Worship Script 3
Our Spiritual Force to Combat Evil
Worship Script (3 of 4)
By George C. Davis
To be strong enough to gain some
mastery over ourselves enter
and humble enough to be willing to learn from others;
To be brave enough to choose the right road,
no matter how hard it may be,
and patient enough to keep on in spite of obstacles;
To be wise enough to know our own shortcomings
And honest enough to admit the excellence of others;
To be proud enough to command the respect of strong individuals
and gentle enough to win the love of little children:
To be careful enough to protect the goods of others
and generous enough to share our own;
This is our aspiration for today.
HYMN #298 Wake Now My Senses
Liberal Theology and the Problem of Evil, by Paul Rasor, General Assembly 2001, reported by Anna Belle Leiserson.
My claim is that the tensions I have identified will continue to weaken our prophetic voice and interfere with our anti-racism work unless we recognize that racism is an evil that poisons not only our institutions, but also our hearts. We must, in other words, attend to its spiritual dimensions. And, in order to do this, we must begin to see racism not only as a matter of institutional structures and social power disparities, but a profound evil.
This is a difficult message for liberals to hear, so let me be as clear as possible. I am not simply making a moral judgment that racism is wrong, nor am I making an anthropological claim that human beings have the capacity to do horrible things and create oppressive institutions. These statements are of course true; in fact, they represent the way religious liberals usually think about systemic evils. Instead, I am making a theological claim. Racism is an evil, a profound structural evil embedded deeply within our culture and within ourselves. It is a "power" in the biblical sense.
It is hard for liberals to talk in these terms because we have no real theology of evil, and therefore no language or conceptual reference points adequate to the task. Indeed, this language has been difficult for me. But as I have thought about white racism in the context of our ongoing denominational struggle, I have come to believe that any other approach is inadequate. Treating racism as an evil, a power that has us in its grasp, may help us realize more clearly what we are up against. This does not mean that we need to think of it as a disembodied supernatural demon or the like. White racism is of course a cultural construct, the invention of human beings in specific historical settings and social contexts. But to approach it as a human construct and nothing more misses its profound power over us. We are tempted to think it can be dismantled with the right motivation, proper analysis, and good programs. It will take all of these and more, but these, by themselves, are not enough.
Call Me By My True Names, by Thich Nhat Hanh
Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
HYMN #125 From the Crush of Wealth and Power
STORY FOR ALL AGES
Sister Goose and The Foxes, by Faye Mogensen, in "Ancient Stories for Modern Times"
Sister Goose swam in the pond, happy as could be. Now and then, she ducked her head down to nibble a little bit here, and nibble a little bit there. She took no more than her fill of those succulent underwater plants, for she knew that the pond belonged to everyone.
Meanwhile, Brother Fox was hiding in the willows at the far end of the pond. He didn’t like to see anyone happy, least of all a goose.
Sister Goose swam along, enjoying the clear blue sky and the bright sunshine. She swam along to the willows growing at the far end of the pond. All of a sudden Brother Fox sprang right out of those willows shouting, “Trespasser! You get off my lake!”
Sister Goose shrugged up her wings and looked at Brother Fox, mystified. “Trespasser? How so? This lake does not belong to you, it belongs to us all!”
Brother Fox didn’t seem to hear her. He carried on, “You’ve been eating some of the plants in this pond. They don’t belong to you! If you don’t get out of this lake, I’m going to take you to court!”
Sister Goose was truly perplexed. She knew she hadn’t done anything wrong, but she could see by the ugly gleam in Brother Fox’s eyes that she wouldn’t be able to convince him. Instead she said, “I’m not afraid to go to court over this. At least there, justice will be served.”
And so they went to court.
But when Sister Goose arrived at the courthouse, she was very surprised. The clerks who sat just inside the doors were both foxes. Inside the courtroom, she saw that the lawyers were foxes. And the judge was a fox. And even the jurors, though some of them had red fur and some of them had brown fur and some of them had silver fur, were all foxes too.
Sister Goose was quaking as she entered the defendant's booth. Sure enough, though her arguments were sound, the judge and the jury found her guilty. They convicted her and turned her into stew.
