Friday, March 23, 2007

Theology of Evil and Sin

Many of my peers have taken the very popular course on "Evil" at Meadville Lombard Theological School where I attend here in Chicago, IL. Unfortunately,I have not been able to avail myself of the course. Yet,that has not stopped me from thinking and writing about the subject. Furthermore, reading about the toll that the partitioning of India took on its people and the devastation from the many religious conflicts in India among the Muslims, Sihks and Hindus has caused me to think a lot about the evil of violence. What would make fellow compatriots hold such hatred? What would make former neighbors as in Rwanda and Bosnia turn on each other? Fundamentalism of any kind appears to lead to rigidity, absolutes and extreme hostility towards those that do not share ones beliefs. Recently I discovered that one of our Unitarian Universalist scholars, Rev. Dr. Bill Jones who is noted for his work on racial oppression, has also worked with abusers. He asserts that we cannot judge the persons with whom we work. Additionally, that we must simply look into them and find the points of connection between ourselves and them without fear and without judging. Jones contends that this allows them to get to their principle stories of abuse and neglect. After a year or two they begin to feel guilt with respect to the person they abused. In this way they could get past their formational experieces and then re-create wholeness and retrieve the parts of themselves that they had separated out.(Soul Works, p140-141).

Another individual's work that captured my attention on the issue of evil is Dr Philip Zimbardo. His book,The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil is a read that I am looking forward to. Zimbardo conducted the world famous Milgram Experiment in 1962 that showed that decent, ordinary human beings will punish innocent strangers with shocks, agnony and even death at the urgings of someone in authority. Another experiment attributed to Zimbardo is the Stanford Prison Experiments on the psychology of incarceration. These experiments demonstrated the "blind obedience to authority" and the extent to which individuals will disconnect from their usual ethics if given "permission" by authority. Zimbardo's findings indicated that coaxing the volunteer "teachers" with exhortations like, "follow the rules" or "obey the contract" usually dispelled any reluctance to take the punishments to a higher level. Two of every three volunteers,or 65 percent, went all the way up to the maximum shock levels of 450 volts. The vast majority of people shocked the victim over and over again despite the "volunteer learners" increasingly desperate pleas to stop. Most dissented from time to time but the researcher prodded them to continue. Zimbardo carried out nineteen different experiments in the course of a year altering one social psycholgical variable and observed its impact, such as adding women in one, and varying the physical proxmity or remoteness of the victim. Each time the participant "teachers" acquiesed and delivered punishments under the spell of what Zimbardo refers to as "situational power." Zimbardo's work reflects his area of study which is situational psychology, that is, the study of the human response to features of our social environment, the external behavioral context, to others. Zimbardo's classic study has been replicated and extended by many other researchers in many countries, always with similar results. Thus, the study of evil is no longer uncharted territory. It should become a required class for seminarians as we grapple with the theology of evil in ourselves, others and world events.

Evil, contends Zimbardo, is so pervasive beause motives and needs that ordinarily serve us well can lead us astray when they are aroused, amplified, or manipulated by toxic situational forces that potentially are harmful if not recognized and adjusted for. They come as a small turn away, a slight detour on life's journey, a blur in or mirror that may not at first be discernible.

"I was only following orders" words of Adolph Eichmann from Eichmann in Jerusulem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

According to Zimbardo, the trouble with Eichmann is that so many like him were neither perverted or sadistic, but merely terribly and terrifyingly normal. Torturers
upon examination are not unusual or deviant in anyway prior to pacticing their new roles. Of the 400 Al-Queda members that forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman studied he concluded, "These are the best and brightest of their society." Characteristics of Palestinian bombers reveal three prominent profiles: 1) intense patriotic fervor and 2) a willingness to submit to training and indoctrination and 3) the willingness to die for their beliefs. Less we here in the West think that we are exempt from such extremism then let us revisit Reverend Jim Jones on November 28, 1978 in Guyana when he persuaded more than 900 of his followers to commit mass suicide. The ultimate test is that many killed their children even though they had been exposed to repressive acts such as forced labor, armed guards, semi-starvational diets and punishments for the slightest breach of rules. The Congressman and media crew that had come to inspect the compound at the urgings of desperate relatives were also fatalities of this horrific mass suicide and were murdered before they left. Psychologist Mahrzarin Banaji asserts the following, "What social psychology has given to us is an understanding of human nature and the discovery that forces larger than ourselves determine our mental life and our actions - chief among these forces is the power of the social situation.

Genocide, torture and terrorism have become prevalent tactics in our increasingly disconnected global village. At the same time that we have a greater propensity to do "evil" our ethical foundation seems to be crumbling under the weight of the moral implications and the magnitude of our potential to wreak destruction. Where is the "City of God" in all this? Where are the "people of God" and where is the "Beloved Community" in these scenarios?

Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, President of Starr King School for the Ministry,contends that the "breaking of the soul is sin and a betrayal of God."

May we be called to challenge evil in whatever form we are confronted with it. May we grow our hearts to heal the brokenness that moves us away from one another to cause such rifts in our very souls.
Blessed Be!

Unitarian Universalist Theology of Evil/Sin
Many have conceded that evil is “a difficult topic for religious liberals such as Unitarian Universalists"

"The purpose of evil was to survive it. Without ever knowing they had made their minds up to do it, they determined to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide- it was beneath them." Toni Morrison from Beloved.

Like the blacks described in the previous passage by Morrison, antebellum life while harsh, did not foster mass instances of suicide by blacks. Instead, if we ascribe to Morrison’s depiction of blacks, they perceived suicide as beneath them despite the harsh realities of slavery. While Morrison noted blacks’ refusal to indulge in suicidal tendencies in general in the face of slavery, Rev. Dr. Thandeka, an African American UU minister draws similar insights from the holocaust experience of Jews.
. . . There is something valuable about life itself, and no matter how hard and difficult life is, people still hold on to life. That’s why the vast majority of persons in concentration camps or in the Middle Passage did not commit suicide. They held on, because there is something about life that is of ultimate value.

Drawing from both Morrison’s and Thandeka’s observations permits an examination here of UU theologians’ failure to develop a strong doctrine of evil and sin. Perhaps, like blacks, it was beneath UUs view of themselves or their image of God to even entertain the concept of evil. Paul Rasor, UU theologian, appears to concur with Morrison and Thandeka’s observations that, “there is something in life that will not allow life to be suppressed.” Perhaps one of the reasons UU theologians have not developed a strong theology of evil is the over-emphasis on the “good” as the “something in life” described by Thandeka that has held sway over the focus on evil. This is not so farfetched if one reviews the Seven Principles that many UUs embrace. The Seven Principles emphasize universal themes such as the good in “every person” as well as respect for “all existence.”
We covenant to affirm and promote:
 The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
 Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
 Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations;
 A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
 The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
 The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
 Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

This emphasis on good in both God and humankind is noted in the pithy remark by Starr King, an early UU minister and pioneer. King asserted that the difference between the Universalists and the Unitarians was rooted in their two very different interpretations of Calvinism. “The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, whereas the Unitarians believe that they are too good to be damned by God.” This emphasis on good might have emerged at the detriment of UUs unwillingness to introduce and name evil as a possibility in their doctrine of human nature. However, this tendency to avoid the issue of evil has had long term effects for many UUs and their perceptions of the world. Lois Fahs Timmins, the daughter of well-known Unitarian religious educator, Sophia Lyon Fahs, challenged UU religious education for its failure to be more forthright in addressing evil with the following comments in 1996:

We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humans . . . I was taught not to be judgmental, not to observe or report on the bad behavior of others. Consequently, because of my education, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent to observe it accurately, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed of talking about evil.

If Timmins’ experiences are typical, and this researcher believes they are, then generations of UUs are “functional illiterates” about evil. Hence, the perception that UUs understanding of evil appears to be underdeveloped and inadequate is perhaps well-founded.
However, the Universalists in 1917, years before the consolidation of Unitarianism and Universalism proclaimed in the Declaration of Social Principles which was drafted by Clarence Skinner and adopted by the Universalist General Convention that evil is the result of “unjust social and economic conditions.”
Paul Rasor, UU theologian and director of the Religion and Social Issues Forum at Pendle Hill, a Quaker study center, lends his cautionary voice in a very different direction that deserves serious consideration. Rasor contends that UUs failure to develop a strong theology of evil has weakened UUs prophetic voices to resist evil. One of the concrete areas in which this is noted is anti-racism/anti-oppression and multiculturalism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words enrich Rasor’s assertion and remind us what is at stake when, for whatever reason, prophetic voices are silenced. He contends, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Rev. Dianne Arakawa reminds UUs of some of the failures of our anti-racism work:

"Like most of you, I can recount the tragedies of the past that still plague
our Association: from the settler Indian wars of the seventeenth century
in Massachusetts, Puritan policies related to slavery, the mixed Unitarian
response to abolition, the unjust labor practices at the turn of the century,
and the racist statements of our denominational presidents in the first half
of the last century to the slowness to engage in the Civil Rights movement
on the part of some of our congregations, the derailing of the Black Empowerment movement in the sixties, and the lack of support for
congregations and clergy of color from Ethelred Brown’s time to our
present . . ."

