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Confronting evil

Has terrorism shaken our religious principles?
By Warren R. Ross
January/February 2002 1.1.02

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"The human capacity to create hell is vividly before our eyes and haunts our dreams," the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker told the congregation of the First Unitarian Church in San Jose, California, in a sermon two weeks after September 11. "One hundred and ten stories of steel can collapse," she said, "not once but twice, folding life into the hands of death with a great clap of horror."

Even before September 11, we knew about the Holocaust, the Pol Pot regime, the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, Rwanda, Guatemala, and El Salvador—but all these and so many other horrors were distant from our insulated lives. Only when terrorists attacked New York City and Washington did many of us wake up to the fact that evil deeds could touch our lives. Suddenly it was a cliché, a truism, that everything had changed, that for Americans nothing would ever be the same.

But is this true of Unitarian Universalism? Now that terror spreads from shore to shore, now that Islamist militants are calling the United States a terrorist nation because U.S. bombing has killed Afghan civilians, is this one of those rare moments in history so powerful that we have no choice but to re-examine even something so fundamental as our historic trust in the basic goodness of humanity? As the Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, a Unitarian Universalist minister who delivered a paper on evil at the June General Assembly, points out, evil is "a difficult topic for religious liberals."

Lois Fahs Timmins—the daughter of the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs—once criticized her own liberal religious education for failing to address the reality of evil. "We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humanity," she said in 1996. "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."

The Rev. Douglas Morgan Strong, minister of the Community Unitarian Universalist Church in Plano, Texas, put our quandary succinctly when he wrote to his colleagues about the terrorist attacks: "How can we affirm and respect people whose self-selected goals are to destroy human life? From where do we garner the strength to search for the worth and dignity of those who committed such atrocities?"

Finding answers to his questions is particularly timely when others talk of evil with such moral certainty. President Bush speaks of terrorists and their supporters as “evildoers.” He talks about a war to expunge evil from the planet. Osama bin Laden rallies Islamist militants behind the cry that the United States is evil. The Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell tell their television audience that God punished the U.S. with the September 11 attacks because we accept homosexuality and the American Civil Liberties Union and other aspects of life that they consider evil. And of course they all cite God as their authority.

To explore ways for religious liberals to come to grips with evil, UU World asked more than a dozen of our leading preachers, teachers, and theologians to address the moral and intellectual conundrums generated by a consideration of evil. In particular, we asked them whether, in light of our new acquaintance with terrorists, our first principle—our affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person—still holds up. Their views, while not necessarily representative, may challenge us and may help us to clarify our own.

What is evil?

Our relatively benign view of human nature has deep historic roots. Early in the 19th century, the Rev. Hosea Ballou grounded the doctrine of universal salvation in the faith that "God has a good purpose in every [human] volition." Does that, we asked the Rev. Gordon McKeeman, include the volition of the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center?

"Universalists, from the beginning, have been confronted with the question of evil," says McKeeman, who was active in a group of Universalist ministers who sought a way to give their faith a more contemporary form in the 20th century. He says that evil comes into the world when our "good" comes into conflict with others' "good."

"The horrendous events of September 11 were greeted by most with shock and grief," he says. "Others, however, greeted the news with joy and celebration." But doesn’t such a view equate "good" with self-interest? Yes, he says. "The problem comes in getting people to understand how big their self really is."

"In a good family," McKeeman says, "the self-interest of the family is not that of the father or the mother or the children; it is the self-interest of the entire group. Right now we understand national interest, but since all of us live on this planet, conflict among nations is destructive of all of us." Our challenge, he says, is to enlarge our sense of what it means to have a good society until it embraces the globe.

The Rev. John Buehrens, immediate past president of the UUA, says that the best statement he knows about the nature of evil is by the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: "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."

