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The Enemy Within – 3/30/2014

Some years ago, cartoonist Ruben Bolling published a piece entitled, “God’s Reelection Campaign.” God, for the purpose of this story is imagined as a white-haired, white-robed, white-bearded white man – that image that pops up again and again in religious art and secular art about religion, even though I have never met anyone who attests to believe in it literally. In the comic strip, God’s 12-billion year term is about to expire and according to his pamphlet, he needs your support in order to earn a second one.

As in most good political dramas, things quickly begin to look bad for the incumbent. Constituents begin showing up to his public appearances to heckle him about unanswered prayers. He starts to lose his base. One average Joe interviewed by a reporter covering the campaign opines, “Famine, disease, misery, disasters – I say throw the Bum out.” Worst of all his opponent – a successful car dealer ready to bring his private sector experience to the management of the cosmos – is feels free to make all sorts of wild promises. Waffles will grow on trees. The earth will take an hour off from experiencing gravity each day. And all humans will now come standard with a third arm for holding beverages and the like.

But the lowest point comes during one of the televised debates. Asked to clarify his policy vis-à-vis good and evil, God exclaims that “Evil is necessary in order for good to exist.” His opponent seizes the opening, declaring that things will be very different in his administration. “Evil! Gone! First 100 days!”[i] It is the theological equivalent of, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

The matter of good and evil – and particularly of evil – has long been a central concern in religion. Scholars and theologians and lots of other human beings, faced with a world in which terrible things happen, have inquired into the nature of evil – its causes and effects, and how and why it came to be an element of our existence at all. There are a number of different answers, many of which you have no doubt heard before – these things tend to repeat themselves. In our own tradition, among my Unitarian Universalist minister colleagues, the sermon on evil even has an archetypical form. Were I following that oft-repeated form, this is the point where I would decry the fact that evil is a subject our faith is too shy about and too reticent to engage with – a word we avoid, and at our peril. But I am not going to do that, because I think that old saw has worn rather dull, if it ever cut anything to begin with.

The fact is, our tradition has crucial things to say about evil. Some of it is direct, and some of it is by implication. So that if you feel at all confused or conflicted about the subject, you might start with what is good – something we like to talk about often, and understand well – and consider what its opposite points to. The impulse in human beings to try to do good: to practice kindness and compassion, to struggle for justice, to fashion themselves and the world into finer things; that motive can be summarized in many ways. I prefer the term popularized by the Unitarian Albert Schweitzer: reverence for life. It is that reverence contained in us, nurtured and expressed in a multiplicity of ways, that draws us to do good in the world: actions that hallow and consecrate living things and the generous mystery of life itself. The opposite of this, contempt for life, is the definition I would offer you for the inclination to do evil: whatever actions desecrate life, and those that live.

This conflict between reverence and contempt is hardly a unique idea. In Jewish philosophy, the terms are yetzer hara and yetzer hatov – the evil and the good inclinations. You have likely seen before the old cartoon convention for a character in a moral dilemma: a tiny angel perched on one shoulder, a tiny devil seated on the other. There’s something comforting in that idea, that those impulses – particularly the harmful, destructive one – lie outside of us somehow, separate from our true self. It may be telling then that this feature of western art and children’s cartoon shows is probably a corruption of the Islamic concept of the kiraman katibin. This Muslim tradition holds that two angels – Raqib and Atid – perch on the shoulder of every person, watching what they do and recording their actions. Raqib is on the right, writing down the good, while Atid sits on the left, noting the evil. This version makes it plain: our feelings and our choices belong to us, are a part of us, are entirely us. I am not simply a neutral judge or the balance point of a scale – I am everything that I do and have done, for well or for ill.

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, “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?”[ii] Evil is a part of who we are. It can be resisted, should be resisted, must be resisted if we and our world are to fulfill our promise, but that impulse is always with us. And it is perhaps for this reason that we are so fascinated by it. Myths and stories which meditate on and explore evil have long been popular, and they are particularly so just at the moment. The world of television has, in the last decade, become crowded with epics about characters slipping into – or gleefully living in – the realm of immorality. I want to touch on a few of these now in order to examine four of the most common arguments in favor of evil: the lines of reasoning that diminish our reverence and lead us towards acts of desecration.

The first is this: “It’s all in the game.” This is a quote from The Wire, a many-faceted window into the drug war in and around the city of Baltimore. The words are spoken by Omar Little, a stick-up artist who specializes in robbing drug merchants. As Omar testifies in court as a witness to a murder, he spars verbally with the defense attorney, a man who has made his name and fortune by aiding the drug kingpins of Baltimore in conducting their brutally violent business with as little interference from the law as possible. The attorney questions Omar and tells him, “You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off [of] violence and despair…You are stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite…”

And this is where Omar cuts him off, “Just like you, man. I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?” The idea that it’s all in the game is the idea that everyone else is up to something at least as bad as whatever you are doing. That some manner of injustice or wrong is simply the way things work, how life gets lived or business gets done. It is related to the concept for which the political theorist Hannah Arendt was known: the banality of evil. The condition under which things that are profoundly and obviously wrong become normal and commonplace. The necessary circumstances of any large-scale horror: the institution of slavery, the commission of genocide, or in this case a cycle of addiction, terrorization, and incarceration that corrodes and kills human beings, and rots away at communities. It is the argument for every evil, large and little, that we have become accustomed to, from any moment when we lie or cheat, expecting others to do the same, to the bloody and unseen cost of the gas in our cars and the food in our stomachs. Our tradition answers this attitude of disinterest with the imperative to examine our lives and our world carefully – to understand why things are the way they are, so we can attempt to change them. And it also reminds us that there is no particular sanctity in sameness. Doing what everyone else is doing is worthwhile if and only if the thing is right. Otherwise, it is our responsibility to be different.