Compounded by the fact that many UUs do not embrace the concept of Original Sin, which states that humans are born sinful, UUs are further handicapped in our language and our abilities to articulate a theology of evil. Instead, UUs use such language as “missing the mark” rather than sin/evil. Rev. Kim Beach believes that UUs, “get worried when we talk about evil (because) we feel we’re dipping into dualism, and we’ve been taught again and again that dualism is bad and monism is good. But if there’s evil, there is a certain amount of dualism going on in the world.” Beach notes that James Luther Adams, a revered UU scholar, had much to say about evil and even resorted to terms like demonic which he used to reference “principalities and powers” of the New Testament. Adams referred to the satanic as pure evil and the demonic as the distortion of the good. According to Bach evil is seen as self-perpetuating and self-justifying.
As a result of 9/11 events, increased dialogue has been generated in UU circles about evil. Warren R. Ross, editor of the UU World Publication, surveyed dozens of the leading UU preachers, teachers, and theologians on the issue of evil. Their comments are helpful in gaining a more comprehensive understanding of UUs theology of evil. Reverend Gordon McKeeman believes that “evil comes into the world when our good comes into conflict with others’ good.” Rev. John Buehrens, is fond of quoting 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on the nature of evil: “Evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community or the total community of humanity, or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels.” Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt, an African American UU minister serving a congregation in New York, witnessed first hand the evil of 9/11. As a chaplain that worked in the midst of the rubble of the World Trade Center, McNatt believes that “people are born good and people make choices and that along with our inherent goodness there is also an inherent capacity for evil . . . there are some people who have something wrong with them.” Reverend Parker, one of the few UU ministers with joint fellowship as both United Church of Christ and UU minister, is hesitant to label people who commit evil acts as evil people. She cautions UUs against the tendency practiced and engaged in by all faith traditions “to numb or anesthetize our awareness of evil, . . . instead face(ing) it . . . fully and engage(ing) in troubling and deep questioning” about the nature of evil.
It is interesting to note that some UUs, such as John Buhrens, minister and former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, use the term evil and sin synonymously. According to Buhrens, the problem of evil (and suffering) happens for a variety of reasons: 1) Because there is randomness, 2) Because there are the sins of others and those we ourselves are implicated in, and 3) Because there are costs in overcoming evil with good. Most UUs do not accept the commonly held belief that sin is a part of the human condition as viewed in the Gospel of St. Paul and further evidenced in the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin.
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but in which dwells within me.” (Paul 7:1-20) fn

In contrast to Paul, some UUs believe that individuals are punished by their sinful actions and not for them. For UUs, sins are “wrong actions.” Thus, the evil that people do lives with them. Others believe there is no absolute good and evil. Ross’s findings indicate that most UUs believe that there are evil acts but not evil persons. In addition, for many UUs humans possess freedom of choice and can decide between good and evil, and the doing of good or the doing of evil. However, many UUs would concede that humans have a propensity toward good unless other factors corrupt this tendency. Furthermore, all choices bring costs as well as benefits. For UUs humans make the choice between good and evil. Process theologians, which include liberal theologians such as UUs, speak of a god that lures but does not coerce humans to good. Instead, they contend, God offers continually new possibilities. Ultimately, the final choice to choose good or evil belongs to humans. However, the process of choosing is not a one-time event, but a lifetime of choosing, and sometimes a moment-to-moment process. Process theologians believe that God, a creative energy in the universe, cannot force anything to happen, but influences the exercise of universal free will by offering possibilities. Thus humans have free will to choose between good and evil with no intervention from God. It is this freedom and risk in divine creativity that brings the possibility of evil. Further, it is these choices that contribute to human suffering. Thus, suffering is an inescapable fact of the human condition. It is human’s failure to do good and their choices therefore of “evil” that create “wrong actions” and thus evidence forgetfulness of the fragile connection to God-energy and the earth. Much of what a theist would ascribe to the “devil,” non theistic UUs would assert is the result of humans acting on their “free will” and making bad choices that result in their feeling cut off, disconnected and unloved. This in turn places them outside the bounds of alignment with the creative energy of the universe and God consciousness. Humankind benefits and thrives when we are in right relations with the god energy in the Universe. The contrast might be what Rebecca Parker refers to as the social construction of heartlessness or numbness of feeling.
In the researcher’s opinion, a UU theology of evil can best be summed up not by a UU minister, though many have made excellent contributions, and not by a UU theologian, although extensive discourses exist. The UU theology of evil can best be captured by Reverend Marianne Williamson, a Unity minister, who believes evil is simply loveless behavior. Applying this definition to a UU theology of evil that in its most basic approach casts humans as “missing the mark” and its most complex as the result of freedom of choice, Williamson’s definition spans the continuum between these two approaches.

May we continue to grapple with our theology of evil and sin so that we enter into a wholeness about who we are, what we are capable of and to unleash our untapped potential for goodness and just relations.
Amen and Blessed Be!