CONFRONTED BY EVIL
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
March 15, 2020
Texts: 2 Kings 6:11–23; Luke 13:1–9
In 1943 as the world struggled against Nazism, a family whose members owned an inn called Hvidsten Kro located in Jutland in northern Denmark, struggled as best they could to live normal lives. The German occupation of Denmark had not been as brutal as in other countries, partly because the Germans saw the Danes as fellow Aryans and partly because when they realized it was a losing battle, the Danes became more or less non-resistant to German hegemony. Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway in April 1940, a part of its attempt to control the Baltic shipping lanes, a lifeline for the old USSR. The other end of the German move was to invade the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which occurred in 1941 pushing the Soviets back to the East.
By 1943, however, a small underground resistance had begun to grow. The Germans wanted a death sentence for saboteurs; the government resisted and finally resigned leading to German military rule. In September Hitler approved a plan for the deportation of Danish Jews, numbering about 7500. Although the story of King Christian X wearing a yellow star is legend because Danish Jews never wore a yellow star, the rescue of Danish Jews is not; Warned of the impending action, the Christians of Denmark managed to rescue and save more than 7,000 by moving them within one night from all over Denmark to waiting boats across the stormy channel into Sweden.
Confronted by evil, the people from the countryside around the villages of Randers and Mariager led by the family of the Inn at Hvidsten organized to stand up against the German occupation and eight of them paid with their lives. As I watched the docudrama Hvidstengruppen I had to ask myself how I would respond to such evil. Most of us in this room have had little, if any, experience confronted with evil – radical and unmitigated evil. We still cannot fathom the horror of the Holocaust or even the evils in our own century. Speaking for myself, evil is difficult to discuss yet evil has touched each of our lives, albeit in different ways.
Ancient religions and peoples had different ways of explaining evil which, although related to sin, is different from it. In Greek mythology there is the story of Pandora's box, sent to the earth by the gods who wanted to reduce people back to their dependent state having been given fire by Prometheus. Hebrew Scriptures weaves two traditions into a single narrative, one of these assigns the origin of evil as disobedience to God when the first man and the first woman eat of a tree of knowledge. We can see that Cain's fratricide is a consequence of the disobedience of his parents.
Ancient Persian religion has the origin of evil as two spirits coming from the two shoulders of the first man, a recognition that evil is inherent in our own natures rather than something given us in retribution or as a result of unintentional acts. Our capacity as human beings to manifest that evil may only be more gruesome in our time as a matter of scale.
As horrible as the genocides in Rwanda and Kosovo or in the Europe of World War II, one needs only to read Suetonius on the Roman Emperors or look at the drawings of Albrecht Durer and Francisco Goya to realize that the evil we do to each other predates our present age.
We want, of course, to demonize evil, making it something apart from ourselves. Either we blame the snake or some creature such as Lucifer to take the focus away from ourselves. Clearly, evil or its capacity is within us, which is not to say, as did John Calvin, that we are totally depraved. The question is what we do when confronted with evil, whether the evil is small or great.
Jesus had a direct response to the question of evil: cut it down as you would a plant that did not bear fruit. Easy to say, but very difficult to do. Often, just cutting down the tree that doesn't bear fruit isn't enough. One literally has to dig it out by the roots, or it will just sprout again, almost like a weed, choking out the other plants. Just as it is difficult to remove a plant that bears no fruit, it is difficult to address the problems caused by our own capacity for evil in this society.
William Sloane Coffin once wrote that evil is the human heart hiding from itself. Indeed, it is our denial of our complicity in the problems we see around us that reflects what that statement says. Assigning the blame elsewhere. We are very good at that.
Throughout our history we humans have assigned blame elsewhere, thinking that if we could just cut down the tree that bears no fruit, we can eradicate evil. The Reign of Terror of 1792–93 that followed the French Revolution leading to the execution of several thousand on the guillotine including children, was an example of this kind of thinking. Fueled by Rousseau's psychology and pedagogical theories, the French turned the Enlightenment on its head by declaring the children of the privileged were impure and that their mere presence would destroy the new society, thus carrying out an ancient threat in Exodus, that the consequences of evil would be visited on the third and fourth generations.
The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s in China was another example of “purifying” the culture. Both of these societies, confronted by evil, sought to root it out and to create pure societies based on ideology. Cambodia presented another example of this kind of thinking when anyone wearing glasses were considered to be a scion of privilege, to be destroyed.
So what do we do to confront evil if we do not cut it down? Supporters of capital punishment use this kind of argument to support judicially approved murder. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, they will tell you. In capital punishment states, families of the victims can actually watch the execution of the convicted. Personally, that's revolting. It's not justice but vengeance.
Rather than taking the words literally, since Jesus often spoke in metaphor in his parables, I think we need to take new approaches toward confronting evil. The first and most difficult thing to do is to face evil squarely no matter what form it takes. And we need to acknowledge our natural desire to turn away from evil – in ourselves as well as our society.
Evil is unspectacular and always human, wrote the poet W.H. Auden; it shares our bed and eats at our own table. That is the real problem of evil and our capacity for it: that it is so unspectacular, like walking into a fog until we are enveloped by it. We need to not only face evil but challenge it, take it on directly rather than being apathetic, for as an old proverb puts it, apathy is the glove in which evil slips its hand.
However, we cannot respond to evil with evil because rather than eradicating the evil, it destroys us as well. Over the past nineteen years in response to the terror unleashed by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by radical religious extremists, we have become a society governed by fear. That fear goes hand in hand with evil. Rather than simply arresting persons who are planning further attacks or who are in the midst of attacks, we are told that it is necessary to send spies into mosques and community meetings to ferret out the potential for terror.
It wasn’t that long ago that the NYPD carried out surveillance on persons for the sole reason that they were Muslim. And we expect that the persons targeted should simply brush it off as a sound preventive measure? What's the difference between that and J. Edgar's old preoccupation with infiltrating civil rights groups in the 60s or Nixon's monitoring the anti-war groups of the 1970s?
What on earth is so secret about a legal memorandum – a legal memorandum, for heaven sakes, justifying the targeting of American citizens for death without formal charges, trial, and conviction – and “eradication” here means death, nothing less – that precludes its release to the people who elected the government? Is it that the government fears its arguments are so weak that it cannot sustain them? The Constitution guarantees our right to be told of charges against us and to be confronted with the evidence. But in this national security age, we blithely permit the use of secret evidence that the accused or their attorneys cannot even hear to defend themselves. This is unspectacular evil having very spectacular consequences for us as a nation and a people.
When we are confronted by evil we need to confront it not with evil but with the recognition that we are better than those who would destroy us. Confronting evil in the world means confronting it in ourselves, recognizing our limits and our dependence on grace to overcome evil with good, to move beyond the fear in which we are told we must live. Isaiah offers us a vision, namely, of returning to God and our covenant to uphold God's order and justice.
This means more than just feeding the poor through a food pantry; it means changing the social order so there is no need for food pantries. It means more than simply giving into the fear that has seized us over this decade; it means taking on the powers and principalities that manipulate us into responding to violence with violence. Confronted by evil, Jesus did not flinch. He faced it squarely and went on to Jerusalem. We are not called to pay such a price but it seems that we can certainly face the evils we see and work to cure them.
Let us pray: God of justice and righteousness, help us in our weakness to overcome our fears and to take on the evils that confront us without being enveloped by them. Amen.