Most of those we interviewed agreed there is no absolute good and evil, and most (but not all) believe that there are evil acts but not evil persons. Here are some samples of other Unitarian Universalist definitions of evil:

The Rev. Dr. William R. Jones, professor emeritus of religion and director of black studies at Florida State University, says that "evil is a label,” a term for someone else’s interests that conflict with one’s own. “There is no intrinsic good or intrinsic evil. There is always some perspective from which you can demonstrate the good of what we label 'evil.'"

The Rev. Dr. Thandeka, a theologian at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, defines evil as "the failure to understand the inherent worth and dignity of every person as part of the interdependent web of all existence. When horrible things happen, human beings are responsible."

Parker, who is president of the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley, California, says that "evil has to qualify acts, not human beings. We are all capable of doing either good or evil and everything in between, but our being itself is good, is worthy, is of value."

The Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, however, believes that evil is real: "Of course there is evil, and it is in us." Good, he says, has no meaning unless evil has meaning, and he defines evil as constricting life into too small a vision, of treating people like things.

The Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, says that we are justified in calling the actions of the terrorists evil, but he is reluctant to call the perpetrators evil. The liberal mantra, he says, is that people are born good but society makes them evil; the Calvinist mantra, against which 19th century Unitarianism rebelled, is that people are born damned and need salvation. Our challenge, Church says, is to find a balance between these polar positions. Considering the self-sacrifice of the fire fighters and the outpouring of generosity toward the victims’ families, he says, "We know that the very worst of which human beings are capable can also bring out the very best."

The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt served as a chaplain at the smoldering World Trade Center ruins. "It was a place of incredible contradictions," she says. "I saw unbelievable acts of kindness and camaraderie, and people were so brave." Annealed in the crucible of this experience, she says she still believes that people are born good, but adds that people make choices, and that along with our inherent goodness there is also an inherent capacity for evil. Finally, she acknowledges that "there are some people who have something wrong with them."

The Rev. Bruce Southworth, minister of the Community Church of New York, the third of our Manhattan churches, cites the Islamic notion of sin—forgetfulness of our better selves, forgetfulness that we are part of a sacred creation, that we are tied to one another. "We have the ability to choose for the good or the bad, to choose our better or our worse selves. Part of the graciousness of creation is that there is so much beauty in the world, but we are not saved by the graciousness of creation. We are saved by our choices."

Recognizing evil

Parker’s new book, Proverbs of Ashes—co-written with fellow theologian Rita Nakashima Brock—challenges Christian doctrines that say suffering and violence can save us. Parker says that the human capacity for violence has deeply scarred our relationship to each other and to the world. "We are defined by something more than our acts," she says, which is why she refuses to say that people who do evil acts are evil people. "Ultimately everything in creation has intrinsic rather than utilitarian value," she says. "This faith statement gives us a center and perspective from which to judge our own actions, as well as the acts of others. You need such a center if you are to judge good and evil at all." Otherwise, Parker warns, you are reduced to a relativism that says that different cultures have different values and that you cannot judge between conflicting claims of what is good.

"Like every other religious tradition," Parker adds, "we have to examine ourselves to make sure that our religion is not functioning to numb or anesthetize our awareness of evil, but instead enables us to face it fully and to engage in troubling and deep questioning."

The Rev. William Schulz, former president of the UUA and current head of Amnesty International USA, is no stranger to violence and hate. In his recent Beacon Press book, In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All, he cites stomach-churning examples of torture and brutality as unquestionable acts of evil.

"It is helpful," Schulz says, "not to understand evil cosmically, or to call upon cosmic powers in the struggle against evil. We should not assume that we are somehow aligned with the forces of good in the universe. Instead, evil is defined by culture and by power."

