Unitarian Universalist ministers reflect on the nature of evil.
William Sharp, "Evil", 1816. The Art Institute of Chicago, Elizabeth Hammond Stickney Collection
Unitarian Universalists have had relatively little to say about the concept of evil over the generations. This is partly because we have spent our energy reassuring people that human beings are fundamentally good and that those good impulses will ultimately prevail. And it is partly because, having abandoned traditional Christian understandings of sin and salvation, we have had to develop new theological tools with which to meet evil. As I learned only too poignantly during my years in human rights work, acts that deserve to be called “evil”—enlisting children as soldiers or sex slaves, for example—are only too common. Cruelty is real.
So how do we understand such cruel acts and what can we do about them? Ultimately our answers will need to be political and theological, personal and corporate.
Along with intimations of goodness, evil lies coiled in almost every human heart, latent in almost every human enterprise. The goal is not to vanquish it—that is too much to hope for—but to temper it; and naming a phenomenon is always the first step toward its taming.
—The Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and executive director of Amnesty International USA, and president emeritus of the UU Service Committee
Evil is not as complex as our explanations about it are. Whenever we try to explain it, we fall back on our own experiences: the deep betrayals, our bitter losses. We find ourselves speechless and ineffective in the face of larger structural evils revealed to us with chilling regularity: a law enforcement system that leads to unarmed black people being shot by police every day of the year and wars by remote control that are no less deadly for their distance.
However we describe the means by which we experience evil, its source remains the same: our capacity to turn in on ourselves so completely that we lose sight of both our connections to others and to that greater source that binds us together. Whenever we forget who we are, whose we are, and what our relationship to one another is—there lies the breeding ground for evil. It is that loss of essential memory which leads to individual actions and collective structures that reflect and even reinforce that terrible disconnect.
Evil has its origins in the abandonment of hope and meaning among those who have lost—or never known—their core identity: children of the Holy, siblings to all people on the earth.
—The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, president of Starr King School for the Ministry and a UU World contributing editor
I adore the phrase, “The Devil is a liar,” though I have never believed in a red, grotesque faun-man from the underworld who taunts us mortals. The phrase is usually a response to hearing about someone’s wrongdoing, an attempt to explain away such “sins.” I reject any theology that disavows free will, yet I enjoy the melodrama with which some holler the accusation.
Though I do not believe in a demonic influence, I do believe in the existence of evil. I have seen it myself, unfortunately. Evil can be simply described as one of the opposites of love, alongside apathy and hatred, but it is much more complex a concept than that. We humans are all essentially good and have an understanding of ethical decision making, but all of us choose to ignore our consciences and behave poorly from time to time.
Regardless of the source of evil, it represents the loss of the ability or desire to discern between good and hurtful behavior, combined with large-scale patterns of hurting others for the mere pleasure of doing so—the absence of conscience. Though evil’s destruction is powerful, I honestly still believe in that (now) old cliché, “Love always wins.”
—The Rev. Marisol Caballero, Faith Innovation Specialist, Unitarian Universalist Association
Excerpted with permission from the multi-author UUA pamphlet UU Views of Evil, ed. by William F. Schulz (Unitarian Universalist Association, 2018). Available in packs of twenty-five from inSpirit: UUA Bookstore and Gift Shop.
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The Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz is a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and affiliate professor of preaching and public ethics at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. He previously served as president of the UU Service Committee (2010–2016), executive director of Amnesty International USA (1994–2006), and president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (1985–1993). His books include Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights (Nation Books, 2003), Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism (Skinner House, 2002), and In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All (Beacon, 2001).
The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt is president of Starr King School for the Ministry and a contributing editor of UU World. She is the author of Unafraid of the Dark: A Memoir (Random House, 1998).
The Rev. Marisol Caballero, faith innovation specialist in the UUA’s Faith Development Office, is a native Texan who lives and works in Austin. She enjoys social justice activism, cooking, dancing ballet folklorico, gardening, and traveling with her pup, Diego. She is currently serving DRUUMM, a Unitarian Universalist people of color organization, as coordinator of the Global Majorities Collective.