So this is my first entry in the Evil Diaries. No they are not supplemented by Dr. Evil, there is no Evil Petting Zoo and I will not give you directions to Minas Morgoth. But in a class I’m taking we frequently get asked to think about certain topics and this was my week’s reflection. I have put the original parts of the question
used as an outlining tool by a hapless hopeless seminarian in Bold.
How do you explain Evil in your congregation?
(I make Evil show us some valid ID Then I sit Evil down next to a hall monitor and make sure they don’t chew gum I DON’T KNOW, IN OTHER WORDS)
We don’t explain evil in my congregation as much as we acknowledge it. I think this is a good approach; I’ve always found evil to be irrevocably linked to a vein of the inexplicable, the degree of connection depending on each case. I’ve heard my minister acknowledge the evil of terrorist attacks, King Philip’s War and the Marathon Bombings. We acknowledged the evil in the orders of King Herod to kill all newborn male children in Bethlehem in our Christmas eve service. I think the distinction between explaining and acknowledging is an important one. I think Evil as a concept remains nebulous and imprecise and that it is over and under-applied countless times each day, all over the world.
How do you explain Evil?
I worry sometimes that evil cannot be explained, but rather identified. Or perpetuated. I think some of our attempts to define what is evil are successful, like the concept of genocide. That may be setting a very low standard for the definition of evil, but consider what happens when as a species, humanity has tried to define evil beyond its own, and what happens when we think we’ve got the hang of the classification process. –For instance, of the many reasons that the bubonic plague rates skyrocketed in 14th century Europe one stands out. The cats that had once kept the rodent populations (who carried the infected fleas) had been decimated because the church had declared them, as potential witches’ familiars and demonic spirits, evil. Crows and Ravens who play a vital role in removing carrion and small scavengers are still killed brutally and in high numbers because humanity decided that their nature—which led them so frequently to battlefields, corpses and garbage dumps made them evil. So we must remember how, in our attempts to define evil along the lines of our own needs or cultural practice or aesthetic comfort, we in turn as a species have done a great evil to the web of interconnected life around us.
What did you say and do when you found out about the Newtown shootings?
I was devastated by the Newtown shootings; the majority of children in Boston and Rhode Island I have taught or worked with were kindergartners. I couldn’t stop seeing their faces.
The Newton shootings made me think, also, that it is too easy to mistake other problems for evil. Was Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter evil? I do not feel qualified to deliver a verdict. He was clearly mentally disturbed. He and his mother clearly should not have had access or purchase rights to firearms. In the case of the other, much over-eclipsed shooting of that month, three firefighters were shot to death by a man who attacked his neighbors, set a house on fire and then picked off the emergency responders with firearms that he should not have been able to obtain, in Webster NY. On the surface, I look at Lanza’s crimes, and those of this other
spunk-stain shooter and I want to classify the people, Lanza and the shooter as evil. I know, however, rationally that both of them were reported after the fact to have emotional and mental disorders. The Firefighters’ shooter had already been convicted of murder; his grandmother in 1980. Lanza had not been given enough intervening mental health screening and treatment, he had not been monitored sufficiently and he was therefore free (I mean not-confined) to act. These shooters were not the awesome civilians-with-gun-know-how that I encounter more often than the media might prefer. They were people who should not have had guns or legal access to guns owned by other people.
What I believe is truly evil about the situation is that politicians, ‘big insurance’ companies, lobbyists and the corporate sector did not have to all but destroy a working budget for mental healthcare facilities in our country but they did. Residential facilities should not have been decimated but they were. The laws that made the guns purchased in both horrific incidents don’t need to have those loopholes, and the lobbyists and politicians don’t have to push for them, but they do.
Oh, and…? The same categories—lobbyists, politicians, the very wealthy and corporate on the anti-gun side do not have to cave in to political pressures, trade away reforms for back-room deals that will keep them in power and make them money—but they do.
And yet individual people take those jobs. Individual people take those jobs and if they discover or discern morally questionable practice, and they keep their job (and they do not have an economic hardship) are they evil? Are they doing evil, rather, or is that a valid distinction? I want to say yes, frequently. I can’t just always stop myself from wanting to say yes; I almost always want to say it. In my eyes, these are the big world grown up versions of the school administrators who made my life (and my peers’) prey to their ambitions and the bullies who preyed on the vulnerable. Especially the bullies who did so because they could, and the understanding that they could gave them something–maliciously, I want to say ‘joy.’ Realistically, I need to say “I don’t know”
And then extend my middle finger. Or my middle and index fingers. Depends how Agincourt-y I am feeling.