That is how it goes. There isn’t much justice for the likes of a goose when the folks in the courthouse are all foxes.
By Egbert Ethelred Brown
As we face a troubled and puzzled world,
We too are troubled and puzzled.
As our fond dreams remain unrealized
and our bright hopes of yesterday wither
in the bitter disappointments of today,
our courage fails, are spirits droop, our faith trembles,
and frustrated we bow our heads in despair.
Nevertheless, we come to God in this hour of worship, in This House of Prayer.
As we pray for peace in our time, O God,
may we ourselves be at peace with the world, with ourselves, and with Thee.
May we know that without love there will never be peace.
Teach us therefore to love.
CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN
Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives. As you do, you may briefly share what it is. We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.
The Spiritual Force to Combat Evil by Jen Crow, executive minister, First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota
It was six years into my time at a previous settlement that it happened. I’d fallen in love with the congregation, with its can-do attitude, its involvement in the community, its history of justice work and its music. The church had a choir full of talented, dedicated folks, and one couple in particular stood out.
He was a tall gentle man who played classical guitar. She was a petite spitfire of a person, active in environmental preservation, a photographer and writer with a gorgeous soprano voice. They sang together often, transporting all of us with beauty. Their dog, Riley, who they understood as their child, traveled with them just about everywhere. Married for nearly twenty years, they held hands in public and looked at each other with adoration.
And—I’m going to tell you some awful things now—one morning, Jeff strangled Alyssa in their suburban home, put her in the trunk of his car, and drove around all day and into the night, eventually settling on a hiking trail they had frequented together as a final resting place. Once arriving at the trail well after dark, Jeff took a rock and struck their beloved dog in the head over and over, trying to kill her. Drunk and exhausted, Jeff realized there was nothing else he could do. The car was stuck in the mud on the trail, the dog was dead, so he thought, and there he was, stranded. He called 911 and confessed, and is now in prison serving out his sentence for second-degree murder.
When news came to the congregation about Alyssa’s murder, everyone was in shock. They were the golden couple, handsome and beautiful in the most traditional of ways, artistic and talented, beloved by many. What in the world had happened? A family member described the situation well: this murder was never a whodunit, she said, it was a WHYdunit. For days and weeks and months and years so many of us tried to make sense of what happened, tried to square our understanding of this seemingly gentle man with this tragic twist. Shock, anger, horror, sadness, grief—for her and for him—flooded our hearts.
Sitting in the chapel for Alyssa’s memorial service, I overheard a church member whispering to another church member, “It’s too bad Jeff can’t be here,” he said. “He loved her so much.” This truth, this both/and, this disconnect between the violence that had occurred and the rest of the lives we knew, was beyond unsettling.
None of us saw Alyssa’s murder coming, and as more facts came out about their relationship and the case, it seemed that Alyssa didn’t either. There was no history of violence that could be discovered. Rather, the story that revealed itself was one that could have happened to any of us, in many ways. Jeff had been falling behind at work for years, he had secretly been accumulating debt to keep up their lifestyle, and after years of scrambling to hide his failures the curtains were about to be pulled back.
He couldn’t bear the idea of his wife finding out the truth, and he says that he planned to end it for all of them, killing first her, then their beloved dog, and finally, himself. The idea of murder and death was easier to swallow than being found out, revealed, for the imperfect—or the perfectly imperfect—human being he was.
Soon after the murder, I found myself in the pulpit of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York, charged with the task of talking about evil. We were confused and hurting—angry and sad. The questions before us then were similar to the ones we hear following other surprising tragedies of that sort. Why would somebody do such a thing? What could possess a person to kill someone who had done nothing to them? And how had we missed it? How was it that someone could be thinking and planning such a horrific act without anyone around them knowing it? How could evil have come to root right here, right next to us in our community?
It was a daunting task, not just because the topic was so close to home, but also because liberal religion and Unitarian Universalists have such a notoriously weak theology of evil. We hold tight to the part of Universalism that says that all are whole and holy and worthy, that no one is held outside of the circle And that feels good and easy until someone does something unkind, or scary, or downright evil that makes us really want to hold them outside the circle.
