May Nothing Evil Cross This Door: Part 2

by BC

Our reading this morning was the poem, The Finitudes, by Mark Nepo.

The first portion of this sermon was a retelling of the fable, The Friendly Forest, by Dr. Edwin Friedman, which can be found in his collection, Friedman’s Fables.

I wonder, how many of you were waiting for the tiger to eat the lamb. I know the first time I heard this fable of the friendly forest, I was waiting for the untimely demise of the lamb. It was almost certain. Instead, we are left wondering what the animals in the forest finally did and if the lamb survived – or any of them, for that matter.

But we are also left with questions about the ethics of this story. Like the story of God wearing a two-colored hat, we have to suspend our belief – the friendly forest is absurd. But it invites us to ask questions about the nature of evil, emotions, complicity, and nature itself.

We can reflect: Is the Tiger in the fable inherently evil or just doing what is in his nature? What if the lamb was eaten, who would be responsible? The tiger? The lambs’ friends who said to not worry? And we can broaden it to the greater questions of life and meaning.

About a month ago we explored the topic of evil – a topic Unitarian Universalists do not engage very often, but a topic that is on a lot of our minds these days. A topic we are clearly wrestling with in several arenas of the world.

And it is a subject that rests in a lot of gray area – ands/ifs/buts cloud our thoughts, exceptions arise to the top, the subjectivity of the word can derail the entire conversation – and yet, nothing can change the anger, the heartbreak, the fear that we feel when we experience something we would call evil.

Yes, it is subjective. Perhaps that is the greatest challenge of living, wrestling with there being no absolutes. But we’ve claimed a piece of the subjective pie here in this community as Unitarian Universalists. We’ve agreed to, not abide by, but engage and inwardly digest the seven principles and six purposes that are the frameworks upon which this tradition is now built.

And from these values we affirm, evil then is the very antithesis of them. Furthermore, it is the urge to justify and deny the damage wrought upon the world and to call it virtue in the same breath. That is evil for a Unitarian Universalist – or at least as close as we are going to get. Oh, and lest we forget, evil is also a part of our humanity. We are all capable. And I am certain there are several other definitions stirring inside of you.

But what remains from this: yes, it’s subjective. Yes, we can get a definition that works for our shared ethics. Yes, we’re talking about it – now what? How do we cope? How do we endure? How do we remember the good and the right in a world that often shows us the snuffing out of hope?

We’ve talked quite a bit about resilience here at UUCL in the past year, at least I feel like I have. And resilience is a trait we must cultivate when faced with a multitude of things: evil, stress, resistance, justice, day-to-day life, the extraordinary and the mundane. The good news here is that I believe resilience – especially in the face of that which we might call evil – is not an unreachable thing. The bad news is that it still involves dwelling in the valley of darkness from time to time.

Mark Nepo, in his poem we heard earlier, gets to this very thing when he asks:

How are we to hold such
contradictions? Somewhere seeds are breaking ground
and somewhere flesh is burning. This is hard enough
to take in. Yet how does this happen in the same
person without their soul exploding?

How does this happen in the same person without their soul exploding. We can ask this of those who would commit evil acts and yet be remembered as great philosophers, heroes, or virtuous people – but even more so, we can ask this of ourselves. Ordinary people.

Whether or not we have wronged the world, justified wanton destruction, or called virtue that which deprives others of dignity. We can truly ask this, every day. How do we hold the contradictions of the world without our hearts tearing so irreparably that we lose sight of who we are?

Resilience is indeed within our reach. Psychologists, sociologists, and academics will tell us all we need to do is cultivate confidence, adaptability, and self-efficacy to get started. Easy, right? Not by a long shot. But the fourth strategy, I have said before and I’ll say again, is the laboratory in which we can experiment in gathering up these resilient traits from within and around us.

And that is in community. Supportive, strengthening, and nurturing community. As a clergyperson, I will always value church for providing this. A community where we make resilience possible within and among us. In churchspeak, this is called spiritual growth.

