Combating Evil

Combating Evil©
a sermon by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
preached on February 10, 2013

In case you don’t quite understand the cover art, this is a picture of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  This television series aired from 1997 to 2003.  I entered theological school in 1998, and my classmates would gather once a week to watch this show.  I didn’t get the appeal.  I had too much theology to read.

Of course, basic to theology – the study of God or the mystery, limits of our own understanding, one of the problems that draws us to ask big questions has to do with the presence of evil.  What is it?  Why does it happen?  How do we contribute?  How do we combat it?

Last week Greg Martin introduced our common book read of the book by Michelle Alexander called the New Jim Crow:  mass incarceration in an age of colorblindness.  As one of my colleagues put it, “it rocked my world.”  Not that we aren’t aware of DWB’s – driving while Black, not that we aren’t aware of the ridiculousness of the War on Drugs – but I wasn’t aware of the insidious systematic way the war on drugs came into being, or how the war on drugs makes driving while black a criminal offense.

Here’s the problem – crime is real.  It happens.  You may have heard my colleague and friend Cathy Harrington speak of the rape and murder of her daughter when she preached here in December.  Believe it or not, she is only one of two UU ministerial colleagues I have in the state of Michigan whose daughters were raped and murdered.  How likely is that?  So, don’t tell me crime isn’t real.  I myself have survived a rape and murder threat, and statistics would tell us that every sixth person in this room has survived a sexual assault.  Some of those assaults were committed by young black men, but statistics show that more of them by far were committed by white men – and guess what, sometimes the perpetrator of a violent assault is a woman – yes, that happens too. 

The problem is, we all have stories.  We know stories, we’ve heard stories, and there is just enough truth from those stories to feed our fear and anger, if well-exploited, and that is how the war on drugs came into being.

Alexander makes the point that most of us think we know how the criminal justice system works from television crime shows like Law and Order which focus on individual stories of crime, victimization, and punishment.  She writes,
“A charismatic police officer, investigator, or prosecutor struggle with his own demons while heroically trying to solve a horrible crime.  He ultimately achieves a personal and moral victory by finding the bad guy and throwing him in jail…. it perpetuates the myth that the primary function of the system is to keep our streets safe and our homes secure by rooting out dangerous criminals and punishing them.” 
She goes on to say that
“these television shows, especially those that romanticize drug-law enforcement, are the modern-day equivalent of the old movies portraying happy slaves, the fictional gloss placed on a brutal system of racialized oppression and control.” end quote.

Ouch.  I have to admit at this point in the sermon that I like those shows.  Well, Law and Order isn’t my thing, but I have been known to watch crime shows such as Castle, Rizzoli and Isles, and Inspector Lewis….  I think I like them for the characters, but I am sure the stories have an accumulative effect on how I perceive the world – and it is different, believe me, than the world Michelle Alexander reveals in her book.

But there is a story in our collective past that is consistent with the details of this book.  The last settled minister before me to serve this congregation was Rev. Barbara Edgecombe.  She was called in 1996 and served until 2000 when she resigned for health reasons.  As I’ve heard this story told, shortly after Barbara arrived to serve this congregation – while undergoing treatment for the breast cancer which eventually took her life – her apartment was raided by the Metro Narcotics Squad, looking for drugs and a previous tenant.  However, they forced themselves in, did not ask questions, pushed her to the floor, injuring her body while she was already compromised by the cancer and the treatments for it.  It was a shocking incident which shook Barbara and the entire congregation.  Whereas one could see this raid as a tragic and isolated mistake, through the lens of Alexander’s research, it looks more like a pattern – a pattern not usually repeated in the homes of middle class professionals like Barbara, but rather perpetrated in homes of poor people of color whose power has been limited by the system itself.

It’s important that we preceded the discussion of evil with the topic of authority and power, because we’ve all seen the evil effects of the misuse of power.  As in the story I just recounted.  This can explain why people might be hesitant to claim their power, and use their power.  We can learn to associate power with the misuse of it.  By pretending we don’t have power, perhaps we can delude ourselves into thinking we aren’t in a position to hurt others with our authority.

Unfortunately, Mike finished writing the song just a few weeks before a virulent anti-Islamic video sparked violent mass protests around the world.  He played the song only once in public before he began to wonder whether its strong sentiments would -- intentionally or not -- be misinterpreted.

Not wanting to further inflame passions over a sensitive subject, he rewrote the lyrics and softened the message.  The song is now about self-censorship, which is what he felt compelled to do, because, in part, he recognized the power of his words, and did not want them to be used to harm others.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  said that “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” 

Confusion arises when we can fail to distinguish power from the evil effects of the misuse of that power.  We may think that..  ‘If I’m not powerful, maybe I won’t have a negative impact on the world’… but that logic is flawed.  This is where Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes in, if you’ve been sitting there wondering….

