Sunday Sermon – 3 February 2019

Goodness And Evil

The horrifying terrorist attacks in the USA in New York and Washington on 11 September will have led many to come yet again to a question which has troubled not only Christians but many others for hundreds of years – how to confront the evils within society, without destroying ourselves in the process. This question exercised human minds long before the Christian era, probably back to the time when mankind emerged as a thinking being. Nevertheless it goes to the heart of the Christian message. The words in the universal prayer come constantly to mind: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Unitarianism is sometimes described as a philosophy of religious liberalism, in other words a religious philosophy based upon freedom. Now, once again, we have the dilemma of how much liberty should be curbed in order to protect freedom.

It would be utterly ridiculous for me to claim to have answers to a problem which has baffled the minds of the world’s greatest philosophers and thinkers. All I can do is to share some of my thoughts with you in the hope that they may stimulate ideas in your minds, that you may come to your own conclusions.

When we talk of goodness and evil, of right and wrong, we have first to face the dilemma of definition, of what we mean by the words we use. At the extremes, this is not too difficult. Evil, wrong-doing, is easily recognised when behaviour or actions are gross. Murder, theft, robbery, rape, torture, child molesting and the like would certainly feature on any person’s list. These are actions which oppress others, causing fear and loathing, removing from victims their right to well-being and dignity. Wanton killing of the innocent by terrorist bomb or fanatics in a hi-jacked aeroplane is unarguably an act of gross evil-doing.

And at the opposite extreme, goodness must include love, devotion, self-sacrifice in the care of and concern for others. Extending freedom and dignity to those broadly defined as neighbours, are actions which are rightly admired and applauded. At those two extremes then, sheep and goats, wheat and tares, or saints and sinners, are readily identified and differentiated.

But, as the passage from night to day, or vice versa, involves traversing an intervening area of grey twilight, so that the exact line of demarcation is not clearly seen. There are large areas between goodness and evil which fall into a twilight zone. The ten commandments define the absolutes but leave the intermediate areas uncharted. They raise many questions whilst providing only some answers.

Tolerance is a virtue, bigotry a sin. But between them is an area where one will find indolence, apathy, firmness of conviction, strong-minded faith. On which side of the line betwixt good and bad do these qualities fall? Patience is to be admired, ill-temper regretted. Between lie righteous indignation and hot-tempered outbursts. Where lies the dividing line between xenophobia and patriotism? Pride or conceit, self-regard or arrogance; the dividing lines are subtle and not easily determined.

Away from the extremes, the question of definition is often decided by arbitrary and subjective arguments. I explain I have strong opinions based on a firm faith, then regret that your strong opinions show you to be pretentious and self-opinionated. I am flexible, but fear your flexibility confirms my opinion that you are vacillating and spineless. I have a broad vision, but the width of your opinions reflect their essential shallowness. I am tolerant; I regret that you are lacking in conviction, and so easily swayed.

It was this problem of definition which led Jesus into his metaphor of beams and motes, and to his warning of the danger of sitting in judgement. So our first duty is to be humble and tentative in our judgements. Acts of goodness, expressions of evil are not as clear cut as we sometimes pretend.

It is an inescapable fact that all of us are capable of acts of wickedness and evil, as well as angelic exploits. We are all sinners, as it has been more succinctly put. Like the girl in the nursery rhyme, when we are good, we are very, very good, but when we are bad, we are horrid. So our faith must include words like confession, penitence and forgiveness. For we need them no less than do others. We don’t condone evil, but experience forces us to recognise its existence as being universal. Repentance then is followed by forgiveness; we acknowledge that others will transgress, for we err ourselves. It has to be added that forgiving is easier when the sin falls in that grey, twilight area and is followed by penitence and genuine regret.

