Monday, October 30, 2017

The Problem of Evil for Unitarian Universalists preached by Reverend Tom Capo on 10/29/2017

I offer these words by Russian novelist, historian, and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and communism, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for reflection:  “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his[her/their] own heart?”

Here are some Unitarian Universalist Views of Evil.
Reverend Paul Rasor:
"Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals have always emphasized the positive aspects of the divine and human nature. As a result, critics sometimes charge that liberals don’t truly understand the reality of evil…For religious liberals, evil is not a supernatural force locked in a cosmic struggle against the forces of good. Liberals also do not worry much about the traditional “theodicy” problem—how evil can exist if God is both all-loving and all-powerful. For liberals, evil is neither a demonic spirit nor a philosophical dilemma, but a reality to respond to and confront."
Reverend Victoria Stafford:
             "Sometimes I use a very subjective, almost subconscious barometer when reading the news of the day and deciding whether some action bears the weight of the word evil. It’s not the magnitude of an event, nor the cold-heartedness of those involved, nor even the historical impact. It’s the degree of heartbreak that I feel: beyond sorrow or horror, a sense that something has been blasted apart, a shattering of hope, the collapse of what I thought or wished were true about the world and human nature. There are some truths, some news, that break the heart—not permanently, but utterly, for a while, as the realization forms perhaps for the thousandth time: this, too, is part of our humanity. Evil is the capacity, within us and among us, to break sacred bonds with our own souls, with one another, and with the holy. Further, it is the willingness to excuse or justify this damage, to deny it, or to call it virtue. The soil in which it flourishes is a rich compost of ignorance, arrogance, fear, and delusion—mostly self-delusion—all mingled with the sparkling dust of our original, human being." 
Reverend Judith Meyer:
            "What is evil? An aspect of human nature. Apply enough pressure to any of us and something ugly will surface. Evil isn’t some malevolent power floating around in the universe, waiting to penetrate some unsuspecting soul. We do it all by ourselves. To acknowledge evil is to see something we don’t want to see. We all cultivate an idealized view of ourselves. Self-knowledge takes hard work. Overcoming evil begins with being honest. Reckoning with evil is more than an internal struggle. Evil surfaces in the cycles of violence we perpetrate as a society, often out of a misguided sense of necessity. It is a studied ignorance that keeps us not only from examining ourselves but also from looking critically at the institutions we create. The power to overcome evil has as much to do with overcoming our numbness and helplessness about what is wrong in our world as it does with mastering our impulses. Whether humanity will ever be free of the cycle of violence, we cannot say… But the change begins only when we are willing to learn the truth, and dedicate that fearful knowledge to the struggle."
Reverend Abhi Janamanchi:
          "I see evil as the willful separation from, and lack of concern for, the “common good.”  Evil occurs when the capacity for empathy exists and is ignored; when better alternatives for being in right relationship are ignored; when we fail to act on the imperative to correct the discrepancy between what is and what ought to be; and when we resist our powerful impulses to be, and do, good. …  We are products of our evolutionary heritage and our cultural history. We might transform evil if we recognize our own complicity in the processes which engender and sustain it. We will overcome evil when we refuse to play the game or to be silent, when we make a determined effort to understand evil as a possibility that awaits transformation. Then we might inhabit a safer, more peaceful, and more just world."


         As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t talk much, if at all, about evil.  And yet, there that word is in one of our Sources.  “We affirm and promote the words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.  Perhaps we don’t talk evil about because of Universalist forebears who didn’t believe in a hell or a devil.  Perhaps we don’t talk about evil because of our Unitarian forebears who believed that we could overcome our basest instincts.  Perhaps we don’t talk about evil because our humanist forebears who found this term too related to the supernatural.   But friends, if we get tripped up in even examining the work “evil”, how on earth are we as a denomination—or a congregation—going to be able to confront powers and structures of evil?
            We have a pluralist community here.  Each of us has a different belief systems.  We each have very different understandings of what evil is and how we confront it, within and outside ourselves.  As you heard during the readings, not even Unitarian Universalist ministers have a unified understanding of evil.  Just like we don’t have to have to think alike to love alike, so to we don’t have to have a line-by-line shared understanding of evil in order to confront it.  The dictionary isn’t much help either, defining evil with language such as: morally reprehensible, sinful, wicked, arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct, causing discomfort or repulsion, offensive, disagreeable, causing harm, and my personal favorite: marked by misfortune.