That might make Schulz sound like a relativist, one who might have difficulty explaining the moral superiority of fire fighters who sacrificed their lives racing into the burning World Trade Center over the hijackers who sacrificed their lives setting the towers aflame. That, most definitely, is not his view. "While I don’t believe that such a thing as ultimate grounding of a definition of good and evil exists," he explains, "I do believe that it is essential for the human community to come to some degree of consensus." In fact, Schulz says, a high degree of consensus already exists in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Every country in the world has affirmed that torture is evil, Schulz says, "not because opposition to torture is basic to human nature—there are all sorts of powerful natural forces of aggression within human beings—but because the overwhelming sentiment of the human community is that torture is outside the bounds of civilized behavior."

To stress this point, he asks us to assume that Osama bin Laden is captured. We might agree that he should be imprisoned for the rest of his life, even that he should be put to death. "But only a person beyond the realm of the civilized would believe that he should be tortured."

That would not always have been a common assumption, but human values do evolve, he says, quoting Theodore Parker's statement "that the arc of the Universe bends toward justice." What has also evolved is Unitarian Universalist understanding of the way in which evil is a reality in the world. Schulz says that we have given up the 19th century notion of "progress onward and upward forever," as well as the 20th century humanist belief that evil could be overcome by human intelligence and scientific progress. We are now more realistic, he thinks, but if he could do one thing to disabuse UU ministerial students of any lingering pieties, he would take them to the slums of Calcutta. "Once they were acquainted with evil as reflected by such immense poverty," he maintains, "no one could ever again preach about the dancing leaves of fall."

Paul Rasor began contemplating evil as he came to see racism not only as a matter of institutional structures and social power disparities, but as a profound spiritual evil as well. Rasor, who serves as director of the Religion and Social Issues Forum at Pendle Hill, a Quaker study center, says religious liberals have historically failed to acknowledge that there is also an inherent potential for evil in human beings. Having no theology of evil, he continues, has weakened our prophetic voice in trying to resist it.

Evil, he says, citing Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman, is that which destroys life or prevents the unfolding of the full powers of human life. Evil is that which dehumanizes. "There is something larger than ourselves that tends to move us toward fulfillment, toward humanization, or what [Rebecca] Parker calls 'the unfolding of our powers, the full realization of our human-ness.'" Our task, therefore, is, again quoting Parker, "to cooperate with forces of growth, transformation, healing, change, discovery, creativity, and revolution." He concludes with what emerges as a common theme: "There is something in life that will not allow life to be suppressed."

Thandeka agrees. "The UU principles are based on the experience of being part of life," she says. "When we feel awe when we look at the night sky, when we feel like a drop of water in the ocean of life itself, when we feel that every aspect of life is coordinated with the rest of the world, that is the basis of the first principle. That core experience is being caught up in the interdependent web of life, of being part of life itself."

"I believe that our purposes and principles come from the very structure of our experience," she says. "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."

Resisting evil

Thandeka also tackles the difficult question of whether it is justified to meet force with force. Should we be fighting the terrorists? "We are entitled to protect ourselves, entitled to think of the terrorist acts as horrific," she says. But while we are justified in trying to stop this kind of behavior, "I find it counterproductive to vilify those who attack and assault us."

Influenced by his affinity for the Quaker concept that there is something of God in every individual, Rasor sees the need for fighting back somewhat differently: "Responding to violence with violence is totally misguided." While admitting that violence is often unavoidable, and that to live is inevitably to do violence to some other forms of life, he still concludes that "violence just generates more hate and therefore is wrong on both a pragmatic and a moral basis."

Loehr disagrees. To "turn the other cheek” after the September 11 massacres would be “cowardly acquiescence to terrorism," Loehr says. "We need to react from high and noble motives," he says, but he adds, "I do feel that a physical and violent response is necessary" to stop terrorist networks.

Parker admits that she struggles with the question of pacifism. Countering force with force "requires ongoing theological and pragmatic grappling," she says. "I believe that evil has to be directly addressed, that evil acts have to be confronted, and that those who do evil acts have to be held to account and stopped—and that might take some force." Yet, she says, "the harm that has been caused by those who have done these evil acts can’t be resolved by their suffering."

