Monday, February 28, 2011

Sermon - "Trapping the Human Spirit"

Trapping the Human Spirit
My experience in jail was short, but it left a lasting impression. In my early twenties I was arrested for trespassing. I was with a group of around fifty people who gathered to block the exit to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. That’s sort of like their General Assembly. Thousands of United Methodists had gathered to vote on the business of their faith tradition, and we were protesting one of those votes in regard to gays in the church. Our slogan was “No exit without justice,” so we blocked the exit until they voted for more inclusion of GLBT people in the church.
The details of why we were there are not important today. What is important is what came next. We were all arrested and sent off to the local jail. Being arrested for civil disobedience with renowned civil-rights activists is a fundamentally different thing from being arrested under any other circumstance. Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi was in a jail cell across the hall from me. And James Lawson, who worked directly with MLK as a strategist during the Civil Rights era was in the cell next to mine. This was no ordinary jail experience. And still what I experienced there will never be forgotten.
In the six hours that I spent in jail, my thoughts raced. We were arrested on Friday morning and there was some question if we would all be processed and released before the court closed for the weekend. The jail cell was stark cinderblock. I remember the one meal we were served was a bologna and cheese sandwich on white bread. That was it. As a young college student who was used to having agency over my own destiny, this short time of confinement was utterly foreign to me. I was prepared, I was treated with reasonable respect, and still the experience of jail was one of complete disempowerment.
My short experience in jail was one I will never forget. You can do nothing for yourself, nothing. You can’t make a phone call, choose the food you will eat, choose what clothing you will wear. There are no choices, nothing to do for yourself but sit and wait for the person in charge to tell you what to do next.
Today we are talking about America’s prison industry and how it traps the human spirit. But not just the spirit of those incarcerated. It traps the spirit of our county, as all of us are complicit in the structure, and all of us reap the results of a system built on revenge rather than rehabilitation.

Before we dive into the challenges of the prison industry today, I think it’s important that we get a sense of this history that brought us here.
Incarceration has not always been a common form of punishment. Corporal punishment, forced labor, and social ostracism were far more common forms of punishment in the ancient world, medieval Europe, and even in England and colonial America. But that changed in the 18th Century For the first time the idea emerged that restricting a person's liberty would itself be significant punishment for crime, and that a measured amount of time served could be assigned in proportion to the severity of the crime.
Most laws in colonial America were based on religious law. So, the first prisons in the independent United States were established as "penitentiaries.” Their prisoners were considered religious "penitents," serving time for their sins. These early jails gained a lot of positive attention for their high goals of perfecting society through incarceration. But despite their high moral aims, they soon became as overcrowded, dirty, and dangerous European dungeons.
By the late 19th Century, outrage over prison conditions led to the "reformatory" movement, which attempted to redefine prison's role as that of "reforming" inmates into model citizens, by providing education, work, and counseling.
A 1930s building wave of rural institutions where the setting was assumed to help rehabilitate prisoners, such as San Quentin and Sing-sing, saw a major increase in the size of individual facilities, leading to the nickname "Big House."
In the 1970s judges became more receptive to claims of prisoners' rights, and they began to mandate significant improvements in many conditions for prisoners. But those new standards ran head on with the new crimes, sentencing laws, and prison population explosion of the "War on Drugs." Resources intended for rehabilitation went to drug law enforcement. New prison construction intended to reduce overcrowding and improve the chances of rehabilitation were barely complete before they were filled to capacity with drug offenders. From the 1980s on, prisons have been built in increasingly remote locations and loaded with increasingly harsh rules and intentionally harsh conditions.

American prisons have a two hundred year history of well-meaning but short-lived attempts at reform. Today they are undisputedly over crowded, dangerous, and fundamentally lacking in meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation.
Today, the United States currently has the largest inmate population in the world, with more than 2½ million prisoners, that is more than one in a hundred adults in prison and jails in the United States. Among industrialized nations, the United States incarcerates the largest percentage of its population. The U.S. incarceration rate is five to ten times that of other democracies.

We have a problem here and not many people are talking about it. We have a problem and more jails with more beds does not seem to be the answer. We have a problem that is so big, that I would dare to call it evil. That’s right, the sprawling prison industry in the United States is evil. There is no other word to describe a system that so quietly places such blight on our society. It is evil in two different ways.

