Resist Not Evil
A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Mark D. Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 18 October 1998
Three years ago Ted Draper had heart by-pass surgery. But when I went to visit him in the hospital his heart was as open as ever - he pulled the designs for the Child Haven home being built in Hyderbad out of his briefcase. Last year when Donna and I left to visit the Child Haven homes he saw us off at the airport. He hoped to join us in a few weeks, but soon afterward, his mother died, and then a grandchild was born. Finally, a month ago Ted Draper left for India. Now for the sixth time, he is at the Child Haven home in Hyderbad. He's sharing a room with another volunteer, eating rice and daal, playing with the children, auditing the books and running the sponsorship program that enables thirty of the older boys and girls that have completed the 10th form to get vocational training. Currently three of the young men in Hyderbad are training to become printers. Another from Kaliyampoondi became a welder and when he returns to Child Haven with gifts for the children, he is a hero. One of the young women in Kaliyampoondi is in the top of her class in engineering school, while a young woman in Gandhinagar aspires to be employed doing Mehdhi, that is applying henna on the skin to make a very elaborate but temporary design.
Days after Ted Draper arrived in India to begin his six month stay Nick Cardell, the minister emeritus of May Memorial Unitarian Church in Syracuse N.Y. was released from a federal prison after serving a six month sentence. Nick was convicted of trespassing during protests at the School of the America's. Located in Fort Benning, Georgia the school is also called "School of Assassins" and its graduates include: "Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, Roberto D'Aubuisson, leader of El Salvador's death squads...and 2 of the officers cited in Archbishop Oscar Romero murder." The U.S. government says that its purpose is to help sustain stable government in the face of insurrections. That means protecting U.S. interests. Nick describes his understanding of evil thus: " if there is any evil that we choose... it is ignorance, the all-too-mundane... evil of avoidance, which allows us to pursue our own ends without the need to wrestle with hard choices..." [From his sermon entitled Judas by Proxy.] In the face of growing public protest - Nick was arrested with 601 others - and media focus on the School of the America's the program came within four votes of being de-funded last year.
Ted is organized and soft spoken, and was a schoolteacher before he retired. Nick is charismatic and outspoken, and his ministry has been one of protest. Both are making an important contribution to the world and each has chosen an approach that is suited to who he is. Two men, one 73 the other approaching 70, who could rest after years of honest labour. Instead, they give their lifeblood to help save our world. Two individuals inspired by a concern for others. Both finding meaning and purpose in their work, both being socially responsible but in very different ways. And who is to say in the end which is more effective -- bringing an end to government-sponsored terror in Central and South America, or creating a hopeful future for 400 impoverished children. Children who, raised with Gandhian values, will transmit those values through the contributions they in turn make in their own lives.
This morning we welcome ten new members into this religious community. Know that we claim as one of our congregation's missions "responsible service to and social action in our city and beyond". We speak of service as our prayer. Moreover, we affirm and promote "the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all" as one of our seven principles. Our religious heritage and our communal culture bespeak an expectation and we try to live up to it. Ted Draper and Jennifer Fraser are in India. Richard Kirsch and nine other Unitarian Universalists will be leaving for the Guatemala School Project in several weeks. Many more of you will volunteer in the "Out of the Cold" program when it begins again on November 1st.
Indeed, "service is our prayer." However, I cannot help wondering whether service is enough. The trouble with service is that while it addresses human need it sometimes never gets to the underlying cause of injustice, nor does it confront evil in the way that the politics of protest and civil disobedience do. I can remember marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago against school segregation, and later during the Vietnam War marching on the Pentagon. As a Vista Volunteer I leafleted in front of a grocery store that shipped dated meat from the suburbs to sell in poor inner city neighborhoods. I also tried to organize a rent strike in an unheated, ill-maintained tenement. What was right was clear to me, as was evil, but the perils of fighting evil were something I did not understand.
Years ago a friend, in a response to a letter I sent him, reminded me of the proverb [Mathew 5:39] "but I say unto you that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." My new testament professor Norman Perrin wrote of the proverbs: "They come to express insight into the way things are, or should be, in a world ordered by God..." He also said Mathew 5:39 was "the most radical" of Jesus' sayings. I find Jesus' admonition "resist not evil" troubling, and that is its intention. It is a challenge that does not tell me how to live, but rather asks that I question my assumptions about what it means to live righteously.
My friend's reflection upon this passage was this: "It is not that we are to turn away from suffering. But by fighting evil, you become a fighter and a partaker in the evil you resist. Life is not endless, and you have a choice about how you are going to use your time: you can resist evil, or you can nourish what is good, letting evil take care of itself. My religion tells me to choose life... the more evil and suffering I face, the harder that choice gets, the more tempting it is to fight and get beaten, and the more important it is to keep making that choice, to keep choosing growth over destruction. For where the solutions are going to come from is where life is thriving and making some headway." [From Erik Bendix]
The urge to confront evil can be strong. Yet, what happens when one does? Dualism dominates and one's worldview becomes polarized. There is the good you strive for and those you oppose; there is the good you care passionately about and the misguided and indifferent who don't understand or care, eventually there are simply those who are with you and those who are not. However, no one, whether ally or adversary, will accept the notion that he or she is evil. Everyone sees evil as out there. In such a world people cease being people and become obstructions to justice. When we strongly identify with a cause and become absorbed by it, the divisions come to predominate and define us rather than our common humanity. Increasingly, in the way we speak about those we oppose we dehumanize them, transforming them into devils. James Q. Wilson writes in The Moral Sense, "I am struck in reading accounts of the lives of some of the most dedicated ideologues by how little the content of the ideology mattered and how much anger at "society," "the ruling classes," "the government," "meddling bureaucrats"... mattered. Anger is the necessary handmaiden of sympathy and fairness, and we are wrong to try to make everyone sweet and reasonable. But anger must be checked by others senses. Those others are self-control and duty." [p. 246] What begins as an act of compassion can easily end up, if unchecked, feeding on one's anger.
