A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Epiphany 6, February 15, 2004 dedicated to Mac Anderson for raising the question and to all who have lost their lives because of evil's grip in this world, especially the six million and more who were executed at Auschwitz and in the Holocaust and always to the glory of God!
II Chronicles 34: 24-29; and Luke 4: 1-13
Today, I embark on a two-part sermon series about evil. I will admit to you that I believe this is a dangerous subject. I do not tread lightly upon this textual and spiritual ground. Following my sermon in November, in which I restated my opposition to the death penalty, Mac Anderson spoke with me. He asked, "but what do you do with the problem of evil?" Quite frankly, that question is one I have thought about often. Responding to evil is a driving force in my life for what I do and how I live and love. But, to paraphrase the words of M. Scott Peck in the opening words of People of the Lie, who names his as "a dangerous book," these are dangerous sermons. I offer them because I believe they are needed. I offer them as healing hope. I offer them as reflection on the shadow side of reality. But, I offer them knowing that to trivialize them or misuse them as the potential to harm and hurt others, because evil is a dangerous subject.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
On September 11th, 2001 by 11:00am, outside of a band of terrorist brothers, the world knew it had encountered evil. With two planes having already crashed into the World Trade Center, another having hit the Pentagon, and a final plane crash near Somerset, Pennsylvania (on a flight path headed for Washington, D.C.), there was no question that the world had witnessed a heinous act of evil. Without warning or clarified threat, Commercial Airplanes had been used as weapons against innocent civilian and military targets. The new millennium was only beginning and a new evil had been unleashed. Thus, the old ugliness of evil had broken through to yet another point in time.
That which is rational has forever been buried in the bones and ashes of Auschwitz. Those that deny evil's existence have no ground on which to stand in the aftermath of the systematic extermination of six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of gays, artists, disabled persons, gypsies, and political prisoners (most of whom simply held different political positions than the Third Reich).
While Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen, and dozens of other camps were built for slave labor, Auschwitz and dozens of other camps were constructed by Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich for the sole purpose of exterminating people. These death camps, of which Auschwitz is best known, came to symbolize the clearest view of evil. A system was constructed with rails and trains, shipyards and showers where gas came out instead of water and hundreds with photographs and records (for the Nazis loved their bookkeeping) were murdered each day with the stated purpose of eliminating Jews from the face of the earth. In his final will and testament Hitler calling for the continued elimination of the Jews after his death. He left no room to wonder about the evil of man's inhumanity to man.
Only a generation after Auschwitz, could ethists, theologians and philosophers stomach the impossible task of sifting through the cremains of the Holocaust. Even Holocaust survivors themselves, struggled to name the horrors in the earliest days and years because they assumed that no one would believe what they had experienced and witnessed firsthand - an entire nation-state devoted to the task of eliminating them as Jews, as the chosen people of God.
Susan Neiman writes "What occurred in Nazi death camps was so absolutely evil that, like no other event in human history, it defies human capacities for understanding . . . Auschwitz changes the very nature of our intellectual constellations." Neiman, a philosopher and Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, writes in her brilliant book, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, "(As a philosopher, I believe) the problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought . . . Evil threatens human reason, for it challenges our hope that the world makes sense . . . Whether expressed in theological or secular terms, evil poses a problem about the world's intelligibility. It confronts (us) with the fundamental questions: Can there be meaning in a world where innocents suffer? Can belief in divine power or human progress survive a cataloging of evil? Is evil profound or banal?" (From the Introduction to the book).
As serious and reflective people of faith, we struggle to name evil for what it is. I believe it is no less than a life and death issue. In People of the Lie, M. Scott Peck came to his definition of evil through the eyes of his eight-year-old son, who approached him one day noting, "Daddy, evil is `live' spelled backward." Evil is in opposition to life. It is that which knowingly and systematically opposes the life force. It has to do with killing. Evil can kill the body. It can kill the soul. Evil can kill the spirit. It is a force residing either inside or outside of human beings that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is the force - again - either inside or outside of human beings that seeks to give life, promote life, restore life, and liveliness (drawn from Peck in The People of the Lie, pp. 42-43). Evil is a real spirit of unreality.
As human beings and as people of faith, we know the problem of evil has been with us since early times. Satan, as you know, is the "Father of Lies." The word Satan means "adversary." Nevertheless, scripture paints a varied portrait of Satan.
As an actual being outside the reality of God, Satan appears only four times in the Old Testament (Zechariah 3:11ff, I Chronicles 21:1, Psalm 109:6, and then throughout the Book of Job). Beyond these four references, it was believed in Hebrew Scriptures, that God was the one responsible for both evil and good. Isaiah 45:5-7 (KJV) says it most clearly, "I am the Lord and there is no else . . . I form the light and create the darkness. I make peace and I create evil; I the Lord do all these things." Yahweh, or God, is the totality of opposites. Everything comes from God, including good and evil. For the ancient Hebrew there was no problem of good and evil. There was only one God who offered light and dark, blessings and curses, good and evil. This God was boldly and unflinchingly monotheistic. Satan, as an adversary, appears as the shadow side of reality. In this image, the difference between light and dark, good and evil are not far apart. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis declares, "Someone came. Surely it was God, God . . . or was it the devil? Who can tell them apart? They exchange faces; God sometimes becomes all darkness and the devil all light, and the mind of man is left in a muddle" (Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ, Simon and Schuster, NY, NY, 1960, p. 15).