"At ground zero I was ready to go get them," McNatt admits. On reflection she is deeply ambivalent. "I am not a pacifist," she says. "I believe that there are times we have to fight." She mentions one of her heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist who later joined a plot to assassinate Hitler and was executed by the Nazis. But it was a long process before he was ready to confront evil by force, she points out, and McNatt sees that as a worthy model that "invites the kind of reflection that is required of spiritual people."

Buehrens says that responding to violence with violence may at times be necessary, but adds that we must remain aware that we are not exempt from the perpetration of evil ourselves. Though we cannot tolerate the Taliban's terrible violation of human rights, if in fighting them "we cause any amount of collateral damage on innocent people, that is an objective evil that should be deeply regretted." But the danger in discussions of evil, he warns, is that “we will make ourselves feel all–good and others as all–evil."

A fresh look at the First Principle

Some of these comments about the nature of evil have already touched on the first principle. So we asked our respondents, is our first principle still valid? Can we really, without squirming, affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person?

The Rev. Walter Royal Jones chaired the committee that drafted the principles and purposes that the UUA adopted in 1985. In light of the terrorist attacks, would he revise the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person?

Absolutely not. That wording, he says, grew out of a 1935 Universalist affirmation that proclaimed "the supreme worth of the individual." This formulation was quite deliberately qualified by adding the term "inherent," to make it clear that worth and dignity are potentials that are part, but only part, of the human condition.

"The principle is not and was never intended to be a blanket endorsement of everything that everybody does," he says. Instead, it "sets a standard by which our behavior can be judged." Of course we are angered by the hideous violation of the principle by the terrorists, but that is precisely why we should not surrender it, for without it, how could we judge their actions?

Jones recalls that when the UU principles were first introduced one of his parishioners said to him that she could never endorse the inherent worth of Adolf Hitler. "It went through my mind that we could not judge Hitler if it were not that his behavior violated the inherent worth of all the people for whose torture and death he was responsible. If we back away from our affirmation of the sacred potential, the inherent worth of every person, aren’t we agreeing with Hitler and bin Laden that some people should be eliminated?"

Against "the horrible reality of the other side of our nature" is our potential for those human impulses that are summed up "by the fine word 'love'." This is a paradox that we have to live with, Jones says, one that most of the great religions have always struggled with. We have two potentials, and "our responsibility as religious liberals is to lean on the scale on the side of compassion and mutual helpfulness."

Thandeka says that "the horrible events of September 11" make it more important than ever "to promote the worth and dignity of every person." She also proposes that the individual principles cannot be understood in isolation. "The term 'person' has to be defined," she says, "and the seventh principle defines it as someone connected to 'the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.' That suggests an ecological concept of a person as someone who is related to other persons and to the world."

McNatt also interprets the UUA's first principle in terms of another. She relates it to the second, which stresses our commitment to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

Forrest Church quotes Lord Acton, who warned that "every institution perishes by an excess of its own first principles." To guard against this error, he—like Thandeka—stresses the importance of linking the first principle to the seventh, which he relates to the Stoic notion of the human community as one body with many members that must respect one another for the common good of all. When a tumor starts up, however, while it has the same DNA as all the other body parts, it cannot be left to metastasize: it must be eradicated. But he cautions that like the treatment of cancer, eradicating terrorism requires "a thoughtful and delicate balance."

For Schulz, the first principle is a faith statement. "It does not claim that every person has worth and dignity," he says. "Rather, it is an affirmation that worth and dignity are values that we attribute to human beings. It is also a strategy, asserting that every person has certain fundamental rights, and that we can make the world a better place when we treat people as having worth and dignity, even if they do not treat us that way."

Buehrens sees the first principle as "a universal value that we would like to see adopted," but he says, "It is not a universal value in practice." He concurs with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who responded to the Nazi horrors by claiming that the creation of greater justice and peace in an unjust and dangerous world often requires us to choose between greater and lesser evils.