In the more recent program, True Detective, two deeply flawed men grow progressively more and more broken as they work together to catch a serial killer. Partners Marty and Rust are a mismatched pair – one dangerously gifted at self-deception, the other possessed of an honesty that manifests as cruelty. One day, shaken by guilt from something he has just done, in a rare moment of clarity, Marty asks Rust, “Do you wonder, ever, if you’re a bad man?”

To which Rust responds, “No, I don’t wonder Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.”  This idea, that the world needs bad men, that some evils are necessary to prevent greater ones, is pernicious. On the one hand it is almost unavoidable: relatively few people believe in a total absence of physical self-defense, for instance. Harming a person to stop them from doing immediate harm to us or someone else is generally accepted. But this same line of reasoning connects directly to something that Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association said two years ago: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”[iii] This is the philosophy that has left our society so saturated with powerfully deadly weapons that anyone bent on the wholesale destruction of human life seems able to find at least one. If the existence or even potential of evil can be used to justify yet more evil, then that traps us in a cycle which can never end. The escape route our tradition prescribes is to confront injustice creatively with love, rather than meeting hate with hate.

The third common justification for the wrong we do as a species is grounded in the way we understand power. Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian political protagonist of the program House of Cards, is obsessed with power, and practiced at its exploitation. He is a ruthless, manipulative, hollow-hearted figure and a strong contender for the most despicable main character in the last decade of television. At one point in the series, as he tosses aside one of the few people who might qualify as a friend, he remarks, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties.” This is too often accepted as a truism: that power, by its nature, leads to wrong, and so the choosing of leaders and the choices made by those leaders are at best a search for a lesser evil. That mentality teaches the oppressed that oppression is a natural state of affairs and allows the great and mighty the reassurance that injustice is a product of the system alone, and cannot be blamed on their individual choices.

By expecting villainy from the powerful, by allowing it to feel normal, we promote it. The public image of our political leaders in Washington is so abysmal, what fresh shame could they ever possibly find beyond simply holding office? Tolerating the contempt of millions of people seems to be a prerequisite for the job. The handful of ultra-powerful financial institutions on which our system of commerce depends are similarly expected to plumb new depths of depravity. In 2012, prosecutors claimed that one major bank had such a cozy relationship with the drug traffickers who relied on it to launder money, that the cartels began using different boxes to transport their cash – ones better sized to the teller windows at that particular bank’s branches.[iv] In the comic strip that I described earlier, the God character wins reelection despite a miserable campaign because he is omnipotent, and so his opponent is afflicted with boils. Unitarian Universalism’s answer here is to interrogate the idea of power measured by unlimited control. True power need not corrupt we argue, and when it does, it is often because it was the wrong sort of power to begin with. Power is meant to be built between people, rather than imposed upon them.

The final argument towards evil that our tradition has a clear response to is an idea William Shakespeare pointed to when he wrote for his fallen hero MacBeth the lines, “I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as going o’er.” It is the idea that once we get far enough down the wrong path, there is no way to change course. Walter White, the main character of the series Breaking Bad, exemplifies this. He sets out with an ambitious but limited plan to make and sell drugs in order to support his family after his impending death. Only days into it he finds himself needing the means to dispose of a body – things only grow more gruesome and terrible as he continues on down the same fractured road he initially chose. The phrase repeated in the series is, “No half measures.” Once a thing is begun, see it through, no matter the consequence.

The corrective to this that our faith offers is a vital version of that optimism for which we are sometimes derided by ourselves and others. Not ignorance or a willful misunderstanding of the facts, but to look into the reality of what is wrong with the world and still to have the courage to try to make it a better place. And in particular to refuse to call any moment “too late” to begin over again. This is the very essence of Universalism – that every person, in every moment, has the potential to do what is right, and so none of us can ever fully give up on each other, or ourselves.

In the face of a culture which perpetuates these messages excusing and justifying the evils built into its structures, and lurking in our own hearts, this is what our tradition teaches:

  1. In response to the attitude that “It’s all in the game,” we question the game itself, and seek to break – or change – whichever rules are destructive to life.
  2. In challenge to the claim that “The world needs bad men,” we struggle to meet hate with love, and ignorance with truth, no matter how uncertain and afraid that confrontation makes us.
  3. In contradiction of the idea that “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties,” we demand that power be mutual and relational, and arrived at by just means if it is ever to serve just ends.
  4. And in answer to the injunction, “No half measures,” we commit ourselves to choose anew, in each moment, the path that an unrelenting love and a tireless compassion would have us take.

These are the truths we come together into community to learn and to relearn with and from each other. These are the lessons which are up to us to carry out with us and to practice, so that the records of our lives shall be accounts more of good than of evil.

[i] Tom the Dancing Bug, 1995

[ii] The Gulag Archipelago, 1973




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