We hold tight to the part of Unitarianism that has always claimed that, given the right social conditions, all minds and hearts will grow toward the good, onward and upward forever and ever. And that works okay, until the truth about the perpetuation of social conditions that oppress and degrade others is revealed, until we see people choose bad over good even thought they’ve had every opportunity and a circle of love surrounding them.
We push away the creation story at the heart of Christianity that roots us in original sin, that says that we are inherently fallen and sinful creatures tempted by the forces of evil, separated from heaven and from God by our desires and our actions, redeemable not through our own choices or turns of heart, but only by the physical sacrifice of another. There are plenty of good reasons to push away that story, and yet when we push it away entirely, for many people in liberal religion, we push away the idea of sin and evil all together, too.
Yet living in this world with eyes wide open, we cannot with integrity dismiss the existence of evil as a force that lives and breathes in this world, tempting and luring us into great harm.
Evil, as defined by Paul Rasor, Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, is an impersonal spiritual force that separates us from the good we seek.
Racism, Rasor explains, is an excellent example of evil. Racism is a cultural construct, a made-up system based on the made-up category of race, put in place to take resources and power away from people of color and indigenous people and give them to white people. This evil has been built into the white supremacy culture that dominates America; it’s been built into our structures and institutions. It has become an impersonal force that separates us from the good we seek.
I understand Rasor to say that racism has come to have a power and a life of its own. It cannot be defeated by programs and policies alone because it has become a force that perpetuates itself, shifting shape and finding new ways to take root in our hearts, in our societal structures and institutions. So racism, like any evil, Rasor asserts, must be pushed back against not only with education and policies and programs, but also with spiritual force.
How do we push back with spiritual force? What can prepare and sustain us for the long-haul commitment to social change, to self-examination, to resistance and re-creation that the rooting out of racism and evil requires?
Community, Rasor says, is essential to our resistance. Racism has created a fragmented society, a fragmented way of being in the world, and, ultimately, fragmented selves. Evil—whether it comes in the form of racism, or as physical violence or the lived experience of being treated as less than, year after year—evil in all of its forms creates fragmented selves and fragmented societies. It is in community that our fragmented, fractured selves can be healed. It is in community that our healing selves can heal the world.
It is in community—committed community with real, flawed, caring human beings—that we come to understand what Thích Nhất Hạnh meant when he wrote:
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin a bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
We gain the spiritual force to combat evil when we remember that we ourselves are never disconnected from either the best or the worst. Whatever it is, I’m that, too. It’s true for the U.S. as well. We are founded in a search for religious freedom, and we are founded in genocide. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and the wealth of this country is based on stolen land and built on the backs of slaves.
It is true that the last twenty years has seen a rise in mass shootings, and it is true that violence has always been a part of who we are and of what happens here. As a friend of mine recently said, the recent shooting in Las Vegas is the deadliest shooting in our history—if you don’t count black and brown and indigenous people. A country can be a place of freedom and opportunity, and it can be a place of oppression, violence, and denial of reality.
The question, I believe, comes down to which direction we lean in. Will we lean into consciousness, into awareness and acceptance of all of who we are: the good and the bad, the racist and the anti-racist, the deep knowledge that I’m this truth and that truth? Or will we try to compartmentalize the pieces of who we are, denying the wholeness of our existence, and in doing so, hand over the power we might have had to push against the forces of evil?
We may not be able to eliminate evil. We may not be able to put an end to racism in our life. But we can, as UU theologian Sharon Welch says, “prevent our own capitulation to structured evil.” We do this by participation in an extensive community—comprised of both sameness and difference, a community where we tell the truth about who we are and what we’ve done and are doing, trusting in a circle of love that holds no one outside the circle, a circle of love that will not let us go, no matter what.
HYMN #117 O Light of Life
By Howard Thurman
I confess my own inner confusion as I look out upon the world.
There is food for all --
Many are hungry.
There are close enough for all --
Many are in rags.
There is room enough for all --
Many are crowded.
There are none who want war--
Preparations for conflict abound.
Let Thy light burn in me that I may, from this moment on, take effective steps within my own powers, to live up to the light and courageously to pay for the kind of world I so desperately desire.