Speechless in the Face of Evil

Rev. Josh Pawelek

PeaceBang writes: “My liberal religious tradition would say that … people who are one bad turn of events away from sheer desperation, may do bad or criminal things because of that desperation. I agree. They certainly might. I certainly might do that if I was in their position. What my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge is that on top of this level of human misery, fear, need and desperation is a pre-existing human condition called evil.”[1]

Shhh

For the moment I’m less interested in the idea of “a pre-existing condition called evil;” I’ll come to that. I’m more interested first in “what my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge.” Yes, Unitarian Universalism is not known for its robust discourse on evil. This is not to say we’re oblivious to evil—we aren’t—or that none of us has any direct experience of evil—some of us plainly do. But evil is not the typical starting place for our theological reflection. It doesn’t drive our spiritual lives. When asked to describe the purpose of our spiritual practice, very few of us will answer: “it’s my way of confronting evil.” I can’t tell you how many of you, upon learning our January ministry theme would be evil, asked Why? Why talk about that? One member summed it up well. “Evil,” she wrote. “THAT is, to my mind, an un-Unitarian concept.” She’s right, as is PeaceBang. We are the exact opposite of those charismatic Christian churches anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann described in her New York Times editorial last Sunday. “In these churches, prayer is warfare. The new charismatic Christian churches in Accra (Ghana) imagine a world swarming with evil forces that attack your body, your family and your means of earning a living.” [2] We UUs know human beings can and do inflict enormous pain and suffering on each other. Yet when we imagine the world theologically, we’re more likely to say it’s essentially good. People, essentially good. Creation, essentially good. Evil, at most, plays a minor role.

This is not new. I’ve named it before from this pulpit. Many of my colleagues preach about it. They write blogs, articles and books about it. In his 2005 book, Faith Without Certainty, liberal theologian and UU minister Paul Rasor writes that in order to effectively confront racism it is critical that we understand it theologically as a form of evil. However, he goes on, “it is hard for liberals to talk in these terms because we have no real theology of evil and therefore no language or conceptual reference points adequate to the task.”[3] Six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an article in the UU World magazine asked whether we were theologically prepared to respond to evil. “Now that terror spreads from shore to shore, now that Islamist militants are calling the United States a terrorist nation because U.S. bombing has killed Afghan civilians, is this one of those rare moments in history so powerful that we have no choice but to re-examine even something so fundamental as our historic trust in the basic goodness of humanity?”[4] 

But this question is older than 9/11. It first came to my attention in the mid-1990s when I entered seminary. I can’t remember who first said it, but I heard it early and often during my ministerial education. It probably sounded like this: Unitarian Universalists have much to say about humanity’s more positive traits—love, caring, compassion, generosity, selflessness—all of which we are capable of expressing in word and deed. But for the more negative human qualities—violence, greed, hatred, selfishness—all of
Darth Vaderwhich we are capable of expressing in word and deed—we don’t have a deep theological understanding of the roots of these things in us and the world.
I remember as a seminarian realizing that I had learned more about evil reading The Lord of the Rings and watching Star Wars than I had attending UU Sunday School in the 70s and 80s. My grandmother—a Bible-reading, pietistic, Pennsylvania Dutch Lutheran with evangelical edges—used to tell my brothers and I stories about Satan, how he tempts you to sin, how he wants your soul in Hell. She was helping us get into Heaven, an act of love; and we loved her for it. But by the time we understood what she was talking about, we were already living in a different theological world with no Satan, Hell, angels, demons, divine punishment and, we were pretty sure, no Heaven—at least not the one she anticipated.

That same UU World article following 9/11 quoted Lois Fahs Timmins—daughter of the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs—talking in 1996 about her Sunday School experience in the 1920s and 30s. “‘We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humanity,’ she said…. ‘I was taught not to be judgmental, not to observe or report on the bad behavior of others. Consequently, because of my education, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent to observe it accurately, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed of talking about evil.’”[5]

Genocide

I suspect the charge that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t acknowledge evil is as old as liberal religion itself. Any time we put human goodness at the center of our faith, someone else may ask, “What about genocide? What about fascism, killing fields, gas chambers, mass shootings, torture, racism, slavery, sexual abuse? With its positive view of humanity, liberal religion has always faced this line of questioning. There is, therefore, some truth to the claim that, unlike our counterparts in more conservative religious traditions who encounter the world as a spiritual war zone,[6] we are, at least theologically speaking, speechless in the face of evil.

