Confronting Evil


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

March 24, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

      Over the past week many of us have been  preoccupied with the events that occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand. On Wednesday The New York Times carried a full two pages of short vignettes about the people who were murdered in Christchurch. They ranged in age from 3 to over 70. We read stories about people like the young man driven by hate of what he did not understand and of his model Andres Brevik who, also driven by hate, murdered over 80 persons, mostly young people in Norway, and wonder, what is it that drives such hate.

       In her book One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway journalist Asne Seierstad examined the mind of a man who could kill young people and is totally without remorse still. Because Norway does not have a death penalty even for the most heinous of crimes, he was sentenced to 21 years, a sentence that can be extended by five years at a time if he is found to be a threat to society.

       The common elements Seierstad found in their so-called “manifestos” posted on the web can also be found in items posted by other groups:  a mixture of hate and self-pity, a desire to “restore: what they called whiteness and Christian values to a new world they do not understand. Much of it is mixed with anger toward women and their new-found power. In fact, angry at the rejection of women, many of these groups want women to be totally subjugated, primarily to them.

        Where did all this come from, we ask. But the evil of white supremacy and twisted claims to represent Christianity, have been around for a long time. We here in the United States have simply not recognized it; indeed, we have refused to recognize this cancer in our midst. Remember Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the men who killed 195 people in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995? 

       In the wake of that bombing, Muslims, considered to be perpetrators of such an attack – I mean, who else would do such a thing? – were targeted for violence, two mosques were actually burned, and some were arrested as “terrorists” by police who acted only on their so-called suspicions. When it became obvious that two nice little white boys did this, all kinds of excuses were made from pseudo-psychological ones to the lone wolf theory disconnecting them from the pattern of white supremacy that tragically has always been a part of our history.

        Evil. We don’t use that word very often because it raises really uncomfortable questions, such as, its origins. Ancient religions and peoples had different ways of explaining evil which, although re-lated to sin, is different from it. Greek mythology has 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 narra-tive, one of these, the jahweistic, assigns the origin of evil as dis-obedience to God when the first man and the first woman eat of a tree of knowledge. 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 evil 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 well 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 humans 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 as was the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s in China with far more deaths. Both of these societies, confronted by evil, sought to root it out and to create pure societies based on ideology.

        Fueled by Rousseau's psychology and pedagogical theories, the French turned the Enlightenment on its head by declaring the 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. 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. But the family members are not usually satisfied even by this ven-geance. Evil, like the desire for vengeance, is never satisfied.

         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. In 1995, as a Nation, we could not admit what McVeigh and Nichols were really about. The white supremacy ideology fueled by a document called “The Turner Diaries,” com-bined racism, nativism, and the dream of a neo-Nazi America had a profound effect on them and still does on the neo-Nazis running around today.

        Evil. It is all around us and is in us. Although Martin Luther King commented he was more concerned about the silence of friends than the words of enemies, we need to be concerned for both. The internet has become a breeding ground for the hate of the disaffected who believe in a world that never was.

        You can find everything from Instagram accounts talking about Muslim training camps in the United States to John Podesta and the Democrats being responsible for the massacre in Christchurch. And we can’t forget Alex Jones who claims that the murders at Sandy Hook never occurred. Conspiracy theories reign sucking in the vulnerable.

         Although the response to the terror unleashed by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by radical religious extremists exacerbated the fear we experience as society that fear has been with us for a long time. That fear goes hand in hand with evil. Rather than simply arresting persons who were 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. The NYPD actually 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 1960s or Nixon's monitoring the anti-war groups of the 1970s?

        What on earth was 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 con-viction – and “eradication” here means death, nothing less – that precluded 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 evidence con-sidered so secret that the accused or their attorneys cannot even hear it to to mount a defense. 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 sometimes unfounded fears that have seized us for almost twenty years.

        It means taking on the powers and principalities that manip-ulate us into responding to violence with violence. Confronted by evil, Jesus did not flinch. He faced it squarely and went on to Jeru-salem. Confronted by evil, neither did Monseñor Romero who was murdered by the evil of power and privilege.

        We need to call the ideology of white supremacy what it is: evil. And we need to call those who for political reasons refuse to acknowledge this blot on our humanity for it is: evil. We are not called to pay the price of Oscar Romero or Jesus but it seems that we can certainly face the evils we see and work to eradicate 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.