Sunday, June 24, 2012

What Is Evil

What Is Evil
A sermons delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 24, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville Virginia
Romans 12: 9b
Luke 11: 14-23 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

So this week we continue our journey through the "Marks of a Christian" according to Paul's Letter to the Romans 12:9, and we've made it all the way the verse 9b, which says simply "hate what is evil," a short but surely loaded text. Last week I paired the verse with a passage from the gospels that reflected a scene from the life of Jesus that paralleled the text. I tried to do the same this week, so here is Jesus casting out a demon from Luke 11: 14-23.
4 Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.” 16 Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. 18 If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? —for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. 19 Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. 22 But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his plunder. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. [1]  

"Whoever is not with me is against me," those are difficult words in today's world, aren't they? They are the kind of words that separate people rather than bringing them together, and here we see Jesus saying them, and in our text for this Sunday we have, "Hate what is evil." Hate, there are many people in this world today who would say that hate itself is evil. So here we are in week 2 of our marks of a Christian series and we've already stumbled on some challenging stuff. If last week's cry for us to live, love, and be genuine wasn't hard enough, here we are this week having to hate evil. The Luke passage seems to paint a simple picture of it all. Have you ever thought that if you were a character in the Bible, faith, the walk, being a Christian, all of it would be so much simpler? When you have demons self identifying, and you have Beelzebub and Satan rearing their ugly heads in the light of day and in public, it is so much easier to spot evil. Or if we could be in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, there would be a ring that is evil and we could destroy it, or maybe even be Batman in Gotham City, there'd be tons of villains to defeat, or in some western where we know that evil is the guy on the black horse. Or if we could be Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, it is obvious who the enemy is, the empire and Darth Vader, easy enough go fight them, hate them, destroy them. They are evil and we know it, but our world is more like the world where all of a sudden Darth Vader turns to Luke and says, "I'm Your Father" in those immortal words of The Empire Strikes Back. Now everything that he thought he knew about evil has been turned upside down, and his new mission is not just to defeat evil, but to redeem the man who was his father, hating evil, but looking for the possibility of goodness behind the evil mask.
Such is our post modern world. It is hard for us to know what evil is. It seems harsh to us to label anything or anybody as evil, but here in this passage we are called, that one of the marks of a Christian is to "Hate what is evil," but what is evil?
On my final exam for my World Literature students I posed a question to them about the nature of evil. I chose four quotes to frame the question, then the question. I want to share the question with us as a way to start getting at what evil is. I used the quotes to get them thinking. I'll do the same for us this morning. Each Quote gets at a different idea of what evil is.

"Evil is a point of view" -- Anne Rice
"Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay." -- J.R.R. Tolkien
"What we call evil, it seems to me, is simply ignorance bumping its head in the dark." -- Henry Ford
"Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil." -- Anatole France
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." -- Edmund Burke

 Here is the question I asked them:

Does evil exist? If it does what is its source? Does man have a responsibility to do anything in relation to evil? If evil does not exist, why is there suffering in the world?

 How would you answer that? Have you ever thought about it? If you look at your bulletin I chose three of the responses and printed them there for you. These are direct quotations from three of my students, and I chose them because they get at three different sides of the fence, if a fence has three sides. . .
The first one says:
"Evil is the opposite of love. To give yourself completely is love. Taking in completely, on the other hand, is evil. When one spreads love by giving to all rather than taking from all, then joy can be found in the world." 

I liked that one. It seemed like a definition of evil that could be positive and beneficial. He really gets at some of the main ideas of what I had hoped to teach them, but isn't hate truly the opposite of love, and if so, how can you hate evil, as we are called to do without become evil yourself. . . Problematic, but let's keep that idea on the back burner as we proceed.
The next two seem to reflect two popular secular ideas about what evil is if it exists at all. The student writes:
"There are opinions of evil and what evil things are, but there is nothing in the world everyone can agree is evil. There are too many different aspects of life to say one thing is good or evil because one thing that may be helping one person could be destroying another person and vice versa." 

He is basically holding up the relativists point of view, very popular today. Evil is a mere matter of opinion, and since there are so many different opinions, then there must be no such thing as something that is absolutely evil, and by the way there is nothing absolutely good either, and no absolute truth. Very prevalent among my students.
Leaving us with the third student, which is very similar to the second, just more informed, from a anthropology standpoint, more educated, erudite, and intellectually honest, yet arrogant, if you didn't think so just ask him, writing. . .

"Evil exists only because we have made a "moral scale" or "system" to measure how good or bad something is on a level of the society's standards." 