Speechless

Some truth, yes, but there may be more to our speechlessness than we realize. This is my message: speechlessness in the face of evil is not the same thing as powerlessness in the face of evil. Let me say a few words about what I think evil isn’t; and then a few words about what I think it is, and I hope it will become clear what I mean when I say speechlessness does not equate to powerlessness.

What Evil Isn’t

No SatanFirst, there is no ‘Prince of Darkness.’ This is the Universalist in me speaking. Evil does not result from Satan or his minions swarming around, causing illness, sowing social discord, and harming livelihoods. If you agree, you’re in the minority. Luhrmann says 57 % of Americans believe in demonic possession.[7] Of course, it’s important to me to respect and honor diverse religious world-views, to try to understand what value they may hold for their practitioners. While I might not agree with someone who believes their condition is caused by demons, I also won’t tell them they’re wrong. My pastoral instinct is to receive them with an open-mind and try to fathom how they understand their predicament. If demons are important to them, then we talk about demons. While I can’t do what an evangelical Christian minister or a Catholic priest exorcist might do, I can have a conversation. More often than not, the person just needs to be heard. More often than not, there’s trauma in their background, driving their belief. That is, more often than not some violence has been done to the person. Even if I don’t believe the demon is real, certainly the person’s pain and suffering is. I may be speechless in their theological world, but I’m not powerless. I can still bear witness to trauma. I can still respond to pain and suffering. And so can you.

Second, natural disasters are not evil. Tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, earthquakes, typhoons, floods and fires can and do bring chaos and tragedy. But they are natural and largely indiscriminant, not the result of a vengeful deity. Of course, many people believe natural disasters are divine punishments for some transgression. It makes me angry—and theologically speechless—whenever I hear such pronouncements. I have nothing to say. But, again, speechless does not equate to powerless. In the wake of natural disasters I hope we aren’t wasting time and speech debating theology. I hope we are responding to pain and suffering in whatever ways are within our power.

What Evil Is

I don’t know if evil is a pre-existing condition. I’m also not sure it matters. Whether it pre-exists, or we learn it along the way, or it’s in the social order and we become accustomed to it without ever realizing it—I think there’s some truth to all three—I’m convinced evil Abuse of Poweris real. It has an impact on the world. Recall the UUS:E member who said evil is an un-Unitarian concept. She is also a victim of evil—the survivor of relentless child abuse by more than one family member. (Please know she gave me permission to share with you.) It’s a story of people wielding power harmfully over a more vulnerable, dependent and weaker person—at least a person who is perceived to be weaker. It’s a story of people killing the spirit of another, attacking their emotional and physical well-being, silencing them. Of course there are many more stories like this, and multitudes of stories of all kinds of violence people visit upon people. When any of us hears a story like this, does it matter whether we have a well-developed theology of evil to understand it? In that moment of hearing the story, I wonder if trying to restate the experience of evil in theological terms may do more harm than good. If we’re really hearing the story—if we’re really taking it in, encountering the horror of it—I wonder if the most healthy, realistic and respectful initial human response we can have is speechlessness. Silence. Perhaps this is how we know we’re dealing with evil: We have no words. We have no words because what we’re hearing contradicts everything we love about humanity. We have no words because what we’re hearing shatters our faith in human goodness.  

