The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil©
a sermon by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
preached on February 17, 2013

September 11, 2001, I was getting ready to go to a minister’s cluster meeting.  I was a student in seminary in Hyde Park, Chicago, and would be traveling with other students.  One of them arrived at my apartment and told me to turn on the television set – I watched the re-run of the first tower being hit by a plane, and caught the live shot of the second tower being hit.  

Like most of you, I was shocked.  My feelings were strong and varied – fear being foremost for the rest of that day at least.  I didn’t go to the cluster meeting; because I wanted to stay close to my family; my husband who was working next door on the University of Chicago campus and my son who was in third grade at the public elementary school around the corner.  We went to a church service across the street that night, and I felt betrayed by the lack of comfort it offered.  Betray may sound like a strong word – but remember, I’m in seminary, studying how to comfort people under such circumstances – and all I knew was that the service I attended did not speak to me and did not feel safe for me in that moment.  At the same time I felt betrayed, I also felt deep sympathy for my friends who had graduated seminary that June and were serving congregations for the first time that September.  Though I knew what wasn’t comforting to me; that didn’t mean I knew how to do it any better or even wanted the responsibility. 

I continued to feel out of sync with the rest of the country for the next few days and weeks.  There was so much suffering, and people were responding in such different ways.  It seemed there were some who felt that the tragedy was bringing us together and felt the unity of the country, but for me that feeling did not last long at all, if I ever had it.  Grief is so individual and the strong feelings brought out such stuff.  It seemed I was bombarded by people who would assume that they knew how I felt – and I would get angry that the assumptions they were making about my thoughts and feelings were so generally wrong.

The word evil was used a lot back then.  and it did feel like evil.  I wouldn’t use the word to describe any particular person.  But evil described those events.  And I understood my disconnect with those around me to be because I had already come face to face with evil.  My illusion of the world was not shattered in the moment the towers crashed – it had shattered years before, and the falling towers instead confirmed my tragic view of the world:  A tragic view which had likely drawn me into the ministry.  For me, the illusion of safety had been shattered in Central America.  I know it just as well could have been shattered in this country – and I know that some of you aren’t ever afforded the luxury developing the illusion of safety I grew up with… 

President Obama went back to our old neighborhood this week, to speak at Hyde Park Academy, around the corner from the public school my son attended while I was in seminary.  He said,"In too many neighborhoods today, whether here in Chicago or in the farthest reaches of rural America, it can feel like for a lot of young people the future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town, that no matter how much you work or how hard you try, your destiny was determined the moment you were born,"   Although his purpose was to promote economic proposals from the State of the Union address, Obama talked about gun violence and ways to prevent it, including how families and communities can help deter violence in the first place.  The daily gun violence that occurs in cities like Chicago has been called “slow-motion mass murder.”  That description, I think, puts the evil in context.

So, had I grown up in Hyde Park, rather than just going to seminary there, I may not have developed the illusion of safety which was shattered for me while serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras.  In the late 80’s I lived and traveled in the developing world where children search for food in garbage dumps, and bombed-out buildings remain empty for years and years, and men with machine guns walk and terrorize the streets.  As Peace Corps volunteers we had what we would call a “get out of jail free card” which we could show to those men with machine guns and they would leave us alone, not wanting to engage the US government.  But we saw what happened to those without such a card, and we were not immune to the violence either.  I was attacked and my life threatened while there, and a fellow volunteer was shot and killed jumping the fence at the Peace Corps compound – shot of course by the man that was hired to keep the compound safe from intruders… tragic.

So it turns out that the first sermon I gave from this pulpit was near September 11, in 2002 – and because it seemed we were still suffering from the attacks a year earlier, I chose to preach on Job.  Job is one of the few stories in the Bible that I really think I get.  I see it played out every time a tornado goes through a town and destroys homes and the survivors interviewed say that God protected them – to which I want to shout, have you not read Job?!  To suggest that God saved your family but not your neighbor’s.. well, that sounds like the rationalizations offered by Job’s neighbors – “sorry comforters.” It blames the innocent for their suffering.

Liberation theology is “an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor's suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor."  The term was first coined by Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, the author of our reading from On Job.  He also wrote the classic, A Theology of Liberation.

I read a lot of liberation theology before going to live in Central America, and though the theology was developed with and addresses a very particular population of poor Latin Americans, it spoke to my experience also.  It is the human condition to be embedded in a society which we did not make, but which shapes our lives – and to often feel trapped by that society – trapped in conditions and roles and ways. As President Obama said this week, “ it can feel like for a lot of young people the future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town, that no matter how much you work or how hard you try, your destiny was determined the moment you were born,"  Liberation theology addresses a way of doing religion that helps us uncover those often hidden bonds to set us free to make choices.

Making choices – freedom – is what we’ll study in March.  Making choices is central to counteracting evil.  But what is evil?  We began the month by launching a common book read of The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  Next Sunday afternoon you’ll have the opportunity to talk about that book with our ministerial intern, Greg Martin.  Racism, we know, is evil.  Violence is evil.  The introit this morning, Strange Fruit, was performed most famously by Billie Holiday who released her first recording of it in 1939.  It became her signature song – she would close her shows with it, the waiters would stop all service in advance, the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on her face, and there would be no encore.  She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but she continued to sing it because it mattered.

