Unitarian Universalists have trouble with Evil, my teachers in seminary explained to us. Our movement was born as an alternative to fire and brimstone theologies that spoke of the sinfulness of humankind, and the real threat of hell, and the temptation of the devil. We strive to be a faith that is not about sin and guilt. We, as an alternative, offered a theology of a loving, forgiving god (from the Universalists) and a positive view of human nature and progress. The humanists taught us that the world is in no hands but ours, so we better get started building a world of justice and compassion.
But how can we work for justice if we can’t see clearly the broken-ness of our world? 15 minutes of watching the evening news shows us a less hopeful side to our human nature. In 1913, the Rev. William Wallace Fenn, a Unitarian Minister, wrote of this faith:
“We must seriously question whether [this faith] can bear the weight of the tragedies of human experience. Does not its amiable faith in inherent goodness appear but a ghastly mockery when confronted by the facts of life. And what of human sin? Here more than anywhere else, the weakness of Modern Liberal [religion] shows itself. It may be conceded that traditional theology made too much of sin (and evil), but surely that was better than to make light of it.” [i]One of the most disturbing “tragedies of human experience” in the last 50 years is the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Our faith must be able to hold even something as appalling as this. In her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World Terry Tempest Williams Writes-
“This is a hell of our own making – those who killed and those of us who looked away. No surgical strikes, computerized or digitized by military minds and top gun pilots, the eyes of these killers were on the eyes of those they killed. By hand. One million Tutsis were murdered in 100 days. Their killers were neighbors with farm tools, machetes, and hoes.” [p. 227]How does it happen that an estimated 500,000–1,000,000 Rwandans could be killed during in 100 days? Although history tells that the genocide was planned by political elites in the Rwandan government, huge numbers of ordinary people were swept up in the homicidal urge, neighbor attached neighbor, even clergy were involved in the killing. Historian Omer Bartov explains that in the 19th century German and Belgian missionaries to Rwanda favored the Tutsis as being more European. In the 1950s a new generation of missionaries a backlash “that identified the Tutsi as culprits in Rwandan history while ignoring exploitation by the German and Belgian colonial rulers. Hence when a Hutu uprising occurred in 1959, attacks were directed against the Tutsi rather than Belgian administrators. The inaccurate ideal promulgated by the missionaries that the Tutsi had grossly exploited the Hutu for centuries continues to shape Hutu understandings of Rwandan History and eventually became a primary ideological justification for genocide.” [Finding Beauty in a Broken World p. 305] This false rhetoric was cultivated and fanned for generations, until the fire was easy to spark in 1994.
In those 100 days, every manner of atrocity you can imagine occurred. I will spare you a description of them this morning. As many as 70% of the Tutsi and 20% of Rwanda's total population were killed in those 100 days. If that is not evil, I don’t know what is. We can’t blame this on one evil supervillain, but a rushing river of systemic forces that swept up ordinary people into the killing frenzy where ordinary civilians committed evil acts against neighbor and friend.
What do we believe about evil? UU theologian Rebecca Parker answered that “We believe evil is trans-personal, that it exists in structures and cultural systems outside ourselves. We believe that all humans have the capacity for a huge range of good and evil.” Humans aren’t evil, but they can do Evil and participate in evil. Parker clarified that Evil is NOT a transcendent being that takes control of us – we are not a fait that speaks of devils and demons - but I wondered, but when we get swept up in an evil system, is that really so different than being possessed by evil?
When we consider an evil act, we reflexively look for a single individual to blame and punish. But this belies the complexity of how evil enters the world. Every person, ever event happens in a web of other people and events. The Rwandan Genocide is one dark dark place in the human history of this century where it is very difficult to narrow the blame, because so many thousands were swept up in what are surely evil acts. There is blame to go around, not only for the political elites, not only the armed militias, not only the ordinary civilians that took up violence against their neighbors, not only he churches that fomented and encouraged this ideology and violence, not only the missionaries who first taught that the Tutsi’s were the source of all that was wrong in Rwanda, but all the countries, including our own, who had the power to act but instead watched without speaking up, without intervening, as the evil spun out. Certainly individuals were to blame, and individuals were punished. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda met for 20 years, convicted 61 individuals[ii]. But just this summer the U.N. Committee Against Torture warned that acts of violence and incitement to hatred against the ethnic Tutsi minority in Burundi could develop into genocide. Jens Modvig Chair of the The U.N. Committee Against Torture told reporters that “you could consider that systematic torture directed towards certain political and ethnic groups could be an early warning sign of a process that could deteriorate into genocide.”[iii] This I believe that this is what Parker meant when she said “We believe evil is trans-personal, that it exists in structures and cultural systems outside ourselves.”
I have been wrestling with this sermon for months, trying to pin down and articulate exactly what evil is- how to define it, how to know it. I have finally resigned myself to the fact that evil is a mystery. It does not announce itself like the super-villains in the comic books. I think if we were going to create a character to portray this abstract concept, it would surely be a shape-shifter, sometimes charming and logical, sometimes an ugly monster, and sometimes an ordinary neighbor. That is why I changed the title of the sermon from “What’s a UUto Think about evil” to “What is a UU to do about evil”. And the answer must be…resist.
