Who is evil?

Yesterday, we held a conference here in this building [the Newington Green Unitarian Church]. We brought together a variety of liberal religionists and secular people to talk about the issue of inequality in the laws regarding marriage and same-sex unions. 

We met at an exciting time, just days after we heard news that suggests the struggle that this congregation undertook nearly two years ago may soon turn as we would have hoped. In March of 2008, we pledged that we would stop conducting legal marriages for any couple and that would resume only when allowed by law to treat same-sex and straight couples equally. And so, yesterday, we talked about legal strategies, we talked about activism, and we talked about how our various religious traditions understand and look upon same-sex relationships. 

In any struggle for justice, it is almost irresistible to label and demonize the opposition. After all, it is the opposition that we understand to be perpetuating injustice. It is that opposition that refuses to grant all people the same rights. It is that opposition that refuses to see all people as equally deserving of full respect and dignity. The opposition is – I think it is fair to say – perpetrating an evil upon a minority group within our population. 

Evil is a powerful word. It is a word about which we may feel very ambivalent. Evil means profoundly wrong and harmful, but it carries with it a number of other connotations. One is that there is an intention to be harmful. A second is the notion that there is something supernatural involved – some force that works to prevent the emergence of the good. How can we, with our dedication to the good in everyone, use and engage with the idea of evil? 

The traditional story of Purim is one that pits good against evil. I encouraged you, in keeping with Jewish tradition, to make a great noise whenever the name of Haman was mentioned. It is explained that this tradition is intended to “blot out the name of evil.” 

Purim is one of the few really joyous Jewish holidays. Among the many stories in the history of the Jewish people, this is one where the good guys finally win one. After the destruction of the temple, the exile from the holy land, and the dispersion of Jews to foreign lands, here is a story where things finally turn out as they should be. 

It is a tidy story and justice seems to be served. Haman is evil – purely and simply evil. He wants to destroy the Jewish people, and he, himself, ends up destroyed by them. 

We can understand, I think, why this is so attractive. In fact, it’s not that much different from many popular films: You know the usual pattern: We are first introduced to a good guy and we are shown how wonderful he is. He loves puppies and babies, helps the elderly cross the street and changes over all of his light bulbs to the energy saving variety. 

Then a villain appears and we can quickly see his wickedness. He drowns kittens, uses disposable plastic carrier bags by the dozen, and never swipes in his Oyster Card on the bendy buses. And, by the way, he’s involved in some world-wide conspiracy to destroy all life, steal tons of gold, or give nuclear weapons to terrorists – something like that. Soon, the villain gains some advantage over our hero and then, when all seems hopeless, the turnaround happens. Good defeats evil and everyone lives happily ever after. 

It’s natural for us to like this kind of story. We identify with the good guy and it makes us feel powerful to see him win. It makes us feel hopeful. And one more very important thing: by dividing humanity into neat categories of good and evil, it makes our messy, complicated world seem orderly for once. Human beings – all of us, I think -- crave this kind of clarity. 

Our desire to categorise and make order is everywhere in our lives: Us vs. them is how we are tempted to see the world. You have to be black or white – not something in the middle. You have to be posh or poor, sane or crazy, old or young, gay or straight, foreign or native, and with us or against us. We draw boxes and put things in one or the other. 

To make an enemy, we simply need to identify them as other, as different, as “them.” When George Bush wanted to get people on his side against Iraq, it was this kind of rhetoric he used. They were not people with a grievance. They were not even just the enemy, they were the “Axis of Evil.” 

We don’t have to look far to find people who appear to be evil – people who give credence to the categorization of our species in these simplistic categories. 

I don’t mean the people whose cruelty and apparent disregard for life suggests severe mental illness and an incapacity for normal emotions. These situations appear often in the news and we can understand that illness or trauma turns people into amoral monsters. 

But there are all too many people who appear sane by conventional standards and yet go blithely forward subjecting humans and other creatures to unspeakably torment and suffering. For these, the term evil seems to be a more comfortable fit. 

I know that names will quickly come to your mind… Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Osama Bin Laden… These individuals and many more have perpetrated evil. But, are they evil? Is that a word we wish to use with its implication of intent and its overtones of the supernaturally malevolent? 

As you well know, Unitarians do not have a creed. There is no belief test to be a Unitarian. But, if we did have a creed, it would probably include these few words that are used on both sides of the Atlantic: the “worth and dignity of every person.” We believe that each person is precious, worthy of respect, and to be treated as such. 

It is a demanding standard – it is a category-busting statement of faith. Can we not divide humanity into good and bad? What about Haman and the others? Must we respect their worth and dignity too? 

Yes, even them. I do not deny that some people are the cause of great evil. It is up to all of us to ensure that dangerous people not be allowed to harm others; but even as we do what we must do to protect ourselves and others, we continue to commit to seeking and promoting the worth and dignity of all. And that means doing the very hard work of seeking to understand. 

There is certainly evil action in the world. I am tempted also to label some people as evil, but I am committed to doing what I can to resist that urge. 

In the very faithful words of our own Mary Wollstonecraft: “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” 

If Mary Wollstonecraft is right, the mind of Haman was not filled with thoughts of how to cause misery, but rather misguided notions of how to cause or maintain happiness. Where then does the cause for evil action lie? If there are no evil people – or at least very few – how can we conceptualize our own efforts to remake the world according to a better, kinder, more compassionate model? 

I want to suggest that the notion of individual evil is an error based on the flawed notion that human beings exist in isolation. Indeed, we are formed and continually reformed and reshaped by the influences of our families, our friends, our communities, and our cultural milieu. We are each products of the many millions of influences that affect our ongoing development at all stages of our lives. 

If there is a superhuman evil, it need not be supernatural. It can be found in the evil systems that surround us: The systems of commerce that cause us to hate ourselves. The systems of class that make it so hard to succeed without the influential connections that come with the right parentage. The systems of exclusivism that label outsiders as somehow less than human. Each of these is as powerful as any demon and at least as capable of meting out harm. 

Mairead "maw-raid" Maguire who has spent much of her life working to encourage peaceful resolutions of conflicts in her native Northern Ireland and elsewhere, said this: 

“We frail humans are at one time capable of the greatest good and, at the same time, capable of the greatest evil. Change will only come about when each of us takes up the daily struggle ourselves to be more forgiving, compassionate, loving, and above all joyful in the knowledge that, by some miracle of grace, we can change as those around us can change too.” 

These words are all the more powerful when we recognise that they were spoken by a woman whose three young nieces were run down and killed by a car driven by an IRA man – a woman with every reason to bear anger in her heart, and yet her solution is to change the systems of evil by changing ourselves. 

Change will come from our own struggle to be caring and compassionate and dedicated in our conviction that justice can move forward – that people can change – that hardened hearts can open. 

We are a gentle, angry people. We must have enough gentleness to hold compassion for those who would frustrate our vision of a more just world. And we must not lose our anger as we identify and name the evil systems of our world and set about to transform them. 

So may it be with you. 

So may it be with us.