A Question of Evil

A sermon by the Rev. James R. Bridges

This sermon topic,   A Question of Evil, has interested me since 1987, when I heard the Rev. Bruce Marshall acknowledge in a series of homilies that his theology had difficulty incorporating the idea of evil.  I immediately realized that I too lacked an understanding of evil.  It was not even part of my working vocabulary.  At that point in my life, I was a humanist who generally believed, perhaps naively so, in the potential goodness of life.  Sure, bad things happened in life, there were criminals at large in the world, but the word evil seemed far too strong and categorical to use.   Besides, it had all sorts of theological and metaphysical connotations, none of which I believed in.  Mostly, I associated Christian fundamentalists with those who were concerned about evil, seeing it everywhere in the world.  Evil just didn’t fit in my worldview. 

Shortly after hearing Bruce raise the question, in the fall of 1988, my family and I were driving along on the Cross Bronx Expressway.  My oldest son, Scott, who was then seven, was sitting in the back seat of our car with his three year old brother Seth, whom some of you met several weeks ago.   Approaching an underpass, we all saw a young pedestrian toss a large glass soda bottle over the protective wire mesh along the walkway.  The bottle then proceeded to arc downward, finally hitting the windshield of the car two cars in front of us.  I immediately hit the brakes, as did the cars in front of and behind me.  Luckily the car’s windshield did not break and no one was hurt. 

Scott, picking up on Athena’s and my emotional reaction, asked why did the person do that.  Athena started to give a rather long explanation of why someone might be led to do that, relying upon her knowledge of psychology and sociology.  I interrupted her by saying that “It was evil.  What that person did was an evil act.”  By categorizing the event as such, it changed the framework.  No longer did the psychological and sociological explanations seem to matter so much.  Interestingly, Scott seemed satisfied with my answer.  My statement was simplistic, yet it did hold a power of  descriptive explanation.

Did I think of this person as demonic?  Not really.  Was he  possessed by evil?  No, I doubt that.  But, his actions certainly did contain the potential to kill people, whether or not he was aware of that fact.  I viewed his behavior as evil.  Since that time, I have kept my intellectual eyes and ears open for evil, so to speak, to further my understanding of it.

In seminary, I was somewhat surprised to discover that seldom did the topic of evil arise.  In a course in Christian Ethics, evil was implied but never really addressed.  Instead the focus was placed on what the Christian or ethical response to a problem could be.  Another course, which dealt extensively with Taoism, touched upon the theme of evil only briefly, mainly in a discussion of the dualism of many concepts, including those of good and evil.

Finally, a course in theodicy, which is the study of how a just and loving God could permit evil to exist in the world, did address the question of evil somewhat, but mostly in relationship to God.   

Some definitions may be in order.  Philosophers have differentiated between two types of evil – natural evil and moral evil.  Natural evils refer to such naturally occurring events as earthquakes, floods, plagues, and other such occurrences.  If one believes in a deterministic universe, such evils then are attributed to nature or to God, as opposed to random chance.  While many of us may no longer think of such occurrences as evil, for those of us caught up in the middle of an earthquake or fire, our reactions are one of terror, and thoughts of evil may indeed arise in consciousness, even if they are subsequently rejected.

The second type of evil, moral evil, is what most concerns me today.  It is defined as intentional evil, caused by a person or persons, with full knowledge ahead of time of what will occur. 

For those of you who have received and read the most recent issue of UU World, you have seen how Reinhold Niebuhr defined evil as “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.”

Other theologians, like Paul Tillich, have described moral evil as “everything negative and includes both destruction and estrangement….If the word is used in this sense, sin is seen as one evil beside others.  It is sometimes called ‘moral evil,’ namely, the negation of the morally good.”

Feminist theologians and philosophers have taken the concept of evil a bit further.  Nel Noddings, for example, notes that evil is that which inflicts or ignores pain, induces separation or denies relation; and that which increases or ignores helplessness.

I can resonate with each of these definitions.  None of them reference a pure good or a pure evil.  Yet, they do uphold evil being destructive and disruptive, causing harm and disharmony in the world.  Further, depending upon one’s perspective, relative degrees of evil and good can exist.  To me, it makes sense to differentiate an evil behavior which kills someone vs. an evil behavior which only hurts someone a little.

Neither evil nor good is an absolute, abstract force in these conceptualizations.  Thus, when we sang in this morning’s opening hymn “may nothing evil cross this door,” we are not really talking about an abstract force called evil.  Our lyrics are metaphorical and poetic, not literal.  They also are descriptive of behavior and actions – they do not designate a person.

One other commentary about evil needs to be made.  The Rev. Gordon McKeeman, a Unitarian Universalist minister quoted in the UU World,  believes that evil comes into existence when one person’s good conflicts with another person’s good.  Such an approach sounds reasonable and feels compelling to me.  It can explain how we as a people looked upon Sept. 11th in horror, but others, including the terrorists, could look at the destruction of the World Trade Center with joy.  It makes sense.  This position, I might add, is very close to that of Reinhold Niebuhrs.