First, there is evil in a system that dehumanizes a group of people and does it so quietly that it doesn’t raise the concern of the wider society. It is the banality of evil, a slow systematic chipping away at our society. It’s no one person’s fault, but a system has been set into motion that destroys the fabric of our society.
And evil is present in the hearts of human beings. Unfortunately much of the growth of prison industry and deliverance of harsher sentences is rooted in a desire for revenge rather than repair, punishment rather than rehabilitation. Evil marks America’s prisons in the systemic injustices and in the hard heartedness that obsesses on revenge. First I want to talk about the evil of systems.

To begin with, there are stark disparities in the racial composition of our nation's prisons. African Americans account for fully half of the prison population but they comprise only thirteen percent of the total population. I know that statistics are hard to swallow and I’m using a lot of them today. Just know that the number of Black men in prison is way, way out of proportion.
The evil is not so much in the fact that there are so many African-American’s in prison, as it is in the way that prison accentuates inequalities, ensuring the disempowerment of generation after generation.

The most well-known racially aligned injustice is political disenfranchisement of Blacks. (Ten states deny voting rights for life to ex-felons. According to the Sentencing Project, 46 states prohibit inmates from voting while serving a felony sentence, 32 states deny the vote to felons on parole, and 29 states disenfranchise felony probationers.) Most states deny voting rights to inmates, and many of them deny the right to people even after they are released from prison. Thanks to those rules, 13 percent of all Black men in the U.S. have lost their electoral rights. Let me say that again, 13 percent of Black men in the U.S. have lost their right to vote.

But the economic effects are probably even more important. Having a record is disastrous to the prospect of finding a job. Most sources cite unemployment rates as high as 50 percent for people with records. Putting it all together, we see that since incarceration rates are especially high among those with the least power in the labor market (young and unskilled minority men), and having a history of incarceration deeply impacts employment opportunity, it seams pretty clear that U.S. incarceration exacerbates the inequality present in our society.

And we should remember that the Black community has a unique history with the prison system. After two hundred years of slavery in the United States, the government of southern states contrived a plan to essentially recreate the system.

After the end of the Civil War. Farmers and businessmen needed to find replacements for the labor force. Beginning in 1868, convict leases were issued to private parties to supplement their workforce. The government contracted out prison labor to private industry. Of course any means of legal defense for Blacks during this time were negligible. Prisons and Jails in the Southern states essentially supplied an extension of slavery until the early 20th century.
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the relationship between prisons and private companies continues today, only in different form. Thanks to the privatization of prisons, there is a great deal of money to be made off of the incarceration of as many people as possible. That’s right, prisons are big business for corporations who own them.
Government has depended on private companies to provide some of the services food preparation and transportation for a long time. But in the 1980s a shift occurred. With an exploding prison population with the War on Drugs, private business interests saw an opportunity for expansion, and private-sector involvement in prisons moved from contracting of specific services to contracting for the complete management and operation of entire prisons. Private companies in the United States operate 264 correctional facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult offenders. 99,000 people are incarcerated by for-profit industry in our country.
(Of course the goal of privately run prisons it to save money. But a good amount of research questions exactly that claim. Evidence usually shows that private prisons are neither demonstably more cost-effective, nor more efficient than public ones. Yet still State and Federal tax money funneled toward private corporations to run OUR prisons.)
I can’t quite put my finger on it. I can’t quite put it into words yet, but our turning prison into an industry is deeply troubling. Addressing the wrongs committed in our society, holding dangerous people, and ideally offering an opportunity for rehabilitation should not be a money-making project. I am deeply troubled that as a society we have made an industry of incarcerating human beings. Fiscally responsible or not, privatizing American prisons is an affront to the inherent worth and dignity of our brothers and sisters.

The third and final piece of the systemic evil that shapes our prisons is the “War on Drugs.” By all measures, it has failed at everything except incarcerating more people, most of them Black men.
In 1986 the US Defense Department concluded that using armed forces to slow the production of cocaine was ineffective and would actually raise the profitability of selling it in the U.S. But we continued to pour money into the project.