While we may find the unabashed monotheism of Hebrew scriptures admirable, we may also be troubled by the idea that God is the source of all evil as well as the source of all good. Does God intend evil? Or is God amoral? Evidently, we are not alone in our struggles. Over four hundred years pass between the end of the Old and the beginning of the New Testament, Satan emerges in the new texts with conspicuous role. Satan's role is so significant in the New Testament that he has many names - 35 times he is referred to as Satan; 37 times he is the "Diabolos" or devil; many times he called us "the enemy," seven times he is referred to as "Beelzebub," which means "the Lord of the Flies," and refers to the Persian deity, Ahriman. The Gospel of John frequently refers to the devil and usually refers to him as "the prince of this world." Satan continues to mean "a being which hinders free, forward movement, an adversary, an accuser, a stumbling block." "Diabolos" is a Greek word used as the equivalent of Satan. In its literal meaning as a verb, "diabolos" means "to throw across," as something would be thrown across our path to interfere with our progress (much of this material is drawn from John A. Sanford's book, Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality, Crossroads Publishing, NY.NY, 1996, pp. 25-44).
Satan is responsible for a multitude of human ills. He sends physical ailing and sufferings upon humankind, for example the woman who could not stand erect in Luke 13 is said to be bound by Satan. He is also held responsible for mental afflictions and the torturing of humankind. When Jesus is in the wilderness, Satan accompanies him there and in the words of Jewish author, Chaim Hasas in his famous 1946 short story, "That's the Way the Goyim Are," Satan is called "a bad impulse" (reflecting, if you will, the Hebraic understanding of the devil working within each of us).
But, Christian scriptures view Satan as much more than a bad impulse. Satan, as his names indicates, appears in the Gospels as the spirit opposed to God. Satan throws every obstacle he can in the path of human beings - with torment to body, mind, and soul. He seeks to separate humanity from God. He incites human beings to sin and rebellion against God - even, in the end, overtaking Judas as he sells Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Rather than the simple and sometimes gray area of exchanging faces with God, Satan is a separate and seemingly unimpeachable force against life.
From our interstate sniper now spreading his widening web of violence and evil throughout Central Ohio, to needless and mindless acts of violence against civilians in Iraq (which this past week claimed over 100 new deaths in the toll counting now in the tens of thousands), to the growing death toll in Israel/Palestine, to the heinous acts of evil in Philadelphia this past week as 95 rounds of automatic weapons were fired by six guns outside a playground in North Philadelphia leaving at least one child clinging to life with a bullet in his head, to acts of evil against those whom we love! We must all ask ourselves what we will do - in word and deed - to overcome evil in our times.
First, we need to know the face of evil when we see it. And once we have witnessed evil, we need to challenge its existence - with determination, courage, and care - so that we do not get sucked into it, but rather stand and speak boldly against it. We also need to be careful not to use the word or name evil when it is not actually there. In his book, When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball names five warning signs of corruption leading any religion (in all manifestations - Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu and others) to evil. His five signs are: Absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishing the "ideal" time for action, justifying the end by any means, and declaring holy war. I will return to Kimball's writing next week.
Second, as we become clear of the dangers of our task, we must pursue the battle against evil as those who stand in the full embrace of God's love. We must be those who are FOR God and not simply AGAINST Evil. In his 1952 book, The Devils of Louden, Aldous Huxley describes the development of the psychology of evil in a small 17th Century French town. Much like Arthur Miller's play, "The Crucible," Huxley points out what can become of witch hunting. He writes:
The effects which follow too constant and intense a concentration upon evil are always disastrous. Those who crusade not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or something even perceptibly worse than it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil, we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself (p. 192) . . .
No man can concentrate his attention upon evil, or even upon the idea of evil, and remain unaffected. To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous. Every crusader is apt to go mad. He is haunted by the wickedness he attributes to his enemies; it becomes in some sort a part of him (p. .260).
Evil is ugly. As Simon Weil has written, "imaginary evil is romantic and varied. But, real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren and boring." CS Lewis describes hell in The Great Divorce as a "gray British midlands city." It is dreary and depressing.
On the other side of evil is life in the spirit of God. It is life full of love and grace. It is life and liveliness lifted and carried by Jesus Christ - his sacrifice of love on the cross for us and his rising from the tomb, for us. It is life, beautifully draped in the garment of resurrection victory. Next week, I will examine the process and path of overcoming evil. Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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