This view contrasts with that of Dr. David Ray GriffIn, a process theologian and professor of the philosophy of religion at the Claremont Graduate School, who believes in genuine evil, which he defines as the belief “that some things happen that, all things considered, should not have happened:  the world would have been better if some alternative possibility had happened instead.” (Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations, State University of NY Press, 1991, p. 3) 

While his stance is extremely attractive and intuitive, one can envision for every evil occurrence at least one person in the world, and probably many others, perceiving such an evil occurrence as a good, discerning positive benefits or outcomes from it.  How then can one determine who is correct in such situations?  I know of no way, which leaves us in a cultural or ethical relativism with respect to evil.  I believe Rev. McKeeman’s perspective better suits the question.

In thinking about evil, I often find it helpful to look at anecdotal stories, real life examples of evil occurrences to see what lessons I can learn.  One lesson that I have learned is that often where evil exists, there is a balancing by good, if one looks closely and carefully enough.

As an example, several years ago, a three year old child, Christopher,  was killed in a horrible incident involving his mother’s live in boyfriend, his other girlfriend, and the mother.  I was involved with counseling several of Christopher’s siblings before the incident, so I was able to obtain some information both before and after Christopher’s death.  Christopher’s death clearly falls within the domain of evil, and there seemed little good being sought for by his killers – other than quiet. 

Christopher’s family lived in poverty.  Both of his parents impressed me as low functioning intellectually and socially.  The father lived alone and was minimally involved with his children.  Christopher’s mother was concerned as a parent but generally ineffectual.  The three children that I saw were friendly, sociable, somewhat depressed, and extremely unmotivated for school achievement.  Yet, they were not of below average intelligence. 

After Christopher’s death, the surrounding community was galvanized to action.  The children, who were obviously removed from the home, were bombarded by clothing and toys.  An abundance of love and concern were sent their way.  Social services, which up until that time had received complaints on the family but had not acted forcefully, also was galvanized.  New legislation in New York state was passed because of the incident, and procedures were drastically changed in an attempt to avoid another such occurrence in some other family.

At last report, the three siblings of Christopher are now living with an aunt in better living conditions.  They have been successfully reintegrated into their community, and their motivation for school work seems higher than before.

When this story is looked at narrowly from the point of view of Christopher alone, it is a story of pure evil – the violent death of an innocent child.  When the focus becomes a little broader, one can begin to see the emergence of some counter-balancing good.  The community support of Christopher’s siblings, for one thing, was a good.  The change in their living circumstances, accompanied by the change in their motivation for school, was another good.  With an even wider angle perspective, one sees the legislative changes in Child Protective Services as still another good – reaching out with broad, long lasting institutional effects. 

Do these changes toward good justify the evil of Christopher’s death?   Hardly.  And yet, good did arise from his death.  I merely point out, as have others, that there is a tendency towards balancing evil with good.  Would only these good changes have happened without his death!

Sometimes the balancing is almost a rush to goodness.  That is how I understand the huge amount of donations given to charities dealing with the World Trade Center’s destruction. 

Looking at the World Trade Center – it is hard to fathom how goodness can balance evil in such a situation.  There was so much death and destruction.  Yes, without it, the heroism of the rescuers could not have emerged.  Neither could the generosity of the American people have emerged.  But do these positives balance the evil?  I do not believe so.  Not alone they don’t. 

Does that then disprove the contention that goodness balances evil?  Not really.  I think we would have to look both more closely at the individual lives impacted, as well as look more broadly, at the changes in the world since that tragedy.

Because of our psychological distance from the families impacted, we really cannot say what has happened to them, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or physically, or what will happen to them.  Yet, from previous experiences in my life, I have witnessed extraordinary transformations at times of crisis and trauma.  I do not doubt that such changes also can occur with the survivors, positive changes in which lives will be enriched, deeply so.  It may not happen for everyone – but it most assuredly will happen for some.

On the world scene, I am certain many Afghanistan women will live a freer, more productive life since the overthrow of the Taliban.  Random, plotted violence may also decrease in the world, with fewer terrorist attacks.  Or at least I pray so.  I am also sure there will be other positive outcomes internationally about which I do not know.  Other commentators have noted the presumed positive changes in America since the terrorist attacks – including a greater appreciation for the fragility of life, spirituality, and community.  These are all positives, which just might balance the evil that we experienced. 

I should also add that we too, in fighting terrorism, will be committing acts of evil – as when innocents are killed, either accidentally or intentionally by our use of force..  Our goal is to limit these acts of evil to as few as possible.

So what lessons can we draw from all of this?  For me, evil does truly exist in the world – whenever life is inhibited, destroyed, hurt or stultified.  But, from my perspective, when looking at the overall system, goodness almost always balances the evil, either at the same level within the system, or at a higher level.  Frequently there is a resultant move towards wholeness, towards healing, towards reconciliation, towards reestablishing harmony within the world.  The Taoists may have been correct – in seeing the balance within life.  Or perhaps, looked at another way, the interdependent web of existence not only exists, but the interdependent nature results in actions designed to heal the web when it has been torn asunder by evil.

To me, the most important lesson is not to sink into despair but into acceptance, to recognize that goodness does continue to exist and that not all hope is lost.  I believe that life does maintain a balance, and that we are part of that balance.  We can continue to strive for wholeness and right relationship in our day to day relationships, much as this congregation has done by reaching out to the Islamic Center in Stroudsburg.  Doing so makes sense.

As there has been a fair amount of talk about evil on the national political scene, I would invite you in the days ahead to examine your own understandings of evil and how you respond to it in your daily lives when you see it.  You may agree or disagree with what I have said, but think about it and then act on your convictions, hopefully as a healing force in the universe.