My sermon about Buffy the Vampire Slayer last week focused on personal violence, particularly against women, certainly something Billy Holiday was all too familiar with.   We hosted the One Billion Rising movement on Thursday by holding a dance in communion with women in 200 countries around the world.  Did you see the Standing on the Side of Love banner on the channel 6 local news?  Events in India were highlighted on the national news here in response to the gang rape and death of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi in December.  That event brought women’s rights and safety to the forefront of Indian politics.

What is evil?  I’ve been describing it as whatever impedes, restricts, and interferes with living fully– that’s a pretty broad definition and may not satisfy, I know.  I wouldn’t call everything that causes suffering evil… my 96 year old grandfather died in his sleep – exactly in the manner all of us would wish him to go, and my grandmother suffered.  But I would not call his death evil.

The suffering of Job was evil, in part because in the story we know it to be a set-up and a bet between Satan and God.  He first loses all his possessions (we’re talking thousands of sheep, donkeys and oxen), then his ten children all die, and finally his body is covered in boils – and of course, in the story, Satan is responsible – or is it God, who has made a deal with Satan?  In any case, we name this evil.   Evil is one of the central questions of theology.  Theodicy – how do you explain both God and Evil in this world?  Doesn’t the presence of evil negate the idea of God? I bet some of you in this room would say so – and others would surely disagree.  And though theologians like Gutierrez are vitally concerned with the presence or absence of God, that is not my question this morning.  I am not as concerned about what evil says about God, as I am about what evil says about us.

Because, like it or not, we are complicit in evil:  Whether it’s a cutting remark we make about another human being, the purchase of goods made in sweat shops, or the feigned ignorance of some injustice that we just don’t have the time or patience to deal with right now.  We are complicit because, like it or not, we are related.  We don’t live in isolation, and so we cannot separate ourselves from the evil in this world.

What is a good man but a bad man's teacher?, it says in chapter 27 of the Tao Te Ching,
What is a bad man but a good man's job?
If you don't understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.

or earlier, in chapter 5, it is written:
The Tao doesn't take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn't take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

Evil is a relational concept.  The book, What Evil Means to Us, is the report of a study by a professor of government and politics, C. Fred Alford.  He interviewed working people, prisoners, and college students to discover how we experience evil – in ourselves, in others, and in the world.  He argues that the primary experience of evil is not moral but existential.  

Existential – being – our nature.  The experience of evil takes place on the level of existence.  What the people interviewed described as evil was an experience of dread – the way I understood their descriptions, it was like the opposite of what I would call a religious experience.  I describe the religious experience as one where I feel connected to everything beautiful, right with the world, love, compassion, and connected.  This dread is also boundariless, but instead of hopeful and connected, the formlessness instills fear of losing self, being lost or drowned, plummeting into formless emptiness – loss of existence – and evil acts are inflicted on others (or oneself) to get rid of that dread.  

So rather than feeling connected to someone who is different than I am, this formless dread makes me want to distinguish myself from them – with racism, homophobia, sexism – I am not like them.  I feel better if I can clearly objectify and separate your existence from my own.  We are not related.  You are bad so I can be good.  This is how we justify racism or sexism.  If people of a certain race, class, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, if those people are not like us, are not quite human – then I can feel better about my being fully human, and I can justify hurting them, lynching them, incarcerating them.  If I can destroy them, I can impose my structure on the world and feel safer, better, more human, more of a self. 

I do think it’s important to explore why evil happens, so we can prevent what we can.  But evil and suffering are, I’m afraid, a part of being human.  There is much we can do to mitigate evil and relieve suffering – I think of the story about the long-handled spoons.  By embracing our connectedness with one another while understanding our own boundaries and limitations, we can work together to feed one another – literally.  My spoon may be too long to feed myself, but it can reach you and vice versa.

The theology of liberation that Gutierrez teaches helps us become aware of the society which we did not make, but which shapes our lives, and helps us find ways to liberate ourselves from those conditions and roles and ways.  It is not that different than the freedom movements we may be more familiar with in this country – abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, disability rights,  transgendered rights – and on and on and on.  These are freedom movements in which our liberal religion has played a role in North America, in a way similar to the liberation theology of the Latin American Catholic church.

It is my hope we will never tire of this work together.  One way to keep on keeping on is to celebrate our victories – notice how far we’ve come on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, and how far we’ve yet to go on St. Valentine’s day.  Marking these holidays and the time between them as days of justice and of love has been inspiring to me.  Watching women in India rise against violence as we danced here in Lansing and others danced all over the world was empowering.  Next Sunday, we’ve arranged a very special service to complete our study of evil – called Antidote to Evil:  Fun, Sunshine and Love.  It really will be more fun if you are all here.  The Assembly Hall will be re-arranged, the children will be asked to choose our hymns, Jane Reiter will help us create some art, and Winalee Zeeb will lead the willing in dance.  As writer, feminist, anarchist, activist Emma Goldman supposedly said:  A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.  Come join the revolution.

It’s hard to contemplate evil and to work against it.  It’s harder even to suffer from it.  But we do not dance alone.  We have each other, and what fun it will be if you will join us next week for our antidote to evil.