The Nature of Evil

A sermon by Rev. Fred Small
First Church Unitarian, Littleton
October 28, 2001

         Evil is back.  Once the province of theologians and philosophers, “evil” is now common parlance of politicians, pundits, and you and me.  The events of September 11 left us no choice.  How can we comprehend the catastrophe and cruelty of that day without confronting the concept of evil?

         In his last news conference, President Bush used the word “evil” twelve times.  In the six weeks after September 11, 277 articles in the New York Times referred to “evil,” more than double the same period the previous year.  Our sanctuary this morning is more full than any time since the Sunday after September 11, and I wonder if the sermon topic of “evil” may have something to do with it.

         In seminary, of course, we study the problem of evil.  Theologians call evil a problem not so much because of the terrible harm it inflicts but because it poses a problem for them: if God is good, how can God permit evil?  A couple of weeks ago the Reverend Scott Sloane in the Doonesbury comic strip called that question “the #1 FAQ [Frequently Asked Question] about God lately.”

         Since the days of Augustine, the orthodox Christian answer has been that God gave humankind free will, so God is not responsible for evil, we are.  Theologians and philosophers have debated this issue for so long it now has its own name, “theodicy” (not to be confused with Homer’s epic sequel to The Iliad).  Now, I could devote every sermon for the rest of my life to theodicy and still not answer the question to my own satisfaction, let alone yours.  Many Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in a personal God anyway; to them the question of what God permits and why has no relevance.

         So this morning, rather than addressing the problem of evil, I’d like to explore the nature of evil.

         The word serves, of course, as both noun and adjective.

         My dictionary defines the noun as, first, “the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing,” and, second, “a cosmic evil force.”  Suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing are painfully, undeniably real.  Any one who imagined otherwise even before September 11 was not in touch with reality.  

         But when suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing are attributed to “a cosmic evil force,” I start getting nervous.  When someone uses “evil” as a noun, it’s never clear whether they mean the fact of suffering alone or some terrible, implacable, supernatural entity.  As I am skeptical of the demonic (and easily spooked), I avoid using “evil” as a noun.

         As a noun, evil reminds me of phlogiston.  Well into the 18th century, scientists believed that fire was a material substance they dubbed “phlogiston.”  Today, we know that fire arises from the rapid oxidation of fuel when certain conditions of temperature and dryness are present.  Fire occurs not as an independent principle, but as the consequence of identifiable prerequisite conditions.  Likewise, evil arises when certain conditions are present—poverty, powerlessness, childhood abuse and deprivation, rage, mental illness.  We may not know which conditions are causal—often we don’t—but our ignorance does not negate their existence.  Neither does the fact that evil is not always their result.

         If I think of evil as a principle, I think of it as organized fear: pain and suffering that has metastasized tragically into cruelty and violence, sometimes on a mass scale.

         The adjective “evil” my dictionary defines as “morally reprehensible, sinful, wicked” or “arising from . . . bad character or conduct.”  By this definition we are confronted with evil all the time, including in ourselves.  

         If we use the word “evil” simply to up the ethical ante of discourse, to label conduct or speech not only bad but really really really bad, then I have no quarrel with it. The language of evil may help us take our problems seriously.  The danger arises when we use the word as a moral trump card, at the sight of which any further inquiry, any attempt to understand the perpetrator, must cease.

         That’s what happened a dozen years ago in the notorious “wilding” case in New York City.  On April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old financier at Salomon Brothers was jogging in Central Park, where a gang of teenagers raped her, bludgeoned her, and left her to die  The jogger was white, her assailants black and Latino.  Immediately, the cry of “evil” and “animals” went up from politicians and commentators.  “To understand is to forgive,” said Mayor Ed Koch. “I don't want to understand.”  He just wanted them put away.  Columnist George F. Will mocked the "sociological cant" and “learned garbage” of anyone who sought a reason for the crime.  Mr. Will’s explanation was simple:  “The attackers did what they did because they are evil.”

         Many today apply the same rationale to September 11.  Five days afterward, the Globe’s Jeff Jacoby intoned: “There are evil people who do evil things—and evil organizations and evil regimes, too . . . The choice. . . is ours: To call evil by its name or to pretend not to see it, to excuse it and laugh it off or to face it and fight.”  By last Sunday, Mr. Jacoby had simplified his message even further: “Terrorism is evil, and fighting against terrorism is good.”  The remainder of his column was a diatribe against anyone who wished to nuance the matter any finer.