Speechless

It’s the same with stories about the ways in which our systems and institutions visit violence upon people—the violence of warfare, of suicide bombings, chemical weapons, terrorism, torture, racism, sexism, mass incarceration. And there is that more subtle yet increasingly visible evil of which PeaceBang writes in her blog, that evil that lies atop human misery, fear, need and desperation, that evil of an economic and political system that cares less and less about poor people, unemployed people, homeless people; that system that tolerates an unprecedented, unsustainable and immoral level of income inequality. When we pause to hear the stories of pain and suffering this evil breeds; when we pause to take them in, to let them wash over us, to recognize the insidiousness of this system, is any theology “adequate to the task?” Again, I wonder if the most healthy, realistic and respectful initial human response is speechlessness. Silence. Perhaps this is how we know we’re dealing with evil: We have no words. We have no words because what we’re hearing dashes our hopes for a more just and loving society. We have no words because what we’re hearing shatters our faith in human goodness.  

Speechless

In the end, when encountering abuse, trauma, violence, war, racism, poverty, whether it pre-exists or we learn it along the way or its embedded in the system; whether we name it evil or not, does our theology really manifest best in what we say? Or in what we do? That’s the real question. What do we do to confront evil once we’re aware of it? Speechlessness may look to some like inadequacy. But I find lack of action far more damning. This is the message I take from PeaceBang’s blog. She’s issuing a call to action. She says, “A popular Unitarian Universalist slogan right now says, ‘Go love the hell out of the world.’ Perhaps in 2014 we might make a shared, community resolution to hearten each other for this work, for this steady confrontation with forces that lie, steal, starve and shame a huge percentage of the population which regards its lack of financial success as a personal failure. Perhaps in the new year we might refrain from one or two in-fights … over relatively small matters or semantics and stay focused on the hell in the world, which I believe we can successfully discern if we stay clear about where and what it is.”[8]

Which brings me back to my liberal religious tradition. I know this: if I’m going to confront evil with courage and resolve, I need human goodness at the center of my faith, despite my awareness that people, myself included, aren’t always good. I need the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—even those who commit atrocities—at the center of my faith. And I need to keep a positive, hopeful attitude about the future at the center of my faith, despite what I know about the human penchant for war, oppression, and destruction of the natural world.

And while I don’t want my children or the children of this congregation to be ignorant of evil, I expect to continue teaching them about good people doing good things. And I want us all to remember that in far too many religious settings historically and today people hear the traumatic message over and over again that they are wicked and sinful by nature and must accept unbelievable teachings and engage in hollow rituals in order to be saved from eternal punishment. And I want us all to remember that in far too many religious settings historically and today people have been identified as evil and consequently abused, imprisoned and murdered based on their sexual orientation, gender, disability, mental illness, skin color, healing practices, culture, folkways,  perceived proximity to the earth, any unorthodox beliefs, and even their scientific world-view and methods. When I read of a congregation shouting “The witches will die. They will die. Die. Die!”[9]—which is not just a phenomenon in the Ghanian Charismatic Christian churches, but happens in a myriad of ways all across the globe—I hear people with a robust theology of evil using it to perpetuate more evil against innocent victims. That’s the risk with any theology of evil. Those who believe it can use it to justify their own evil actions.

Our liberal, Unitarian Universalist, positive view of human nature as loving, compassionate, generous, caring and self-sacrificing—though it may not present the whole picture—is no light-weight, naïve, sheltered theology. It is a life-saving, life-giving, life-enhancing religious response to all those theologies that drive arbitrary wedges between people, that seek to frighten people into faith, and that teach people of their inherent sinfulness rather than their beauty, worth, and potential. If the price of such a faith is speechlessness in the face of evil, then so be it. It may be just what is needed. So, may we find power in the midst of our speechlessness, and may our faith lead us to action—action that loves the hell out of the world.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Read PeaceBang’s “Go Love the Hell Out of the World” at http://www.peacebang.com/2013/12/28/go-love-the-hell-out-of-the-world/.

[2] Read T.M. Luhrmann’s New York Times op ed,”When Demons are Real, at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/29/opinion/sunday/when-demons-are-real.html?_r=0.

[3] Rasor, Paul, Faith Without Certainty (Boston: Skinner House, 2005) p. 176.

[4] Read Warren Ross’ “Confronting Evil: Has Terrorism Shaken Our Religious Principles?” from the January/February 2002 issue of UU World at http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html.

[5] Ross, “Confronting Evil” at http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html.

[6] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

[7] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

[9] [9] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.