Sermon - The Devil is in the Details

The Devil Is In the Details

Sermon for 1st Unitarian Society of Denver, by Rev. Mike Morran, delivered February 6, 2011

Our Whole Souul Living Theme for the month of February is Evil. And while it might seem strange to hold up an ancient concept like Evil in the context of a modern, liberal church, I hope you’ll soon agree that this is important for us to grapple with. In your order of service is a very brief introduction to Evil as a Whole Souul Living Theme, and some questions for our  common reflection as a community. As always, the questions are intended not just for your private reflection but especially for your conversations with each other. We are aspire to be on this great journey of the mind, the heart, and the spirit together.

I also feel a need to warn you that Evil is a really large and complex topic, and we will only scratch the surface this morning.

So, to spark our collective thinking on this, I tried to imagine what a conversation with Evil might look like. I imagined that if Evil, just pure Evil, could be embodied in some kind of being, and I were somehow able to sit down with Evil for a conversation, the question I think I would ask first is, “What is it that makes you tick?” That is, “Why are you Evil?” And the trouble begins because at least in my imagination, I suspect that evil would probably answer my question with another question. Evil might well ask me in turn, “Why are you human?” And I’d say something like “Because I can’t be anything else.” And I think evil would say “Exactly.”

In grappling with evil in preparation for this month, I’ve learned that evil is like this. It’s elusive and slippery, hard to pin down, with no easy answers. It is worth noting that our ancestors, and not so very long ago, had a very different understanding of evil than we do. For nearly two thousand years, evil had a name and an identity.  Satan was understood to be roaming the world, preying on the weak, a demon who was always lurking around and on the lookout for his next victim. The image and folklore around the devil gave people and society a common language and understanding of what evil was, where it came from, and how it worked.  And some of that common understanding had real value and wisdom. There is a kind of inherent mystery and otherworldliness about Evil already built in to the idea of a devil demon. And it’s interesting to note that people who have experienced real evil almost always report that there was an otherworldly quality to it, as if the event took on a surreal kind of quality.

When Evil was personified in the devil, everyone understood that Evil was bigger than we were. And this is very important, everyone understood that no one was completely immune.

It also strikes me as wise to see that when Evil is personified in the devil, then Evil is already and automatically identified as a spiritual issue. And this applies to both the individual and the community. Spiritual weakness leads to being more vulnerable to temptation. Spiritual fortitude helps fend off the temptations that Satan would put in our path. In this way, having spiritual fortitude was understood as a life imperative because everyone knew evil could cost your soul…, for all eternity. And that’s pretty strong motivation.

One of the reasons we are looking at Evil this month because I believe evil presents the modern world with a deep tension that we have yet to resolve. On one hand, evil among human beings is arguably more of a reality than ever before. But we don’t know how to talk about it anymore. We no longer have a common language, or a common, potent symbol for knowing evil when we see it, being able to name something as evil, or even to just talk about evil. I would argue that even within the privacy of our own hearts and souls, we have very little in the way of spiritual tools for understanding or grappling with Evil, even as we see and experience things in the world nearly every day that it would be difficult to call anything else.

William James once wrote: The world is all the richer for having the devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.” But how do we keep our foot on the neck of something we all agree is a quaint figment of some ancient human imagination?  So these days we tend to use the language of neurosis and delusion, anti-social behavior, psychopathology, or some other emotional or psychological dysfunction.  When Jared Loughner killed those nineteen people in Tucson three and a half weeks ago, most of us assumed that he was some right wing nut job and almost certainly mentally ill. Or when Susan Smith made sure her two children were safely seat-belted insider her car before she sent it rolling into a lake a few years ago. Or when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wreaked havoc and death at Columbine High School... We look for who Jared was listening to on the radio and whether he was receiving psychiatric services. Whether Susan was treating her depression and taking her medicine. Or whether the bullying and peer pressure in High School is too intense for young minds to deal with.

And maybe it is. And maybe she wasn’t treating her depression. And maybe Jared Loughner will turn out to be totally delusional and as certifiably psychotic as the day is long.

But isn’t it interesting that both these ways of approaching Evil, whether we give it Satanic origins, or lay it at the feet of some psycho-social pathology, both of these approaches avoid the issue of personal responsibility? “It’s not entirely their fault.”  “The Devil made them do it.” “It was the illness, it was the family of origin, it was the controlling father, the abusive mother, a bonding disorder, it was pornography, or violent video games, or the hateful and pompous pundits…,” Or whatever… 

But here’s my question. We live in what is arguably the most evil-laden time that human beings have ever created or lived through. With all our modern understanding and sophistication, what have we learned about Evil?

I think it’s safe to say that the Devil is dead. The existence of Satan as a common understanding of evil is gone and it’s not coming back. And that’s probably a good thing. But it’s also true that psycho-social pathology is simply and utterly inadequate.

No one I know of has tried to argue that the holocaust, the terrorists responsible for September 11th, the leaders of any of the horrifically repressive regimes around the world, or the decimation of Indigenous populations all over the world, including right here in the United States, or the practice of human slavery, and so on and so on…; no one I know of is arguing that the people who did and do these large scale atrocities are mentally ill.

We have to look elsewhere.

Scott Peck believes that “…the central defect of evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it.” In other words, Peck believes that the root of all evil is the endless capacity of human beings for self-deception, compartmentalization, and denial.  In Daniel Goldhagen’s landmark book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, he begins with an amazing letter written by Captain Wolfgang Hoffman, a commander of three companies of Police Battalion 101 in occupied Poland during World War Two. Hoffman led his men in the documented execution of tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, yet the letter expressed his refusal to obey an order. The order that he refused was one that required him to sign a statement which would obligate himself and his command to refrain from stealing. And the objection he stated in this letter was that he would not sign the statement about stealing because he felt his morals were being called into question. He felt his honor was being injured.

