Oct 07 2013
October Theme: Evil
Waking Up to Beauty and Brokenness—Why We Look at Evil
by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones
On the morning of September 11, 2001—the first day of my last year at Harvard Divinity School—I stand in the registration area with clumps of shocked and silenced students. A giant TV screen has been set up opposite the weary registrars; our eyes and hearts track the unfolding news. I have my arm around a fellow student, a Muslim colleague, as the second World Trade Center tower falls. “This is all suffering!” she cries. “This is all suffering!”
In the aftermath of that day, as the litany of death tolls—in the United States, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere—grows and grows, something else falls in me. Although I had certainly already experienced suffering and witnessed the harm that we humans can so, still I had held onto an overwhelmingly rosy view of humanity. Rumi’s “Every object and being in the universe is a jar overfilled with wisdom and beauty” was—and is—one of my favorite poems. The poetry of creation still captures my faith in the human potential for good. No wonder Unitarian Universalism makes so much sense to me!
But beginning that year, 2001-02, and continuing to this day, I have been seeking an equally compelling “poetry of destruction.” I want wisdom, philosophy, religion, and ethics that make sense of our equally powerful human capacity for harm. Specifically, I want our faith, Unitarian Universalism, to look squarely in the face of these most troubling aspects of our lives, to parse their meaning and their roots, and to offer hope and guidance for a better way to live.
That’s why we here at First Unitarian take up the theme of “evil” this month. Our congregants’ responses to the theme (see “In Our Own Voices” in this month’s journal) offer clues to a Unitarian Universalist approach. Even those who don’t like the word evil want us to look at how the capacity to do great harm resides both within and around us. Many of us don’t want a dualistic interpretation; we see “good” and “evil” on a spectrum, sometimes blending into each other. Others resist calling persons “evil”—we all have our “inherent worth and dignity”—but they see how certain acts can be destructive, cruel, and harmful. Do these acts, then, qualify as “evil”?
Try on the definitions of evil that I have brainstormed: To harm or destroy with intention; to move actively in the direction of harm or destruction. More passively: to turn our view away from wrongdoing, to ignore our interconnectedness and our response-ability to engage in preventing harm. To not see and not respond to the harm and destruction happening around us when we have the capacity to see it—that is evil to me, especially when this harm occurs through systems of injustice and oppression into which we have been finely woven, often through no fault of our own.
I believe that if we don’t look squarely at the deepest wrongs in our lives and world—the injustices, the systems of oppression, the cruel and abusive acts, the willful ignoring of harm to ourselves and others—then we condemn ourselves to being only half-alive. If we stay asleep, we isolate ourselves, cut ourselves off from our earthly kin and all existence, which can bring us joy as well as pain.
So I return to the great chorus of my ministry: Let us wake up! Let us wake up to, and live the both/and of, life’s beauty and its brokenness. There is so much more joy to be had when we live fully awake. Won’t you join us this month on this journey of awakening?
With all my love,
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