When Faced With Evil

For if they are evil and we are not, if that's how we see things, then we are committing the same kind of error which led to this tragedy. That's the problem of evil. Not so much that it exists — in that it's really just a fact of life, or a force of nature. The problem of evil, as I see it, is that we are so readily tempted to imagine that it's out there, separated from us over here; that it belongs to them and not us. And that, I believe, is ultimately the root and the design of evil — to make us categorize the world into us and them rather than recognizing our common kinship.

"For there to be peace in the world . . . there must be peace in the heart." — Lao-Tse

Opening Words :

Our opening words are taken from the Holy Qu'ran, al-Hujurat 49:13:

"O humankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other not that ye may despise each other."


"My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have cast my lot with those who, age after age,
perversely, with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world."
— Adrienne Rich

This past July, during the Question & Answer service, someone asked, "How do you reconcile Universal Salvation with Timothy McVeigh?" This question came to the fore again this week — how do we reconcile our Unitarian Universalist optimism, our belief in the "inherent worth and dignity of every person," our theological presumption that "no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should," how do we reconcile these things with the events that took place in New York City and Washington DC and rural Pennsylvania last Tuesday? How do we make sense of the tragedy that's unfolded and is unfolding still? Upwards of 5,000 people are missing and presumed dead, countless others are wounded in body and spirit; innocent men, women, and children — whose only crime was being on the wrong plane at the wrong time — were used as weapons. It has long been a tactic of terrorists to pack their bombs with bits of glass, broken screws, rusty nails in order to increase the devastation; these terrorists packed their bombs with people. What are we to do when faced with such evil?

To prepare for this morning I looked in the back of our hymnal, where the readings and hymns are organized by theme, but there is no listing for "Tragedy;" there is no listing for "Evil." It seems that our hymnal is void of resources to which we can turn for support in a time like this. Or is it? The reading we just heard — those beautifully evocative words from Adrienne Rich — is #463. And that haunting song with which we began our service and the one we'll sing in a moment are both there too. I will to come back to these responses, but first I want to dwell a bit longer with the questions.

We Unitarian Universalists don't talk about evil very much. Maybe that's because our Universalist ancestors believed so strongly in the doctrine of Universal Salvation—that all souls would be reunited with an ultimately loving God and that none are destined for an eternity in hell. If you take away hell, perhaps, the idea of "evil" doesn't make quite so much sense because there's nowhere to "put" it. Or maybe it's because our Unitarian ancestors were so convinced of humanity's ability to climb onward and upward, to rise above our basest instincts. (An old joke has it that Universalists believed God is too loving to damn humanity and that Unitarians believed humanity is too good to be damned.) Perhaps it's that our Unitarian Universalist rationalism has been so infused with the psychological mythologies of our day that turn "demons" into "conditions," that "evil" has become "maladjustment" and "bad choices."

By whatever route, it seems that our religious tradition has largely lost the language to deal with something like what happened this week: because someone decided that the United States was the Enemy and that there are no innocents here, because someone decided that their own lives — and the lives of all those people on the planes and in and around those buildings — were expendable, the Pentagon lies in rubble, the Twin Towers are no more, and a planeload of heroes lie dead in a Pennsylvania field.

How are we to make sense of that?

One response is to name the act and the persons who committed it "evil" and, so, separate ourselves from them. Hopefully we won't take the step of expanding this demonization, you and I are not likely to start saying that all Muslims — or all Afghanis — are at fault and should pay for this. We're not likely to generalize in that way — although I've already heard some of us speak words which come disturbingly close — but even if we're specific in our demonization, targeting only the particular people who are, in fact, responsible, we are still, I believe, making a mistake.

For if they are evil and we are not, if that's how we see things, then we are committing the same kind of error which led to this tragedy. That's the problem of evil. Not so much that it exists — in that it's really just a fact of life, or a force of nature. The problem of evil, as I see it, is that we are so readily tempted to imagine that it's out there, separated from us over here; that it belongs to them and not us . And that, I believe, is ultimately the root and the design of evil — to make us categorize the world into us and them rather than recognizing our common kinship.