Carl Jung wrote, “…the individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil, as it is posed today, has need, first and foremost, of self-knowledge, that is, 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.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think a deeper grasp of evil begins to emerge when I imagine the continuation of that imaginary conversation that we started with. I imagine also that if I were to ask evil, “How am I to understand you?” I expect that evil would probably say something to the effect of “Maybe you should look in the mirror.”

About ten years ago I had just seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, and especially the opening scenes has made a huge impression on me…: the unspeakable violence of the Allied landing on Omaha Beach, the chaos, and the death. A few days later I was car-pooling with a minister colleague (to some conference or something) and I asked her if she had seen it. ButI wasn’t quite prepared for her response. She said she never watched movies like that. She thought all portrayals of violence only caused more violence, and even watching dramatized violence did spiritual violence to the viewer. She was quite adamant about it.

Her spiritual path is Buddhism, and in Buddhism there is the idea that all things have residual effects, and everything, no matter how seemingly trivial, has an effect on the overall harmony and balance of the universe.

It’s a compelling argument, and I admire those who are able to authentically practice such compassion. My problem is that this method just doesn’t sit right with me. At the time, my boys were very small, and I remember when that movie was over, I went and sat on the older one’s bed and I cried. Zack was only three, and I cried because I knew in my bones that there is no way I will be able to protect him from events like that. His precious little forty pounds of clear-eyed joy and energy will grow into a man who will be swept up in the tides of history, just as all of us have been and currently are, just as those soldiers on Omaha beach were. I cried because there is no way to know if those tides will be relatively uneventful like mine have blessedly been, or fraught with tension, hatred, and sudden death. I cried because I can’t know or control what passions will ignite his yearning heart. I cried because he will suffer, and he will die, and there is nothing I can do about it.

But I did get to thinking about all this afterwards, and wondering what would at least raise the odds of his avoiding another Omaha Beach… I don’t think it’s by avoiding all violence or evil. Carl Jung wrote that, “One does not attain enlightenment by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Evil, cruelty, indifference, greed, violence; all of these chains upon the human spirit are part of us.  To pretend otherwise seems to me hopelessly idealistic, and like prohibition, will only push them further underground where it seems to me likely that they will come out again in ever more dark and twisted ways.

I think more effective and therefore more hopeful approach to these things is to know them, own them, and understand deeply how they work and the lies they tell. I want to understand violence so well that I can’t even conceive of violence without the simultaneous and intimate awareness of its costs. If I ever have to send my son to a war, if he ever has to make a decision about whether or not to go, at the very least I want it to be by informed consent! I want us both to be fully aware of just how brutal, how barbaric, how sickeningly violent, and how ultimately stupid it is.

I think with that kind of knowledge, all of us will do a better job of making sure something like Omaha beach doesn’t happen again. We’ll be more effective because we’ll know just exactly how high the stakes really are. I’m not suggesting that we all go out and watch Saving Private Ryan this afternoon. I am saying that maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to move past or skip over some of the inevitable disturbances that will come into our lives.

Buddhism also has this idea that all our judgments about right and wrong, good and evil, joy and pain, are just illusions…: human creations that the universe knows nothing of. And that makes a lot of sense to me. I think that the universe was not created in order to make us comfortable, and I think that life includes suffering. I think that pain and sorrow, grief and loss are simply the prices we pay for a life that includes Love, and I think it’s a bargain! But when it comes to unnecessary suffering, or cruelty, or war, or torture…, I can’t go there.

The last aspect of this that I want to wrestle with today are the consequences of evil. Not so much the legal or punitive consequences, but the personal and spiritual consequences. As in, what are we to make of those who do evil and appear to get away with it?

It may be a matter of faith, but I choose to believe that there is a cost, and I believe the cost is a certain disconnection from themselves, and a sacrifice of their own wholeness. Scott Peck writes that those who deny their evil are avoiding the pain of self-reflection. There is a soulful healing that takes place when we come to understand our own failings, own them for what they are, forgive ourselves and others for all those unrealistic expectations of perfection.

There is a wide sense in sacred teachings and wisdom literature that spiritual maturity has a lot to do with an expansive, cellular understanding of how all of life is connected, with a deep ability to empathize, and with an abiding compassion. I believe those who unrepentingly choose evil also choose to close off their access to this spiritual maturity and the peace that comes with it. I think that old mythology about evil costing you your very soul is really not too far off.

In our congregation, we hold up these propositions on our wall because we aspire to their truthfulness. There is a reason that among the folklore of evil, Satan is known as the great trickster, or the great liar, and I believe the primary lie that evil tells us, whether through the creature Satan or the voices in our own heads, the primary lie is that we are isolated, that we are separate, that the reality of others isn’t a reflection, a consequence, and intimately dependent on our own reality, and that of everyone else.  I wonder about the kind of lies and falsehoods that someone like Jared Loughner, or Susan Smith, or Egyptian president Mubarak, or any number of others have come to believe. I don’t think they believed that there is a Unity that makes us One. Or that All Souls are Sacred and Worthy.

In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” In other words, none of us makes progress toward the proverbial light without bringing our darkness with us. In the New Testament, Jesus challenged us to “…be harmless as doves, and as wise as serpents.”  In closing, I’d only like to say this. That when it comes to understanding or confronting evil, we make no gains by doing nothing. We go nowhere by pretending we don’t know where to go. And, we can take no one with us by pretending that we’re in the struggle alone.

My wish for all of us is that we don’t let our desire to be harmless as doves prevent us from being wise as serpents.