The urge is strong to put an end to suffering, injustice, slaughter, and poverty; our social pathologies are legion. But when we resist evil we surrender control of the agenda. An adversarial approach by its nature embodies a polarity and therefore misses the full range of possibilities. We can say: "Stop child poverty. " "Stop landmines." "Stop homelessness." 'Stop hospital restructuring." 'Stop Gay bashing." "No more murder." But ultimately we must turn from protest to creation - creation of better ways of caring for the ill and aiding the poor, of reducing violence and resolving conflict. We can say 'Stop,' but we cannot will others to be different. Perhaps in taking stands, we can educate the public and influence public opinion but we cannot make others be different than they are.
In Rochester N.Y. in 1985 the daughter of a prominent black activist was shot and killed by a police officer, when the police were called to a domestic dispute in which she was about to stab her boy friend. The community immediately polarized. There were marches, rallies and candle light vigils. The police were denounced by many in the black community as an occupying force and many activists called for civilian control of the police. Three years later the Monroe County Human Relations Commission which had battled not to be co-opted by either side issued a report. Intervening in a domestic dispute is a dangerous situation for which police are ill equipped to respond. Police should be able to trigger intervention of social agencies. The best officers move up the ranks and off the street. Create a parallel system of advancement that keeps good beat officer on the beat. The police are seen as outsiders. Make volunteer work in the communities they serve a requirement for professional advancement. The reported offered creative solutions that avoided the conflict while addressing the problem - creation rather than confrontation, transformation instead of conflict. The urge to confront evil can be strong. Yet, the trick is not to descend to the level of your adversary nor succumb to avoidance. How do we walk the line? If you have not cultivated a vigorous personal spiritual life, you probably should not be engaged in social action. Acts of compassion balanced with spiritual rigor - concern for the world matched by a concern for one's inner world. We must set a quiet time aside in which to ask: 'How do I confront and love at the same moment?' 'In confronting evil how do I keep from demonizing those I see in opposition to my cause?' 'Am I showing as much concern and respect for those around me as I do for the oppressed?' 'Do I turn as intense a light upon my own faults as I do upon my adversaries?' 'Have I taken the log out of my own eye?' 'Am I willing not only to identify the evil out there but the evil within?' 'Is there enough room in my heart for those with whom I strongly disagree?' 'Can I still see the humanity in those I yearn to demonize?' 'Can any good come of my actions if I am unable to seek that spark of the divine in my enemy?' 'Why am I doing this?' 'And whom am I really serving?'
Evil is always out there, but I believe we use it as an excuse for not examining the demonic lurking within. The evil out there is a diversion that draws our attention away from the "sinfulness and imperfection" within our own soul. This is why social action must go hand in hand with spirituality. The introspection and the self-criticism, the understanding and deepening sense of self in relationship to life, the stillness and the still small voice within which urges us toward action. However, when our actions are not rooted in a deepening spirituality they end up reflecting our ego need to fill the void in our lives. Some try to fill it with materialism and comforts; others use righteous causes. In over-identifying with causes, we turn them into extensions of our egos, which serve as a way of bolstering our own frail self-esteem. We work so hard and act so strident because our self-worth and self-justification hang in the balance. But our first principle does not say that I have inherent worth and dignity only if I try to save the world. This affirmation of our intrinsic goodness is unqualified by creed or cause.
Last October 12, one month before Nick Cardell was arrested for trespassing on the property of the School of the Americas, he wrote: "It seems to me beyond reasonable dispute that whatever creation myth or metaphor inspires and empowers us, whatever the process of creation, whatever the nature of our beginnings... we are one human family. All people must be our relatives, our brothers and sisters and cousins and nieces and nephews... All people are our people. We Unitarian Universalists embrace that conviction when we affirm that we are part of the interdependent web of all existence. If it makes any sense to speak of a Unitarian Universalist spirituality, then it must be rooted and discovered and expressed in the existential reality behind all doctrines and dogmas, underlying all myths and metaphors."
At the heart of Nick's protest is the conviction that "all people are our people." But it requires a deepening of the self in order to feel how connected we are to each other and to life. And spirituality is the path that leads to this oceanic sense of human kinship. Once felt it beckons us to act for the common good. Without this response, spirituality is nothing more than inward looking narcissism. It is self-indulgence and a form of escapism. But when we respond like Nick or Ted we live with a purpose. For at the heart of life is the Creation. All creativity is divine action - the continuing unfolding of the first moment. And today the Creation waits upon us to act in tandem with it as co-creators of the world that is to be.