Choosing the Honorable and the Just

…To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.
Wendell Berry

Rev. Bill Schulz, former executive director of Amnesty International, wrote eloquently about the power of human resistance to evil. I want to share his words:

In every situation of incomprehensible terror there are always a few people who have cast their lot with the Honorable and the Just… Such people need not be well-educated or sophisticated or even successful in their witness; they simply need to be those who, in the face of sorrow, choose honor and blessing and life. And when they do, they redeem if not humanity, then at least their generation. …For if even only one person in a generation or a country or a culture chooses honor and blessing and life—even only one—then it means that anyone could have made that choice; it means that the Radiant had not completely died in those days; it means that Glory has not been silenced.

We are challenged to respond to the horrible situations of our time with a courageous endeavor—to remember that we are connected. There might be occasions when remembering this connection demands great heroism. The sufferings of the world are so big, and we feel so small. It is frightening to contemplate. But most of the time we are responding to smaller divisions; we must practice finding relationship in the everyday world of conflict and difference—the neighbor whose dog barks too much, the family member whose religious beliefs are contrary to our own, the person whose culture we do not understand, the child who is asserting her own independence.

The promise is that whenever we stand up for human dignity and connection, we bring the power of Grace into the world, we bring the power of God into the world. Whenever we choose mutual respect instead of violence, we strengthen the possibility of Goodness. Whenever we reach out to one who is suffering, we keep alive the Radiant for one more day.

Sunset Winslow DSC02433

Bill Schulz quote from his sermon, “Too Swift to Stop, Too Sweet to Lose”
Wendell Berry quote from “To My Granddaughters,” in A Timbered Choir

The Line Between Good and Evil Passes Through Each Human Heart

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

In the book The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo reports on prison experiments he conducted at Stanford University in 1971, in which ordinary young men began to commit abusive actions within the context of an experimental mock prison setting. The students playing the role of guards were given, as a team, power and authority over the students playing prisoners. The prisoners were given numbers and were deprived of anything that affirmed their unique identities as human beings.

Within six days, the experiment had to be halted because the level of brutality rose so dramatically. The researchers drew the conclusion that evil was not dependent upon inherently evil persons, but rather could be evoked in good people by situational factors.

Some of the elements that were found to promote evil include a hierarchy of power, de-personalization, the normalization of harm through laws and rules, and social pressure to conform. Zimbardo applies these factors to other historic and contemporary situations of extreme abuse, such as Rwanda, where ordinary citizens were drawn into unspeakable genocide, and Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers committed atrocities against the prisoners under their watch.

His research brings me back to the question of terrorism, and my dream about locking the doors of my house. We cannot defeat evil by locking the doors or building more walls or more prisons. When we put up a wall, we are cutting off the possibility of relationship. We are putting some human beings outside of our circle of connection. When we define terrorists as evil, we are participating in the same process of dehumanization that contributes to terrorist acts. It is a dangerous myth that evil lurks only outside the wall.

The Russian thinker, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has said,

“the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.”

Zimbardo admonishes us that if we want to resist evil we must first of all recognize that we too can be drawn into evil. He offers concrete practices which might help us to resist unwanted influences. These include taking responsibility for our own actions; being willing to say “I made a mistake;” holding respect for just authority, but rebelling against unjust authority; understanding our need for group acceptance, but also valuing our independence; and not sacrificing personal or civic freedoms for the illusion of security.

Such admonitions might also influence our understanding of the divine. The divine energy becomes present when we connect with each other in mutual reverence. The divine energy helps us to resist the temptation to build walls, to cast out those who seem to us as evil, but instead to lean toward the beauty of relationship—not dominance or obedience, but respect and compassion and dignity.

Zimbardo concludes his book by celebrating as heroes those who—in the midst of reprehensible situations—have taken a risk to validate human dignity and connection.

A God Who Is Not All Powerful?

A while back I picked up a book by Andrew Greeley called God Game. His premise intrigued me. A man is asked to test a new computer game. In this game, he interacts with characters who are people in a computer generated world. He types in commands which the characters perceive as an inner voice coming from their God. He uses this influence to shape the direction of the story in progress. In a process similar to writing a novel, he can create a tragedy, a comedy, a romance. He can use commands to influence the weather, or physical objects.

When our narrator begins the game he discovers the people are fighting a war, and likely to soon destroy each other. Being a benevolent author, he begins to direct them to make peace with their enemies. But soon it is apparent that the game is more complicated than that.

First of all, he learns that he can command the characters to take certain actions, but sometimes they choose to ignore his direction. The programmers have included freedom as one of the parameters of the program. He must work with the characters that are open to his leading, and use the actual abilities written into their personalities. Then to top it off, sometimes trouble arrives in the form of random events. Eventually, he become totally immersed in the game and finds he loves the people under his care. He agonizes over how to help the peace succeed.

The book explores the premise of a loving God who is not all powerful. I found myself feeling sympathy for such a God who might feel frustrated, and worried, and angry sometimes. He wants the story to come out well. He wants the characters to live happily ever after. But all he can do is offer assistance and inspiration as they face the problems of their world: he was not able to eradicate evil in one fell swoop.