            I think part and parcel of defining what is “evil” is an understanding of “why” something is evil; what makes something—a person, an act, a power structure—“evil”?  If we choose to say to ourselves, well that word means nothing to me, does it necessarily follow that evil doesn’t exist?  The word “guddle” didn’t mean anything to me until I looked it up, but it still existed.  By the way “guddle” means “to fish with one’s hands by groping under the stones or banks of a stream.”
            For today’s sermon, I suggest that we agree on a few things about a definition of evil so we can explore a few ideas.  First the definition of evil we will use today is not based on the devil or demons or supernatural intervention.  In the UU World, Patrick O’Neil (winter 2007) wrote: “We UUs do not have the “easy” solution of a theology that blames all evil on the workings of some devil. But many of us have witnessed unspeakable human acts that can only be described as evil: in Auschwitz, Cambodia, Dresden, Rwanda, and in the barbarity of biological germ warfare. Some formalists would argue that the very existence of evil in the world would seem to negate our humanist valuing of [affirming and promoting the] dignity and worth in every person, expressed in the First Principle of Unitarian Universalism.”  I have certainly struggled with the balance of affirming our First Principles and confronting horrible atrocities, serial killers, and other human behaviors that have harmed so many.  Worth and dignity for these people?  Really?  My first response more often is a great deal of anger and fear.  Anger at what was done; and fear that this kind of violence might happen to me or someone I love.  But back to a definition of evil to start with for today:  harm done by one person to one or more creations (people, animal or planet), either directly (intentionally) or sideways. 
Okay, what is “sideways”? There is a potential to do harm within all of us, harm that has its roots in pain we have experienced due to unresolved hurt, guilt, or resentment, or a lack having some psychological need met that resulted in a hole within a person’s personality.  Think of that potential in terms of a tea kettle on a burner.  There is pain bubbling up within, and eventually the pressure builds up to the point it has to spew out somewhere, often hurting an unintended victim.  The pain comes out sideways.  Even as we explore this definition, we also need to consider how our personal understanding of evil affects each one of us.
            Let me bring us back to “confronting powers and structures of evil”.  Let’s say that you believe that evil people are doing evil things, now I am not saying demon-possessed people, but perhaps you believe that there are certain people who lack empathy, lack compassion, or are only interested in making money or gaining power.  Perhaps leaders in government, leaders in corporations, people in certain neighborhoods, people with certain spiritual beliefs.  Now, how does your personal understanding of evil affect how you perceive these people?  Do you perceive them as “other”, as objects, things that have nothing in common with you?  After all, objects can’t be hurt, objects can’t be wounded—things don’t have feelings.  It becomes easy to harm them without guilt; speak ill of them without regret; ignore their needs, feelings, opinions without a second thought.  I like to believe most of us get angry or feel sad when we hear people say that all Muslims are terrorists, that Gays and Lesbians have an agenda to convert my children, or that Blacks are abusing the social security system.  We can hear the harm and irrationality—the evil--of these statements.  In the words we heard from Reverend Stafford earlier, “beyond sorrow or horror, a sense that something has been blasted apart, a shattering of hope, the collapse of what I thought or wished were true about the world and human nature. There are some truths … that break the heart—not permanently, but utterly, for a while, as the realization forms perhaps for the thousandth time: this, too, is part of our humanity.”
            This, too, is part of who we, as a species are.  Just because we might not be committing “unspeakable acts” doesn’t mean we don’t have the capacity to do so, and I think that’s a hard concept for Unitarian Universalists to come to terms with.  Unitarian Universalists are not fluffy bunnies of eternal sweetness and light.  We’re human, just like the serial rapists, the murderers, the so-called evil doers.  We’re all of us human.
            Let me share something that Reverend Erik Walker Wikstrom preached: “The problem of evil, as I see it, is that we are so readily tempted to imagine that it’s out there, separated from us over here; that it belongs to them and not us.  And that, I believe, is ultimately the root and the design of evil—to make us categorize the world into us and them rather than recognizing our common kinship…the core of our Unitarian Universalist faith—and the core of all the religious faiths that I know of—points to the truth that we are all a part of a family that includes all of creation…’the interdependent web of all existence’…so I believe that a working definition of ‘evil’ could be ‘whatever distracts us from our essential relatedness.’ Walker goes on to quote psychoanalyst Carl Jung: ‘The individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil has need, first and foremost self-knowledge, that is, in the utmost possible knowledge of his/her/their own wholeness.  He/She/They must know relentlessly how much good he/she/they can do, and what crimes/harm he/she/they is capable of, and must be aware of reading the one as real and the other as illusion…both are bound to come to light in him/her/them.”  If we are to live for the good, we can only do so without self-deception or self-delusion.