So I told you that my classmates in theological school watched religiously – pun intended – this television show.  I did not.  I frankly dismissed it.  It wasn’t until 2010  when it became an assignment for my minister’s study group that I began to watch.  Surprise,– some of the members of my study group were also those same students who gathered in Chicago to watch the show weekly.  So, I found an episode re-run on television, and watched…

…and I fell in love.  I fell in love with Buffy, the high school student who is the chosen one – that is, chosen to fight vampires – and so she goes on patrol at night, mostly in graveyards, and fights vampires and other monsters.  Mostly with stakes through the heart, which causes them to disintegrate into dust and disappear.  In short, she saves the world.  A lot.

The plot is quite silly, as you can imagine, jumping back and forth between the familiar high school concerns of studying, dating, and popularity – to the vanquishing of evil with the fate of the world usually in her hands – it is also quite satisfying to watch when troubled by the pain and injustice of the world.  Buffy gets it done.  Evil attacks, she fights it off, balance is restored.

Believe it or not, there really are some real life issues in the episodes – her mother dies, of natural causes, and the episodes about grief are very well done.  Her friend, Willow, comes out as lesbian in the series –and that is also done well and treated sensitively.  But mostly it’s fun because of the outrageous plots of evil and evil fighting – which puts a face on the very troubling society in which we live, where people don’t just die of natural causes, not everyone is accepted having come out as gay, and young women don’t always overpower and rarely turn their attacker into dust.

Because most of the problems of the world are not straightforward and easy to disintegrate – because evil doesn’t always take a vampire form for clear identification - it is fun, in fantasy life, to pretend for an hour that it is like that, and that we can restore balance with garlic, a cross, and a stake. 

To be fair, Josh Whedon, the creator of the Buffy series, does complicate the plots with moral ambiguity – which is one of the appeal for fans, but really, there is nothing like one of those fight scenes between Buffy and a vampire to experience, for a moment, the sheer joy and power of vanquishing evil once and for all.

Buffy is powerful.  She claims her power, and yields it for good.  and that is what we have to do if we really wish to combat evil. 

If the Michelle Alexander’s thesis resonates and disturbs, then we have work to do.  We can’t ignore it, we can’t pretend that we are powerless, we can’t despair. 

Okay, sometimes despair is beyond our control – but once we’ve had a good cry and a good workout – Buffy should really produce a workout video – once we’ve despaired, we can call on one another for courage and help.

25 years ago, when I was just a little older than the character of Buffy in the television series, I served in the Peace Corps and lived for a time in Tegucigalpa, the capitol city of the country of Honduras in Central America.  A country so violent now, unfortunately, that the Peace Corps has pulled out.  I had an apartment on a hill, and would have to take a long bus ride to get home at night.  When I got off the bus, in the dark, there would always be other women getting off at the same stop.  We didn’t ask if we could walk together, we just did it.   We turned to one another for courage and help.  Men got off the bus alone and walked home.  Women stuck together.  Sometimes we’d chat and talk, and sometimes we didn’t.  It is a protective measure that men (especially men who do not prey on women) may not know about, but exists throughout the world.   We would stay grouped together, and one by one, the women would peel off as we passed their house.  It was a security measure – and it gave us power.  Though we weren’t taking on the night alone like Buffy, we were daring to go out and walk at night, and were powerful to do so.  We looked out for these other strangers and journeyers because we shared the trait of gender in a world that often treats women violently.

Sometimes surviving in a violent world is enough, and other times, we have energy left over to help others survive, and when we pool our resources, come together and work together, become powerful together, we can be a movement – a movement to eliminate racism, even when it’s framed in the language of colorblindness, a movement to eliminate violence – we can break the chains of captivity and violence.

Break the Chain, is the title of the anthem for V-Day, the 15th anniversary of a campaign to end violence against women celebrated on Valentine’s day.  One in 3 women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.  One billion women violated is an atrocity.  One billion women dancing, say the organizers, is a revolution.  A group of women I dance with were organizing an event on February 14, and we offered to host it here at church.  Strike, dance, rise in your community and demand an end to violence.  Join us here at 7pm this Thursday night – you can learn the dance online – you may have seen the video we showed at 9/11 o’clock.  We’ll show it again after the service this morning.  This is just one of the dances we’ll do between 7 and 8pm Thursday night.  Try it – you may like it.

I think about the friends of evil that Greg preached about last Sunday – invisibility, indifference, and immobility.  The purpose of this dance event against violence is to make visible the evil that is often hard to talk about, to declare our resolve – we are not indifferent to the violence in this world – we are outraged by it.  And we will not be scared into silence and inaction.  We will not befriend immobility.  Instead, we will move and dance.  I hope you will join us for this or many of the other events held this month. 

Even if you can’t be here to dance Thursday night – I will be the one pretending to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I invite you to sing with me right now.  Though burdens weigh our hearts, and troubles wait at every turn – we can go on.  The hymn is #1015….