Unitarian Universalists are a people that aim toward wholeheartedness, that is, a recognition of the tragic, wondrous, fragile, and enduring parts of all that is life and living. This includes good and evil. Here, it is my hope we have the possibility of recognizing our own self-worth, potential, and virtue.

I mentioned earlier that the bad news is that we will often find ourselves in the valley of darkness. So we are confident, we are adaptable, we have a community of support and strength – yet nightfall is upon us. What, then? Won’t it ever stop! We should also be reminded that resilience does not mean the eradication of the bad, the evil, the troubling.

We still have to wade into it. The world will not always wait for us to be ready. Evil will happen. Struggle will ensue. But through this, through encountering darkness, we find our final strategy for being resilient, for coping with evil. It is by going into the fray that we discover persistence.

In her phenomenal book titled, “Race and the Cosmos,” Barbara Holmes, an African American theologian, describes her experience of persistence during the Civil Rights movement, she writes:

We were answering the call of Martin Luther King Jr. to put our bodies on the line…Local people in the black community provided shelter in homes and small churches, and there seemed to be a festival atmosphere…All was well, until late at night when the Klan rode. Kicking up dust, they tore through the church parking lot shouting obscenities and shooting guns in the air…In response, the men sat outside in their undershirts and formed a shield of sheer resolve.

The women reassured us and sat just inside of the church doors as a second line of defense, with their church fans and potato salad spoons gripped in purposeful hands. When the sun finally came up, we were glad. In the morning we marched. Oh, how we marveled at the hatred, the spittle, the exposed genitals and urine aimed in our direction. To be hated so completely was almost a relief. There it was for the world to see. We had not been paranoid and deluded; this was what the struggle had opposed from the beginning.

She is speaking from a place that is very real to her identity. An identity that still experiences hatred and evil as during the Civil Rights era. But we all know what such an experience can look like.

We’ve seen it on TV. We’ve read it in books. We have dear friends who were there. We can understand it conceptually. And for some of us, we surely have waded into our own dark and dangerous confrontations with evil. And for the rest of us, we have no idea.

But here again her words: To be hated so completely was almost a relief. There it was for the world to see. We had not been paranoid and deluded; this was what the struggle had opposed from the beginning.

If we are to seek justice, if we are to put our values into action, if we commit to the frameworks of this religious tradition and work through them in our daily lives – we will not all have such harrowing experiences as Barbara Holmes, but there will still be danger.

There will still be confrontations with evil. There will still be moments of fear where we either adhere to our resolve or we join the ranks of the complicit. Are we to claim our values, our truth, or are we going to err on the side of sheepishness while the tiger lurks about? If we are to be resilient, it requires, as with anything, practice practice practice. I wish I had better news.

But with all of this. This struggle to define evil, to toil with its subjectivity, to learn that confronting it and other uncomfortable situations will build resilience, for all of this, it sounds like marching orders. Are the Unitarian Universalists preparing for war, one might imagine. Certainly not. But we are also not preparing, I hope, to continue to hide, to not speak up, to wait for someone else to do the work for us.

We have been a busy people since our earliest roots but, so too, in the last year. I believe this place should first and foremost be that testing ground where resilience is possible, but more importantly, where we can recharge from the assaults of the world. I do not and never will believe that church should just be another means to burning yourself out, especially in the work of justice.

It should be that place where we come to recognize the walls built between us, where we can see our highest ideals skipping down those walls, beckoning us to laugh them away, to watch as every cinder block crumbles. It must be the place where we prepare, recharge, laugh, love, learn, and open ourselves to the possibility that we have all the tools for resilience within us, but sometimes we need others to recognize and remind us.

Evil will never be a tidy topic that we can wrap a bow around and call it a day. Especially not for Unitarian Universalists. But what we can do is nurture those ways of being resilient in the face of injustice, hatred, oppression, and all the ills of the world. That we can do. That is where we can let go of being overwhelmed and say, not today, I know a way through.

May we all come to say this. We hope. We surely hope.