presence may be our most important virtue for this reason. It’s found through openness, and it teaches reverence. All three qualities nurture and respect life.

Our graphic today in the visual presentation depicts an immense pile of shoes from a camp or killing field. The shoes are a testimony to the atrocity that has been committed. They’re also a visible reminder of how evil happens. When each individual’s humanity is relegated to remnants and cast-offs; when we make another’s humanity a number, or a category – we craft evil. When we sit idly by, while the cultural production of evil occurs, we are complicit in its crafting. Evil is not done by acts alone.

Our wisdom story today is probably the best metaphor for my own belief in heaven and hell. I tend not to spend much time on the afterlife. I know it’s an odd thing for a minister to say, especially one who does believe in God. I just don’t find it’s an area that I have much to go on either way, so it’s not very helpful getting caught up thinking about it most of the time. But I do believe our sense of Heaven and our sense of Hell – in this life, and the next (whatever that may entail) is built upon this Jewish Folk story. We create a thousand heavens and a thousand hells in our everyday by how we handle and treat one another. If everyone’s sitting around a warm cooking pot full of nourishing soup, but is stuck with very long handled spoons – the people who care to help one another to the soup will be well fed; those who ignore their interdependence will starve. And those that force others not to help one another will also make the community starve. I think of this when I hear stories of people saying we should cut food stamps; or that people are unemployed because they’re lazy. It’s a profound lack of empathy; it’s a profound lack of being present to the pain of others; and it’s a profound lack of awareness of the actual economic nature of our country. But it’s an easy rallying cry to say, “those people over there! They’re the ones that are the source of our problems.” It’s the nature of evil to do that. And it’s a scary thing.

Heaven and Hell are open to us in every moment, in every way, for every thing. If we retract to our egos when pain or challenge comes along, we will be greeted with further pain and challenge. If we reach out to our neighbors and they do the same, we will nurture a heaven of compassion. It may not end the wars abroad, or violence in the next town over, but it will create pockets of humanity where we have the most influence. And in time, the rest will follow.

This is not the same thing as saying we get what we give, or we get what we send into the universe. I’m not preaching The Secret here, or what they call Laws of Attraction. I’m saying that compassion calls us to reach out – but still – our neighbor has to also reach back. That’s not a given. Reaching out doesn’t earn us or guarantee us a positive response. But spiritually speaking, it’s the only sane thing to do under most circumstances. To put it lightly, in our everyday living, Heaven happens when a group of decent people act like proper humans. Yet, most of the time we don’t do that. Each of us in this room here – each of us – from time to time, we won’t do that.

Hell happens when we institutionalize the clutching and grabbing. It happens when the ego reigns supreme. It happens when decent folk look away. We saw both the clutching and grabbing, and the looking away in the story of Nazi Germany. It’s sobering to know that the two decades prior to the rise of Hitler saw a decade of liberal acceptance followed by an economic downturn. The flow of freedom, turns to an ebb of fear from scarcity – and a people change. It’s easy to say that’s only in them over there back in that decade some 75 years ago. But our Nation’s own history with the depravity of slavery; with the genocide of Native Americans; with the Japanese prison camps; and the Chinese worker-chains; and as our responsive prayer today reminds us – of our actions with the Atomic Bomb.

We have that in ourselves too. Human nature has a profound potential for good. Human nature also has a tendency toward sin when left unexamined. And in some situations – individual – or communal – that sin can be staggering. In each of the American cases of depravity, the people of the time were able to rationalize their actions. Each was based upon the false notion that the other – that the African, or the Native American, or the Japanese or the Chinese – were somehow less deserving of freedom or life because of the arbitrary difference chosen for the moment. We were not present to another human being as a fellow human being. We strengthen our egos through the idolatrous worship of sameness, and we shatter the lives of those that can’t worship our idol because of birth, station or chance.

Some of you may still have a hard time hearing the word sin in reference to our individual actions. Try thinking about it in terms of communal actions for a short time. In society, you might even come to believe in Original Sin, albeit in a new form. Our nation struggles with many institutional forms of oppression. Oppressions that were birthed in another generation, before any of us were alive. Oppressions that were responding to different circumstances in a different time. But they were passed on. Not just in the form of personal bias, but in the form of institutional systems that keep some people down, while lifting others up.

We see it with women who can’t get equal pay for equal work. Is that crisis your personal fault? Yet it continues. It’s inherited in our system, and we have tremendous trouble cleansing our nation of that disparity despite the facts being in the open. You can replace this systematic sin with any other -ism you’d like and it would only strengthen our concern.

God’s words in the early scripture return to us, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” When we do well, and things are going smooth, sin is not that close to us. It’s when times are tough, or we fail at something, or we need a scapegoat, that it runs in through the open door. When the stock market is down, or housing is hard to find, or our schools are underfunded, or we can’t seem to stop going to war, or when people’s sense of power is threatened as demographics shift – that is when we must master what’s lurking at the door. When we succeed we may be vulnerable to pride. But when we’re weak, we’re vulnerable to making others weak as well so that we appear strong. In these times of failure, our faith, or our character becomes committed to the care and feeding of our ego, rather than resting upon the eternal bedrock, that can be found, in every moment, where we take in another breadth. Feed your neighbors with your long-handled spoons, and be ready to be fed in return. Make sure to teach our kids that lesson well. It is here that we craft Heaven.

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