            So if we affirm what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in our opening words that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”, we are called to do two things, one, manage the potential to do harm within ourselves, and two, show love and compassion to those who have done harm.  Even those who have harmed us.  Especially those who have harmed us.  Think in terms of “think globally, act locally.” Are we willing to choose that hard route of showing compassion and the transformative power of love not only to ourselves, to those we love, and to those we know have the capacity to change, but also to those who continue to do harm, who have committed terrible atrocities, to those we believe are evil?   Are we able to affirm possibility in evil behavior rather than pathology or ill intent in others? 
            It ain’t easy, folks.  No one said Unitarian Universalism was easy.  Yes, we have to set boundaries to protect us from harm, yes, we can’t forget the past behaviors that have harmed us or those we care about.  But we can have healthy boundaries and be informed by our experiences and still have empathy, and recognize our own complicity in the process which engenders and sustains evil.  We can still open our heart to those in need, both abuse victim and abuser. 
            Let me share one story.  About 15 plus years ago, the Pasadena Police Department asked me to provide group therapy to men who had been arrested for domestic violence; all had committed physical violence, mostly to their spouses.  The Police Department owned a small run-down strip center just off the downtown area of Pasadena.  I went by the facility before the group began, just to get my bearings.  This was not a safe part of town, wheel-less cars in front yards, lawns unmowed, and rough looking people hanging around small barbeque pits drinking beers were just a block away from this mostly abandoned strip mall where I was to hold the group.  So not only was I uneasy about working with violent men, I was in a very scary neighborhood.  Therapy was to take place at nighttime and there was nobody else in the strip mall but me and these violent men. 
Before attending the first meeting, I have to say my fear, and yes I felt anger too, came from my belief that these men were evil; I believed that they had intentionally harmed someone they loved to gain power and exert control.  I felt my job was to meet with these evil people and try to convert them into good people.  What flaw in logic do you already see in this statement?  These men were not pure evil.  Like all of us, they had the potential for harm within themselves and it had come out sideways toward someone they loved.  Most of them didn’t have any support system, didn’t have the skills to manage their emotions, didn’t have the verbal skills to respectfully engage in civil dialogue about difficult issues.  All of them genuinely regretted their behavior.  They were trying to stop their violence, but many had slipped.  They had no reason to be anything other than honest with me or each other.  I wasn’t there to judge them, and no one else could judge them either because they were all there for the same reason.  I was there to help them and they were there to help each other.  As I overcame my prejudices and fear and anger, as I taught them skills, as I showed them compassion, as I saw them as flawed, but having the potential to change, and as I offered them unconditional love, they did transform, they did change, they were able to mange the evil impulses within and actualize the good within.  I followed up with some of them after their court-required treatment with me and in fact they were continuing to do well.  That experience, and countless others besides, taught me to “make a determined effort to understand evil as a possibility that awaits transformation.”  These are more than just words to me; I’ve seen it happen. 
               Evil is not a thing, but an aspect of us all,  the potential within us all to do harm, to cause suffering, to react without thinking of the consequences.  And evil is the part of ourselves and others that awaits transformation, that awaits a confrontation with compassion and the transforming power of love.  “Evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his [her/their] own heart?” 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Light, Dark, Black, White, What About Gray? by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 10/22/2017

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 
Thou shalt have no other gods before me
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist 
Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;      
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image      
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to
spiritual growth in our congregations;
Honor thy father and thy mother
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
Thou shalt not kill
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process
within our congregations and in society at large;           
Thou shalt not commit adultery         
Thou shalt not steal    
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice
for all;          
Thou shalt not covet anything
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which 
we are a part.

            How do we make decisions about what is right or wrong, moral decisions?  We certainly could base our decisions on black and white, concrete rules like the Ten Commandments.  Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet.  Those sound pretty definitive and kind of simple to understand.  But haven’t we all experienced that life is not that black and white?  Often it is more gray, requiring a more sophisticated decision-making process, one that not only assesses the facts, but also factors in our personal values and philosophies, perhaps even our Unitarian Universalist Principles.  Decisions informed by questions like: “what is the greater good in this particular situation”, “what’s the power differential of this system”, “who has the greater need.”  