We resist by speaking up. My teacher Don Bisson pointed out to in one of his lectures that one of the signs of evil is that people seem to go silent around it. So one of the most important ways we can resist evil is to speak the truth with love. That makes sense as a survival instinct- if you saw a man with a gun pass you in a dark alley, your survival instinct would tell you to get super quiet. I will tell you honestly I really struggled with the sermon this week. So many times as I was writing it I thought “They are going to be mad at me for saying this.” But as UUS we are called to give voice to those very things that make us nervous. Be very suspicious of things on one is talking about, about things people try to shush when you speak them. When we had our recent safe congregations training, one of the things our trainer emphasized was the power and danger of secrets. Abusers rely on the silence of those they abuse, and on the silence of those family and friends and co-workers who suspect. Children are taught these words “no- go- tell”: to say no to the thing that makes them feel unsafe, to go away from the situation, and then to tell someone they trust. That’s good advice for us adults as well.
We resist by speaking the truth with love. In seminary when we were taught to “speak the truth with love” we were counseled that both parts of the sentence are important. It is definitely possible to speak the truth in such a way as to cause or perpetuate evil. Part of the reason I a giving this sermon today, 2 days before the election, is because people on both sides of the election have said some really horrible, unkind things about the other side. We live in a time when it has become okay to say- in public - the meanest, most cruel things one can imagine. Why, as a culture, have we decided this is okay? We can’t really think it serves the good, can we? Do we believe that once someone has done something we dislike, that no words can be too cruel? That those who displease us deserve to be punished and we ourselves can do no wrong in the punishing? Or is it that we don’t consider the ethics of our actions because it has become culturally normal? This distinction is critical, because evil is seductive. For those 100 days in Rwanda the most stunning acts of cruelty had become culturally normal.
When we try to beat evil at its own game, evil wins. When we fight a bully by bullying back, evil has won. When we avenge violence with violence, evil has won. One of the most seductive ideas is that if we are good, and our cause is just, then whatever we have to do to win is good and just. “Genocide depends on raising voices,” writes John K Roth, “It cannot exist unless divisions between people are constructed by speech, fears are expressed in ideology and propaganda, and killing is unleashed by voices that proclaim it to be necessary” [Finding Beauty in a Broken World p. 307] I’m not trying to equate online bullying with genocide, merely to suggest that we have a responsibility to resist even with our small acts, because we never know how the seeds we plant will grow. All the great evils of history begin with small casual acts.
We resist by remembering that no people are disposable. This should be natural for us if we remember our first principle “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Every person. Even those whose lives seem purposeless to us. Even those whose choices seem wrong to us. Even those caught in the crossfire of our righteous acts. We can never become comfortable with the idea of collateral damage. When waste of life becomes easy, when waste of life seems like a normal part of doing business, then we risk becoming that which we seek to resist.
We resist by refusing to demonize the other. Jungian thought suggests that much of what individuals think of as “evil” is really our own shadow. Much of what we hate and fear in the world, Jung suggests, we project onto others who inhabit those characteristics we reject in ourselves. Consider the Hutus who were taught and believed that all their difficulties came from the Tutsis. The Tutsis, scapegoated for all the evils of Rwanda, were then no longer human, no longer had any human rights. And because the Hutus had good on their side, and the Tutsis were cockroaches, there was no limit to the evil that could be perpetrated even on innocent Tutsi children. UU was founded on the belief that we humans are not 2 distinct camps of people- good and evil, saved and damned, worthy and unworthy. We resist the characterization that some people are humans and others are demons. Because as we have seen in all the great atrocities in Western history- from the Nazi concentration camps, to the African Slave trade, to the Native American genocide, once we have labeled a human being as something less than human, it becomes easy to excuse evil acts against them. Moreover, if we project evil onto others, it is easy to overlook it in ourselves.
So we resist, as the 12 step programs suggest, doing a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Williams writes “if human beings are capable of mass murder within mass hysteria, then I, too, as a human being, am also capable of such things. My only protection is my independent mind. Fear is the mechanism used to get both the masses and the bureaucrats, clergy or clerks, to carry out the anonymous orders of those in power [Finding Beauty in a Broken World p. 307] “ I sit with my own demons as I wonder what violence I am capable of. None of us is immune from inhabiting the dark corners of human nature.” [p. 275]
We resist sitting with our own demons, by doing our own inner work. For example, it is very common for kids who were abused to grow up and abuse their own children. This cycle of abuse can best be interrupted by the adult who becomes conscious of their history and behavior, and chooses to do whatever is necessary to break the cycle and create a new more healthy pattern. If we do our own inner work, reclaiming and integrating our own shadow, then we can, at least, reduce the amount of evil each of us does in the world.
Lily Yeh creating public art in broken places like Rwanda. She writes “we want to create. We long to create. We can transform a very bleak situation into a place of joy and color. … When your environment is beautiful, it gives you dignity. You feel more dignified and your sense of self-esteem grows. All this is nurtured from working together. Seeds. Planting seeds of beauty helps the tree of community with all its branches to grow.” [Finding Beauty in a Broken World p. 270] It would be so easy, and understandable, for those who experienced unimaginable suffering in Rwanda to devote their lives to vengeance. But many are devoting themselves to restoring life to their battered communities, to building a new life for their children who paint visions of the future in colorful murals on the walls of the survivor’s village.
Unitarian Universalism must be a faith can bear the weight of the tragedies of human experience. While we focus on compassion and truth, reason and beauty, we must not be afraid to resist evil in all its guises. Let us resist by speaking the truth with love. Let us resist by refusing to demonize the other, because we know that great evil can be done by those who think they have the right on their side. Let us resist by doing a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Let us resist by noticing the seeds of good and the seeds of evil in ourselves. As the bible says [Deuteronomy 30:15] "See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil… I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live."
[i] (thanks to my colleague Craig Schwallenberg for this quote)