In contrast, I grew up with the idea of a God who was supposed to be in charge of everything. All-powerful, all knowing, and all good. Whatever happened, it must fit into the will of God, and therefore be for the good. Even when bad things happened, we were to accept it as a part of God’s mysterious plan. But Elie Wiesel challenged such a view with his unrelenting questions: How could anyone accept a God who could ordain such an evil as the Holocaust? How could anyone trust a God who would stand by and let it happen?

Photo Source Unknown

Photo Source Unknown

Episcopal theologian, Carter Heyward, was deeply influenced by the questions of Elie Wiesel. For Heyward, as for Wiesel, the Holocaust was an indictment of the churches’ understanding of God as a supreme power who dominates the world. It was an indictment of the idea of obedience as morally desirable. Likewise, it found unacceptable a God who is merely an observer, a spectator in the face of such horrors. If God is indifferent to human suffering, then there is no use to us for such a God.

Heyward writes that for Elie Wiesel nothing is of more fundamental value than mutual relationship. The only ethical God must be found in loving relationships between people. In the camps, the opposite happened: the Jews were treated as if they no longer existed. The camps were a systematic assault on every element of personhood: numbers instead of names, meaningless hard labor, separation from family, arbitrary selection for extermination. The only ethical response to such evil would be to make a connection with those who suffer, to resist evil’s capacity to destroy the power of relationship.

Irving Greenberg put it like this: “…to talk of love and of a God who cares in the presence of the burning children is obscene and incredible; to leap in and pull a child out of a pit, to clean its face and heal its body, is to make the only statement that counts.” In other words, to face the problem of evil, we must resist violence and dehumanization by acts of connection and relationship.

An Old Question, An Old Story

Apples DSC06312How do we make sense of evil in the world? Where does it come from, and what can we do about it? And what does it say to us about spirituality, about God?

These questions are not new ones. All of the world’s philosophies and religions, from time immemorial, have tried to account for the problem of evil. The Jewish bible begins with a beautiful story of creation, and concludes that, “God saw that it was very good.” But the very next chapter is about the fall from paradise. Yahweh God gave the humans an admonition: “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall die.”

But then the serpent came to Eve saying, “No, you will not die! God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” And so Eve and Adam took fruit from this tree and ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked, and they covered themselves. When Yahweh God came to them, he said, “See, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to eat from the tree of life also, and live forever.” And so they were banished from the garden, and suffering entered their lives.

It is a powerful story. One way of interpreting it has been as a literal history of our first ancestors. According to some, Adam and Eve—and especially Eve—made a really colossal mistake by disobeying God, and now the rest of us are paying for it big-time. Original sin. But I don’t think it was ever meant as a story about a stolen apple. The Jewish writers were not so much speculating on origins, as describing the perennial human predicament. They saw the brokenness and suffering in their world and tried to tell a story that might express its painful contradictions.

The story itself is full of contradictions. Why did the tree of the knowledge of good and evil sit in the middle of the garden if it was forbidden? Why wouldn’t it make sense to trust the serpent, who is described as the most subtle of all the wild beasts that God made? Why did God make the serpent, if it would become a tempter? Adam and Eve lose their innocence, but why are they then described by God as “like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

The Jewish writers seem to be saying—reality is a trade-off. We try to imagine a perfect world, where nothing bad ever happens. But then there is no story. Only one chapter. We wouldn’t be who we are. Our eyes are open: we have knowledge, and the power to choose between good and evil. That’s reality. We can no longer be naked and unaware of it. Rebecca Solnit writes:

…imaginative Christian heretics worshipped Eve for having liberated us from paradise… The heretics recognized that before the fall we were not fully human—Adam and Eve need not wrestle with morality, with creation, with society, with mortality in paradise; they only realize their own potential and their own humanity in the struggle an imperfect world invites.

So we become choice-making agents, with power to act upon the world for good or evil. We can choose to conceal or to reveal ourselves, and thus the concept of truth and falsehood comes into being. Every choice we and others make has consequences which limit or expand the scope of our freedom. We are influenced and deceived and acted upon by those around us. Good and evil even masquerade as each other. This freedom and power in us means that anything can happen. The story is suddenly a real story. Unfinished, and unpredictable. Outcome uncertain.

Facing Up to the Reality of Evil

It is an amazing thing to feel safe in our homes and communities. A while back I was reading a novel about the Lost Boys of Sudan, What Is the What, by Dave Eggers. The story stirred up questions in my heart.  What would it feel like, I wondered, to have marauders showing up in your village, shooting people, burning houses, assaulting women and children? What would it feel like to lose your whole family, and your whole village?

When the death camps of the Nazis were discovered after World War Two, people swore, “Never again!” Yet, genocide continues in our day. Bosnia, Rwanda, southern Sudan, Darfur.