The first principle, as Rasor see it, "is both a statement about basic human nature and an instruction as to how to treat and respond to people." That, he believes, applies even to terrorists, and while we should prevent them from doing more harm, we should not give up on the possibility of their transformation.

Loehr identifies himself as a religious liberal—but not as a Unitarian Universalist. (He considers the UUA’s principles shallow and offensive, "bromides that give us a quick, cheap feeling of being virtuous.") He says, "I don’t believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person for a second. Human behavior is a bell curve," he says. "The overwhelming majority are good folks, some few are saints, some few are sociopaths, psychopaths, evil people." The saints and the sociopaths "are astonishing people," he says. "The notion of boundaries, of things that are not supposed to be done, just don’t seem to be in them." In other words, he says, there are bad seeds.

William Jones also dismisses the theological significance of our principles. He sees them as "a statement of our espoused theory, not our theory in use. I base a person’s theological position on what they practice, not what they preach. So that’s not our first principle in practice." We preach equality, he says, but we practice oppression. Jones sees oppression as "the cutting edge of everything we’re dealing with."

"Which human activity is talked about the most in international news?" he asks. "The primary category is some kind of oppression. That's why I identify my point of view as oppression theory. And racism is a subset of oppression. We have to ask," he says, "to what degree do our policies and programs create a state of affairs where there was oppression which we never corrected?"

"We talk about 'the interdependent web'," Jones says, "but we identify the web as primarily a cooperative arrangement, but that is totally inaccurate. The interdependent web that is out there is the 'eater–eatee' hierarchy. We didn't create this reality, but we have only one choice: We have the choice either to commit suicide or homicide. If I don't eat at all, it's suicide. Everybody who is alive demonstrates, by the mere fact of being alive, that they have chosen to enhance their survival and well-being by eating something else." Hence "the interdependent web is predatory, not cooperative."

Troubled world

Their consideration of evil and the need for Unitarian Universalists to think about it honestly led several of the people we interviewed to arrive at conclusions that may be helpful as the rest of us attempt to clarify our thoughts.

Buehrens advises us to reject the call to resume our former lives. "I believe that as a nation we need to continue our grieving and our sadness," he says. "Everything I know of the human response to tragedy suggests that when one attempts to react too quickly, without allowing the grieving process to do its work, the temptation to react angrily and foolishly is exacerbated. One of the most basic things that we as religious people can do is to ask ourselves and our neighbors to grieve, to be depressed, to worry, and to meditate."

The Rev. Carl Scovel, minister emeritus of King’s Chapel in Boston, says, "I think that for an awful lot of Americans this is a way of experiencing what people all over the world already experience, existentially feeling the truth that we must all die. Many people all over the world feel this every day. Now we know what it is like. And people are asking themselves, 'If I live in a world where this can happen, what does life mean? What is it worth? What do I give myself to?'"

Forrest Church says that all of us now live with a heightened sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, "yet the same thing that makes us more attentive to death can also bring us to life."

"Our Unitarian Universalist faith helps us to understand that we do live in a tragic world,” Southworth concludes, but he affirms that “there are also creative, healing forces: the power of love, the ability to seek justice, to celebrate beauty wherever it is."

Parker says, "I think our humanism is our best resource when it helps us understand that our freedom of choice means that all of us are capable of evil acts as well as wonderful acts of goodness. We need religion not to protect us from this world but to enable us to engage it in a way that repairs and restores life, and prevents more violence from happening."

McKeeman offers this advice: "As the UU Service Committee has often reminded us, if you want peace, work for justice."

Thandeka says that if we as Unitarian Universalists "honor and respect the interdependent web of all life, then the goal is to bring everyone to the table, to stop the assaults, to address the grievances. The answers aren’t simple, and when we apply simple answers to complex problems we can be sure of one thing: the answers will be wrong."


See sidebar for links to other stories from UU World's special issue on the realities of life with terrorism.

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