            Applying Unitarian Universalist Principles in our daily interactions, choosing to have our actions be guided by them can be complicated.  Answers to questions are not simple; doing what’s right, consistent with our values, is sometimes inconvenient, bothersome, difficult, even risky.  I, personally, because I am a Unitarian Universalist, choose to make my way through the chocolate aisle more slowly and deliberately, because I don’t want to buy chocolate that was harvested by child slaves.  I don’t eat at Chick-Fil-a because the owners of this franchise use their money to oppose LGBTQ causes.  I try not to buy items made in China because of the poor working conditions of their factories.  And I put considerable time and energy into building relationships with people of color, with people who are from other cultures, and with people who are marginalized by our culture.  Do I, at least a few times a day, ask myself “is this choice consistent with my UU Principles” as I go about my day, well actually I do.  Am I always consistent in living my Unitarian Universalist Principle?  Well, as Sam Trumbore writes in our opening words, “Were perfection required to be good all human existence would be a living hell.”
            Each of you, I believe, make your own choices in living out your morals and beliefs, or embodying our Unitarian Universalist Principles.  As you reflect on our Principles, one thing you might notice is they are not as black and white as the Ten Commandments.  Captain Barbossa in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies said, “the [Pirate’s] code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” That’s how I see our Unitarian Universalist Principles as more guidelines than actual rules.  We affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.  We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Lofty ideals, admirable goals, now, what does it really look like?  Exactly? The point I want to make here is that it could take a lifetime of discernment to decide what those Principles mean to you and how you personally can live them out in your life.  However I think sometimes that discernment can be so captivating that we have to be careful not to become its captive, exploring, considering, thinking too much about our Principles, that when we eventually act on them our actions can be somewhat blunted and diffused.
Here is an excerpt from a recent article on how video games are now considering how to introduce morality into gaming:
“The emergence of morality in video games is arguably one of the most important innovations of the medium to date. Like in … Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, giving players moral choice is a progressive development in games that adds more weight and substance to player decisions, leading to a more immersive and satisfying experience. Whether it’s abstaining from shooting civilians while infiltrating a terrorist cell, saving or harvesting Little Sisters, or holding the fate of the Capital Wasteland’s people in your hands, moral decision making in games is becoming an increasingly popular aspect of game development.  But is it all an illusion?
Morality is not a black-and-white concept. Reality is very seldom as simple as a choice between good and evil; the spectrum of moral behaviors is as complicated and consequential as our emotions. Instead of mirroring this complexity and including moral choices that lead to genuine in-game consequences, video games often do the opposite--they present a watered-down version of moral choice that ultimately results in players having to choose between good or evil: to harvest or not to harvest (BioShock), to be “paragon” or “renegade” (Mass Effect), to kill innocents or to save them (inFamous), to have a halo or devil horns (Fable II).
In a nutshell, morality refers to the codes of conduct that form the backbone of a society. Generally, morality is concerned with how people should behave rather than how they do behave. Morality can change over time and take on new meaning as people and environments evolve--for example, slavery was once accepted as morally permissible, whereas now it is accepted that enslaving another human being is immoral. In philosophy, morality and ethics go hand in hand: morality pertains to certain rules and codes of conduct while ethics pertains to the application of these rules in society.” (Gamespot, Published by Laura Parker on November 24, 2009)
How many of you know what Call of Duty, Bioshock, Mass Effect, inFamous, and Fable II are?  Please raise your hands.  For those of you who don’t, please talk to those people after the service.  So, I want to explore this:  “Morality pertains to certain rules and codes of conduct while ethics pertains to the application of these rules in society.” As members of this church, we’re like the game makers.  Individually and as a community we have to develop rules, or codes of conduct, that offers a frame of reference for moral decision-making as we live out our Principles in the wider community.  Living our values daily, applying our Principles in society, becomes our Ethical Perspective.
How do we develop these codes of conduct, our morals?  Well, through a process of experience, reflection, and sharing with our life with others.  This past week I attended a UU minister’s retreat.  Mark Hicks, a professor of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist seminary Meadville Lombard, talked with us about a new theory of faith development that he wants us as UUs to consider.  The traditional theory of faith development that many Unitarian Universalists embraced was James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. There are 6 stages, starting with infancy and a child’s experience of faith is based on a connection between themselves and their caregivers.  People move through stages based on the religion they grew up with, to the religion or faith they rejected, to coming to acceptance of the many paradoxes within them about faith, finally to a Universalizing faith that few people achieve.  James Fowler describes people at this 6th stage as having "a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us."  People like Mother Teresa or Gandhi reach this stage.  However, Fowler says a person can plateau at any given stage, and he suggests that at most stages a person can have a fulfilling spiritual life. 