We asked ourselves, “How could someone fly a plane into a building with thousands of innocent people inside? How could someone massacre thousands of women and children of their own country?” Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, spoke of the incredulity of his village of Sighet in Transylvania in the months leading up to their deportation to the camps.

One man of the village had been taken away earlier and managed to escape, returning with terrible news. The Gestapo had forced the Jewish prisoners to dig huge graves, and then slaughtered the prisoners. “Each one had to go up to the hole and present his neck.” The villagers refused to believe the man. How could such a thing even be imagined? Right up to the moment when they themselves arrived at Birkenau, they clung to the impossibility of such a horror. Most of us feel incredulous in the face of evil.

Elie Wiesel wrote,

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night… Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever… which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust…

I have never had to face personally the horrors described by Wiesel or by the Lost Boys of Sudan. Am I willing to listen to their stories and the stories of others who have encountered evil? Am I willing to let go of my own incredulity to face up to the reality of evil?  And what about those of us do experience such horror? How do we make sense of evil in the world? Where does it come from, and what can we do about it?

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Elie Wiesel quotes are from Night.

Why Is There So Much Evil and Suffering?

Bars DSC00601_2To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust
Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin

 Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,
for I know that you will be afraid.
                                                                         Wendell Berry

If we are paying attention, we have to notice that life holds not only beauty, but tragedy. It holds not only goodness, but greed and hate and oppression. It holds unspeakable acts that human beings commit against each other and against the earth. Some people ask, if there is a God, especially a God of Love, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?  I want to explore this question over the next several blog posts.

Every once in a while I have a dream in which there is a dangerous person lurking about outside of my house, and I am frantically trying to lock the doors. But in this dream I keep finding openings to the outside that don’t lock. Here in America, we associate locked doors with a sense of safety from evil. We think of evil as something that has to be kept out.

It makes me think about walls. There is a wall being built in Palestine, purportedly to keep terrorists out of Israel. Some sections of the wall go right between a family and their own olive grove. There is a plan to extend a wall across our entire border with Mexico, as part of Homeland Security. That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I mean, even if a wall could protect us from terrorists, I have never heard of a Mexican crossing the border to blow up a building in the U.S. But the thing with keeping evil out is that you’ve got to blame somebody. Immigrants have often born the brunt of our feelings of insecurity.

Since September 11th, 2001, many previously safe Americans have felt as if evil has gotten through the doors, and we must frantically try to find a way to feel safe again. Terrorism has become the new face of evil.

Wendell Berry quote is from “To My Granddaughters” in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-97

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Power of Nonviolence

Martin Luther King Jr.Today, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I appreciate this holiday for many reasons, but especially because it gives us a chance to consider the power of nonviolent action to bring justice to our society. There are times when it seems like oppressive powers are taking over, when greed and hate are overwhelming. It helps my soul to recall those courageous people who came before us, who, even facing insurmountable oppression, were able to harness the power of love to make change. Dr. King is one of the greatest witnesses in our country to such fearless and powerful love.

Nonviolence has often been misunderstood, stereotyped as passive, or weak, or a tool for those who were afraid of violence. But this could not be further from reality. Dr. King described the fundamental principles of nonviolence in an article in Christian Century magazine, in 1957. He challenged that stereotype, and asserted that nonviolence is not for cowards, but requires strong courage. It is an active resistance to injustice, and the nonviolent resister is just as firmly opposed to injustice as one who might use violence. The method is passive physically, but active mentally and emotionally and spiritually.

A defining characteristic of nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his or her friendship and understanding. King wrote, “The aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. …The end is redemption.” Nonviolent action is directed against evil, not against the persons who are caught in the forces of evil. He said, “..the basic tension is not between races. …The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice.”

Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe itself is on the side of justice. For Dr. King, this faith was rooted in his religious conviction that all people are the children of one God, and loved by God. But he also pointed out that this trust in the power of justice did not require a belief in a personal God. It might also arise out of a heartfelt awareness of the unity of all people, or the interconnected web of all existence. Faith that the universe is on our side gives strength to the nonviolent resister to accept suffering without retaliation, and continue in the struggle through the dark times before the victory is assured.

Nonviolence avoids not only external violence, but also internal violence of spirit. It is based on the principle of love. “To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world,” King wrote. “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.” He goes on to explain that he is not talking about romantic or affectionate love, but agape love—a redeeming spirit of good will toward all.

Perhaps the most challenging part of nonviolence is this requirement that we love our opponent, that we love our enemy. Someone once said to me, “We shouldn’t even use that word, enemy. We are all one family.” And we are all one family. When we know that each person is part of us, we don’t want to think of anyone as an enemy.

The dictionary defines enemy as “a person who feels hatred for, or fosters harmful designs against another.” By that definition, my enemy is someone who hates me, or who seeks to harm me. We live in a world where, however much we love, others still will hate us or seek to do us harm. So for me, it feels more honest to acknowledge that internal tension—that tension between love and harm—when we say that nonviolence demands that we love our enemy.

Quotes from “Nonviolence and Racial Justice” and “The Power of Nonviolence,” reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.