But that leaves much unanswered. What about the wickedness that lies outside the grey area, that is in the undisputed darkness. What of the Hitlers, the Stalins, and today’s counterparts, ruthless and oppressive dictators along with the willing collaborators and imitators who inflict unspeakable horrors on their victims? What of those who abuse and kill to satisfy sexual perversions, of whom Jesus said it would be better that a mill-stone were tied round their necks? What of the terrorist who bombs, careless of the life and suffering of others? What of those who prey on the weak, the elderly and the confused, who rob the poor that they may attain richness? What of the reckless lout, careless of the hurt given as he or she seeks selfish personal satisfaction?

These, and other appalling examples of wickedness, are the ones which exercise us so much. Our instincts are often those of Old Testament ferocity – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – revenge and retribution come to mind. Yet how does this square with a doctrine of love of neighbour? In simple words, it doesn’t. Seeking revenge moves us from hatred of the crime to hatred of the perpetrator. It is an attempt to elevate us into God’s chair.

Revenge and retaliation are as destructive of those who follow this path as they are of the criminal. Barbaric punishment is a weapon which harms he or she who wields it as it inflicts retribution on the transgressor.

That so-called heretics, traitors, and witches were burnt alive meant not merely the loss of life of the victim, but the infliction of grave harm on the society which was supposedly being protected.

Public executions, hanging, drawing and quartering, floggings and sadistic torture do not eliminate wickedness; arguably they add to it. Cruelty, which was present in much of our nation’s treatment of the criminal in the past, and still today found in many parts of the world, depraves as much as the actions of the criminal it purports to punish.

When the inhumanity of the individual is countered by the vindictiveness of the state, we are all tainted by injustice. But that is not to say that evil should not be opposed and countered. But in doing so we must beware of quoting the ruthlessness of the tyrant as an excuse for the viciousness of our reactions.

It is an established fact that violence provokes violence. Many, though admittedly not all, child abusers have themselves been past victims. A home where love is absent, where violence in word and in deed is endemic, where tenderness is despised, is a home where evil breeds. An institution which degrades, and portrays an ethos of indifference nurtures evil.

Society has to protect itself from the evil wrong-doer. Punishment is not wrong for it enables the wrong-doer to pay penance for his sins as well as guarding the rights of others. But where degradation and humiliation are the aims, and where hatred smothers all love and compassion, where all hope is abandoned, then evil is succoured, not suppressed.

There is a hackneyed metaphor about the effects of evil which uses the picture of a damaged apple in an apple store. Unless the bad apple is rooted out, then the whole of the store will become infected, the moral states. This is sometimes quoted to justify any action to obtain an end. But if we damage all the apples in eliminating the one, what have we gained?

There are other pictures where love, concern and understanding have reclaimed the anti-socialite, where the lion has become lamb-like. The wrong-doer may be beaten into submission, but what is more questionable is that the sinner can be tortured into sainthood.

I am truly agnostic on the problem of evil within society, I just don’t know what the solution is. I only have instincts with which others may or may not agree. I believe that goodness must be ultimately successful because evil has within it the seeds of its own destruction. If we tackle evil with evil, if we state or imply that the end justifies the means, then we damage and harm ourselves.

We must hold on to an inner core of belief that love is resilient and unconquerable. Conversely, evil is vulnerable and ultimately self-destructive.

All of us are aggregates made up of good and evil. So we deceive ourselves if we think we ourselves are wholly good and pure. But a true concern for others, a determination to preserve human dignity in all fellow humans must be our dominant characteristic.

Likewise in our relationship to others, however condemnatory of their actions we may be, we must never deny their human status, for if we do this we have hurled not a stone, but a boomerang.

So I pose problems to which I have no solutions, merely principles that I submit that we should apply in arriving at solutions. Others may disagree with them. But what is clear is that the problem of evil and how to combat it goes to the very heart of our Christian philosophy.

C. J. Rosling

Fulwood 11 October 1992
Hucklow 22 November 1992; 30 September 2001
Chesterfield 28 March 1993
Mexborough 18 April 1993; 19 July 1998

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