Basically he is saying, like student number 2, just going one step further, stating that we as a society determine evil, based on our society's standards, but you can see from his use of quotation marks, that he sees moral scale and system as a bogus artificial made up kind of thing that those in power use over those who lack power, but there is no truth behind it. They are merely arbitrary standards that have seemed to work for us, maybe, or at least until we evolve and don't need them anymore.
Again I'll pose the question to you all. What is evil? Does it exist? Is it real? Is it one thing or many? Is it easily definable? Is it embodied in a devil type character, you know a little red dude who lives beneath the ground, but comes up to haunt and scare, or to sit on our shoulders and debate with the little cartoon angel we have on the other shoulder? Or is evil within human beings? Is it merely a manifestation of human sin? Do you know evil when you see it? Can you look at an event or a person or an idea and say, that's evil? Was Adolf Hitler evil? Is driving an airplane into skyscrapers in the middle of a normal workday morning evil? Is molesting a number of young innocent boys evil? Is the systematic slaughter of a race evil? Is slavery evil? Yes, Yes, Yes. It seems to me that the relative argument only exists in the vacuum of a philosophical academic discussion because when you start looking at examples of evil, it is not hard to find and distinguish them. It may be uncomfortable; it may be easier to avoid the topic of evil altogether.
In our Sunday School class we looked at a Native American creation myth. One of the things we noticed was they did not seem to have a concept of evil, at least according to that story. And it was brought up that some Native American cultures don't even have a word for evil. Wouldn't that be nice, to look out at the world and not see evil because you have no word to describe it, would that mean it doesn't exist then? Of course it would still exist. . . a cosmic idea like evil is not dependant, as much as I, and other English Teachers would hope, is not dependant on vocabulary. Even without the word evil exists. What if you had a society who did not have a word for evil, but they were involved in human sacrifice. . . would that not make it evil? I mean they don't have a word for evil, how could it be?
The Greeks actually have two words for evil, and both are used within the confines of our passage The first is this week's "hate what is evil." Later on in the "Marks of a Christian" passage, the English word "evil" is found again: v. 17, "do not repay evil for evil." These words for evil from the original Greek language are actually two completely different words. In "hate what is evil" you have "poneros" used for evil, and in "do not repay evil for evil" you have a completely different word entirely, "kakos." Getting at the difference between these two words gives us a deeper insight into what is going on in this text. I looked at a lot of different sources to get to the bottom of the difference between these words. According to Strong's Greek Lexicon, the difference is Kakos describes the quality according to its nature, poneros, according to its effects. In other words Kakos is describing evil in a person, and in that being a person who is less than what they were created to be, something missing, and Poneros refers with the hazardous effects of wicked or evil deeds.
When we read this passage like this we seem to be more in line with the overall Gospel message of loving our neighbor, and/or our enemies, rather than hating them . This passage is not asking us to hate people, but to hate evil, and its effects, but now what are evil effects? How can we get at what exactly signifies something as evil? "Poneros" gets at things that cause toil, burdens, struggles, pain. We can look at all of those things and see evil right, maybe, but sometimes those struggles, burdens, and pain are the things that make us grow, so that is hardly evil, right? People who suffer no struggle never grow, people who suffer no pain, don't get stronger, people who are unburden seem to shrink and become weaker, mere shades of their former selves, so I have trouble with this narrow idea of the essence of evil. Evil can't just be the things that make us uncomfortable or work harder. To me that is too much like heading into the realm of relativity, you know, I don't like it if it makes me struggle. Evil seems to be bigger, more devastating.
It seems to me that the best way of looking at what is evil, is not just what is burdensome, but what destroys life, both physically and spiritually. If God is good, and created life for living, then destroying life would be the opposite of good, evil. Now let's look at our list of things that I posed as being evil earlier. Hitler--putting the world at war, systematic killing of Jews, repression of human freedom, Hitler's got it all. Driving an airplane into skyscrapers in the middle of a normal workday morning, yes destroying of life, so many lives on that day, but also the after effects, fear, reduction of freedom, invasion of privacy, going to war. All over the news this week: molesting a number of young innocent boys, lives destroyed, so many victims, and so many people hurt. It's evil.  And finally slavery, yes the ultimate evil. It destroys the human will and the human spirit because it reduces a human to being a tool. I called slavery the ultimate evil, because though it does not physically kill in most cases, rather it kills everything about what it means to be human. And slavery takes on many forms, chained slavery, slavery to the state, slavery to an idea, slavery of the mind, slavery to fear, and of course slavery to sin.
These are all things that we are called to hate. There is always the danger though, and that is the power of hate to become an evil. . . I started this morning by looking at a few movie versions the struggle between good and evil. Most of them try to show this danger. In The Lord of the Rings there is a constant threat that the ring that Frodo is called to destroy will come to possess him, turning him toward the evil. In Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, when Luke finally faces Vader, his father, and the emperor, the emperor tries to use Luke's hatred of evil to turn him to the Darkside of the force. In both the heroes are faced not only with the evil that they are fighting against but also the capacity for evil that is within them. Frodo and Luke both persevere and resist, but for us there is always that danger. It is just as true for us. As we work hard to try to keep 911 from happening again, we are constantly in threat to become the evil we are fighting. It is not that we aren't supposed to fight evil, we are, but we have to be constantly vigilant that we don't lose ourselves in the fight allowing the hatred of evil to overwhelm us. When we found and killed Osama Bin Laden I wrote the following poem:

Although on this day the free world rejoices,
Part of me stops because being the hand of justice
Is dangerous. It is too much power, and I pray
It will not corrupt as it tends to do. Especially
When justice is wrapped in the flag of vengeance
And the proud man stands above, satisfied,
Taking credit for the triumph of Good over Evil,
But by what means? May we seek a world
Where Evil is overcome with Good, where
Vengeance and Justice are in God’s hands,
For it is only finite justice that we can do,
Temporary, incomplete, and only partial good,
With the shadow of Evil rising again behind us
In the eclipse of our increasing, ever escalating
Misguided, but well intentioned action. 

I'm not saying that he shouldn't have been killed, I'm saying that it was evil to kill him, and we have to hate what is evil, even when it is within ourselves, even when it is a "necessary" evil. It is really easy to let our need for revenge, or our hatred of an evil act transform us, and we can't do that.
This idea leads us straight into our text for next week, which states, "hold fast to what is good." We must because hating evil is a slippery slope, and though we are called to hate what is evil, we know that hatred us leaves us hanging over a pit, and our only chance is to hold fast to what is good. God give us the strength. May it ever be so.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 11:14-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.