            Mark suggested that these stages don’t speak to a Unitarian Universalist understanding of faith development.  According to Mark, the lower part of the image to your left offers a more accurate expression of a Unitarian Universalists faith development.  He presents Fowler’s system as the Caught, Taught, Bought, and Sought system.  As you see in the top part of this image.  Caught as a infant; Taught to you as an older child; Bought by you sometimes after adolescence; and then Sought by you the rest of your life.  Instead, he proposes for Unitarian Universalists a system based on a Wrought faith.  See the bottom part of the image.  In this model, faith is a life-long collaborative process, a process of intentional regular personal reflection.  A Wrought faith is foundational for you, a faith you create and live in the world and a faith that is built within a community with a shared covenant.  A Wrought faith is built in a community where others are also on a Wrought faith journey.  A Wrought faith is not weakened by collaboration but is strengthened, worked, like metal is worked on an anvil, through a lifetime of considering, discussing, sharing.  A person with a Wrought faith is willing to look at his/her/their beliefs and morals, values, and even our UU Principles discerning what works, what doesn’t work anymore, and what would make these values, Principles, morals stronger, more of a force in the world, bringing our dreams for a better world into reality. This means being willing to reflect on and discuss even our most treasured beliefs.   That is why we have built into our UUA bylaws to intentionally and regularly reflect on, modify, or change our Principles to be sure they reflect who we are and to strengthened their impact on the faith journeys or Unitarian Universalists.
            I talked about this Wrought faith model with the members of the Conscious Aging group on Thursday night and some of them said this system speaks to them.  We were discussing what age the group members felt they were, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Some said they felt very young spirituality.  They had just begun their spiritual journey, their Wrought faith, only since they came here to this church or since finding Unitarian Universalism.  It is only now that they are searching, struggling, discussing, discerning what their faith is, both individually and in community. 
            Most of us consider our individual morality, but we are also part of a faith community and thus are called upon to reflect on our communal morals and ethics.  How are we going to live our communal morals and beliefs in the world?  One way is to decide communally what moral statements we all agree on.  We have done this by twice in this church on two issues: Marital equality and women’s reproductive choice.  These are issues members of this church can say that DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church supports. 
Another way is making decisions to choose where our energy and resources should be spent.   We decided two years ago on a social justice initiative:  racial equity and restorative justice.  We want to make a difference in this city and state in these areas through our actions.  We cannot do everything, but we can do something.  So as a community, we have a vision, a dream for a future with increased racial equity and with a justice system that helps those who are incarcerated change their lives, so they can return to our community with hope, with a job, with a support system.  Your leadership and your social justice committee ask things like “how are our resources supporting this dream, our social justice initiative”, “what actions can we start making to make this dream a reality”, “what will we pass on to those who come after us to continue making this dream a reality”.   We are also considering what gifts people have and what each person is willing to do to support this dream.  Some people in this church want to mentor disadvantaged and discriminated against youth.  Some people in this church want to lobby for laws to rid prisons of solitary confinement.  Some people in this church want to write letters to incarcerated people to give them hope, to help them explore their spirituality, to offer a connection to at least one person on the outside, a positive relationship that might impact their future.  As the Buddha said: “Drop by drop is the water pot filled.  Likewise, the wise [one], gathering it little by little, fills up with good.”
This initiative is part of our communal Wrought faith, our communal morals and ethics.  We will continue to reflect on, discuss, and figure out what works to live out this initiative today.  And over time we will continue to reflect on, change, adapt, find new ways that work—strengthening the effect of this initiative.  We might even reach a point where we decide to change our social justice initiative.  This is what people of a Wrought faith do.
            My friends this is your covenanted community to develop your Wrought faith; nothing is off limits for us to talk about; all our faiths are Wrought faiths; all our faiths benefit from personal reflection, strengthening, and community support.  And as a community, we need a communal Wrought faith to make our dreams for a better world come true, drop by drop.  We do not and will not have static faiths here—individually or communally, we change, the world changes.  We must be willing to explore, new and different beliefs, new and different moral codes, always willing to find the beliefs or codes that strengthen us and have a positive impact on our world.