Stay with me here for a moment. The core of our Unitarian Universalist faith — and the core of all the religious faiths that I know of — points to the truth that we are part of a family that includes all of creation. You, and I, and caterpillars, and stars, and even anti-American terrorists are, in truth, part of one family, children of one divine reality. We call it "the interdependent web of existence." Martin Luther King, Jr. called it "an inescapable network of mutuality." Theists call it "the family of God." Whatever we call it, and we do have lots of names, the truth remains that our faith teaches that what is real is our connectedness.

So I believe that a working definition of "evil" could be "whatever distracts us from our essential relatedness." In other words, whatever convinces you that I am not your brother; whatever gets me to think of you as anything less than my kin — that thing is evil. So even this distinction of "good" and "evil" can be seen as one of evil's most pernicious tools, for it tempts us to think of the evil and the good as separate from one another.

The eminent Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once wrote,

"The individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil has need, first and foremost, of self-knowledge, that is, in the utmost possible knowledge of his own wholeness. He must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of, and must beware of regarding the one as real and the other as illusion. Both are elements within his nature, and both are bound to come to light in him, should he wish — as he ought — to live without self-deception or self-delusion."

In his book Peace Is Every Step, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and poet, writes about receiving a letter about a twelve-year-old girl, a refugee, whose boat was attacked by sea pirates. The pirates raped the girl, and she threw herself into the ocean and drowned. He writes, "When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. . . . [And if] you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that." From out of his deep meditation, Nhat Hanh wrote a poem, "Call Me By My True Names"

". . . I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river, and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving
. . .
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life. My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion."

This is the religious response to evil, not setting it apart and intensifying the illusion of separation but recognizing, as Jung said, both how much good we, ourselves, can do and what crimes we, ourselves, are capable of; recognizing that both are part of each of us, that both are found in me. As Jesus said, "Let the one without sin cast the first stone."

Oh, it is easy to get angry at them, whether them is those who are responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, or those who are responsible for the bloodshed and the anguish in Israel and Palestine, in Northern Ireland, in Serbia. They do such horrible, such horrendous things and we want retribution, we want revenge, we want someone to pay. Which is just what they said before the stones were hurled, and the bombs set off, and the planes hijacked. This cannot be our response to evil, because this is just what evil wants.

Today I say to you, with all the conviction in my soul, that we must take the harder route — opening our hearts rather than closing them, looking with compassion not only on those who are suffering because of the carnage of Tuesday but also on those who caused the suffering. This is how "Universal Salvation" and "Timothy McVeigh" are reconciled because, in truth, such reconciliation is our only hope. It is not easy, but unless we respond to violence with peace, to hatred with love, to fear with faith, the cycle will only continue. Gandhi is remembered as having said, "'an eye for an eye' will leave the whole world blind." "An eye for an eye" will leave the whole world blind.

Far from having nothing to say about evil, our Unitarian Universalist faith tells us that the face of evil is the face of alienation, of separation, of us and them. And our Unitarian Universalist faith tells us that the only response to a tragedy such as this is to look through the eyes of what is best within ourselves, opening the door of compassion and remembering our place in our common family.

In the days, weeks, months and years ahead, our resolve will be tested. As much as I wish I were wrong, Tuesday's tragedies will not be the last blows struck against us. We will be tempted to enter into a battle we cannot win, for the battle itself is the enemy. But there is another choice. We can say "no" to death, and "yes" to life over and over and over again, no matter how hard it becomes. We can refuse to let go of our faith in the essential goodness of humanity, even in the light of how horrendously evil our acts can be; we can refuse to settle for the simplistic solution of "an eye for an eye," even when it's our own eye that has been shattered; we can refuse to replace the love in our hearts with hate, even when we ourselves suffer indescribable anguish. As I wrote in my column in yesterday's paper, when faced with evil the only response we can make is that we will continue to Live and will continue to Love. Let this be what our children hear. Let this be what our neighbors hear. Let this be what our world hears.


Closing Words:

"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" — Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

About the Author

  • The Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom is the former Worship and Music Resources Director for the Unitarian Universalist Association and has served congregations in Yarmouth, Maine, and Brewster, Massachusetts. He is the author of Teacher, Guide, Companion: Rediscovering Jesus in a...

For more information contact worshipweb@uua.org.

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