Now having said all that, the day of the Newtown shootings I wanted Lanza dead. I would have been saddened at the needless loss of life if he had been shot on the way to the school, and I would have felt much the same about the politics surrounding the problem as I’ve said above. The only reasons, in fact that I am not saying “I would have shot Lanza myself” are:
1. My mother’s PTSD patients at the VA have always said nobody knows how they would react in a killing scenario until they are in one, and my own limited weapons experience (foil, musket, throwing ax) seems to corroborate with that.I still remember the first time someone invited me to take a (rubber tipped) foil and (slowly) poke his (protected) chest. All games of Knights and Warriors aside, it was, at that point, one of the hardest things to do I had ever begun.
2. I am not a member of Law Enforcement or the Armed Forces and have no business toting a gun around, (yes I am one of those wimps who willingly acknowledges their authority. This is not a Fuck the Police Blog). I do not hunt, I do not shoot clay pigeons, I do not have a permit and I do not live in a vast forest surrounded by turkey vultures who want nothing more than to drop rabies-laced vulture-chalk on my house 24/7, I do not at this time live in a scenario where it would be appropriate for me to be learning to use or using firearms. (I do believe many of those scenarios exist, so no, Ricky and Willard, I am NOT coming with the President to take your guns.)
3: I am not at all trained in modern firearm use and not likely to be a good shot without a great deal of work, so I might well have missed. Worse, I could have hit someone else.
Does my very use of that criteria make me evil? Is taking a human life always evil? Am I unfit for ministry? Or is that set of questions and factors something that good people ask themselves? Or is it merely that people who have the potential for good go through that process? Would I be evil if I said I would do anything to defend a congregation under my care, such as the horrible shooting of a UU church in Kentucky? Up to and including the violence that sometimes comes with defense against an armed intruder who entered the physical space of church grounds with intent and means? Or would I just be wrong? Is there a difference between “evil” and “wrong?” I do not know. I hope this is not a mere laundry list of questions but truly, my understanding of any potential answers is a work in progress.
Have UU’s Overestimated Human Nature?
I worry that UU’s may have overestimated human nature, and I feel, again, that the arguments to focus on humanity as the central core of our religion in the form of humanism have led and could lead to more of that over-estimation. We need to be upfront and clear about what, as a species and through many cultures, we are capable of. But I do not think, conversely, that humans are beyond redemption—If I did, if I thought we were nothing more than an unstoppable infestation akin to fire-ants and tape-worms I would be a veterinarian, not a ministerial applicant. And, of course, we will be unable to preserve what is good and wonderful about us and heal the injuries we have inflicted on the web of life unless we have the chance to act and we take it. We have evil…and then we have Harry Belafonte, Mozart, Picasso (whose cigar farts surely smelled evil) and Little Turtle (Miami Confederation, 1790s, google him!)
This was why I found one particular reading in class this week so powerful. Reverend William Schulz, who has served as the head of my church in the past and as the executive director of Amnesty International is (what a dubious distinction, perhaps) one of the thinkers who has affected me most this semester. (that and the fact that he has a sense of humor, and honesty that I can aspire to in my own formation process and beyond). This is not actually the forerunner of a William Schulz Celebration Post
(do those exist?). I don’t want to suggest that I believe we can hold the words or actions of any human being alive or dead up as infallible or as proof that the individual will never say or do the wrong thing. It’s the effort Schultz makes to confront torture, to determine the many facets of evil, suffering and terror it encompasses and speak honestly of his feelings about each factor.*
(How does your understanding of evil relate to your capacity for hope?) My understanding of evil does a lot of damage to my concept of hope. I cannot defeat evil whether alone or in alliance. I cannot prevent evil. I cannot prevent the effects of evil deeds on my loved ones, on humanity itself or our world. But the wise person who said ‘evil triumphs when good people do nothing’ (adjusted for bad memory and less gender-exclusive language) is right. So I cannot turn away from hope, especially the hope that we can do better than those who do evil, and we can heal what evil leaves behind. Even if we cannot eradicate evil, to cease standing up to it would be to despair and therefore succumb to another sort of evil in itself.
*”What Torture’s Taught me” Rev. William Schulz, UUA General Assembly June 21 2006.