         My law school professors taught me about “epithetical jurisprudence.”  Put simply, that’s when you call someone a bad name, and thereby decide the case.  Once we call someone “evil,” it seems we are supposed to suspend our powers of reason and understanding.  We have cast them outside the circle of humanity.  To extend to them any empathy or even curiosity is to be guilty of naivete at best and treason at worst.

         But evil is neither absolute nor immutable.  

         Most of the youths convicted of the Central Park assault are still incarcerated or have since committed other crimes.  But one, only 15 at the time, earned his high school equivalency while in prison.  After serving his seven-year term, he’s stayed out of trouble and is putting himself through college at the age of 26.

         As the Globe’s Ellen Goodman points out, “[t]he word [evil] doesn't allow for the shifting sands that end up with the photograph of George Bush and Vladimir Putin and Jiang Zemin—president of the United States and heirs to the Evil Empires—now allies in Chinese silk jackets.  It doesn't allow for Iran striking deals with the Great American Satan.”  In a world divided between “God’s people” and “Satan’s people,” Goodman observes, surely “‘God's people’ are justified in doing anything to ‘Satan's people.’” She concludes: “[W]hile Osama bin Laden may be willing to believe that, I am not.”

         But if some of us can believe in angels, should we not also believe in devils—demonic spirits that can seduce or  command our better natures?  John Buehrens’ poem is based on an actual conversation with his doctor.  Religions from Roman Catholicism to Santeria to voodoo are predicated upon the existence of evil spirits.  And perfectly rational, down-to-earth people have told me of entering a room and feeling a palpably evil energy there.  So I cannot rule out the possibility that fear and pain can be concentrated into an energy beyond my comprehension.  Yet I would agree with Milarepa that the answer to fear and pain, whether dilute or concentrated, remains compassion.

         Compassion does not mean passivity.  It does not mean acquiescence in our own destruction.  To understand does not mean to excuse, nor to tolerate.  

         Sharon Salzberg, Buddhist meditation teacher and author of the book Lovingkindness, tells how as a young woman she once traveled by rickshaw through the teeming streets of Calcutta.  In a winding alley, a huge man suddenly stepped from the darkness, obstructed their passage, and attempted to drag her out of the rickshaw.  Images of rape and murder flashed through her mind, but she was helpless until her companion managed to fend off the drunken assailant and the rickshaw driver pressed on.  Later, when Sharon told her meditation teacher what had happened, he said gently, “Oh, Sharon, with all the loving-kindness in your heart, you should have taken your umbrella and hit that man over the head with it!”  

         Salzberg tells the story to make the point, in her words, that “Compassion is not at all weak.  It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world.  Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others.”

         Violent people must be prevented from harming others, by force and incarceration when necessary.  But everything, good and bad, happens for a reason.  Searching out the reasons enables us to address the conditions that make bad things happen and to take effective action to prevent their happening again.  As Dean Stanley Fish of the University of Illinois at Chicago puts it, “You don’t condone [a bad] act because you describe it accurately.  In fact, you put yourself in a better position to respond to it by taking its true measure. . . . If we reduce [an] enemy to ‘evil,’ we conjure up a shape-shifting demon, a wild-card moral anarchist beyond our comprehension and therefore beyond the reach of any counter-strategies.”

         As Unitarian Universalists we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Every person.  The ones we call evil are cut off from their own inherent worth and dignity by fear, pain, and anger.  Although they have forgotten who they really are, we need not make the same mistake.  Indeed, we must not, or we risk becoming like them.  

         A few days after the terrorist attacks, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen poet and peace activist and one of my teachers, was asked about evil.  He answered: “Evil exists. God exists also. Evil and God are two sides of ourselves. God is that great understanding, that great love within us.  That is what we call Buddha also, the enlightened mind that is able to see through all ignorance.

         “What is evil?  It is when the face of God, the face of the Buddha within us has become hidden.  It is up to us to choose whether the evil side becomes more important, or whether the side of God and the Buddha shines out. Although the side of great ignorance, of evil, may be manifesting so strongly at one time that does not mean that God is not there. . . . Every human being contains within him or herself all the elements of great understanding, great compassion, and also ignorance, hatred, and violence.”

         When I label another person or people “evil,” I ignore my own ignorance, hatred, and violence, and instead project it outward onto the other, the alien, the enemy.  In so doing I lose two vital opportunities: to learn more about myself and to learn more about the other.  In our interdependent and dangerous world, these are opportunities too precious to squander.

         So we must seek to cure the ignorance of others while admitting our own.  We must resist hatred in others as in ourselves.  And we must stop the violence directed against us and lurking in our own hearts.  

Copyright (c) 2001 Frederick Emerson Small. All rights reserved.