(In 1986, the US Defense Department funded a two-year study by the RAND Corporation, which found that the use of the armed forces to interdict drugs coming into the United States would have little or no effect on cocaine traffic and might, in fact, raise the profits of cocaine cartels and manufacturers.)

In the early 90s a Clinton administration report found that $3 billon should be transferred from the war on drug’s law enforcement focus toward treatment, and that drug treatment was twenty-three times more effective than the supply-side (crime enforcement side) “war on drugs.”

(During the early to mid-1990s, the Clinton administration ordered and funded a major cocaine policy study, again by RAND. The Rand Drug Policy Research Center study concluded that $ 3 billion should be switched from federal and local law enforcement to treatment. The report said that treatment is the cheapest way to cut drug use, stating that drug treatment is twenty-three more times effective than the supply-side "war on drugs")

Despite over $7 billion spent annually towards arresting[95] and prosecuting nearly 800,000 people for marijuana offenses Surveys report about 85% of high school seniors find marijuana "easy to obtain." That figure has remained virtually unchanged since 1975.

I could go on with the details, but you get the picture. Federal and State government are pouring money, our money into ineffective programs based on punishment and retribution. Punishment that disproportionately impacts racial minorities and supports a multi-billion dollar industry. And yet I understand there is a marijuana club at Laguna Woods.

These three realities, privatization, the war on drugs, and racial bias are an interconnected system of oppression. They come together to in the form of systemic evil to shape the modern prison industry. There is no other word for a system that so efficiently and so quietly destroys one segment of the population while making money for another.

As I said, the evil of the sprawling prison industry is demonstrated mostly in numbers. It is an evil that can be and must be challenged through political advocacy.

But there is another type of evil lurking in this equation. It is, frankly, the evil that rests in human hearts. Too often, and I fear increasingly so, the government, our courts, our law enforcement, the entire justice system is not focused on protecting citizens or reforming criminals. It is focused on punishment and retribution. The desire for revenge is an ugly, ugly thing. We all know this feeling. In many ways we consider it a natural thing, but that does not make it right. The criminal justice system cannot be a state sanctioned means for us to seek revenge. We cannot allow our government to function in a way that encourages the anger and violence of the human heart. There is another way, and we must hold out hope for more meaningful way of dealing with our brothers and sisters who break the law. A way of justice that offers redemption.

Redemptive justice recognizes justice as relational. Its purpose is to restore wholeness and rightness in the social order and in the disposition of the offender, not to exact revenge. It is a process of education, socialization, and empowerment so that they may be able to contribute constructively to society again. Restorative justice is a process that enables the offender to reconcile with the victim through appropriate restitution, community service, and healing measures.

Separation from society may be an appropriate punishment for many crimes, but society's responsibility does not end there. A corrections system driven by compassionate justice would prepare offenders for successful reentry into society. An overwhelming majority of those who are incarcerated return to their communities having received minimal or no opportunities for rehabilitation. In a reformed system, they will receive substantial rehabilitative services, including mental health treatment, educational programs, and vocational training during incarceration and employment and transitional housing once released. Redemption, rehabilitation, and restoration are not only more humane for those who have fallen off the main societal track; they are more effective and less costly in addressing the criminal justice needs of our whole society.
Earlier we sang the song Circle ‘round for freedom. Circle ‘round for peace. For all of us imprisoned, circle for release. That’s just the idea that I want to get at today. You see the evil of the prison system is not just about those unfortunate men and women who find themselves incarcerated. We all, as tax payers, as citizens, as members of a moral community are implicated. When we allow our civic institutions to embody the values of punishment and revenge, we build those values into the fabric of who we are as a people. Prison reform is not just for those who are incarcerated. Justice is not just for the sake of the oppressed. It is for the well being of our souls. It is what we are called to seek and to build. It is what is required of us. To Circle round for freedom. Circle ‘round for peace. For ALL of us imprisoned, circle for release.
Evil in the system that dehumanizes calls for advocacy and political action, but evil in human hearts calls for deep discernment, and a type of spiritual leadership that Unitarian Universalists are well-positioned to make. But, doing so means getting serious about naming what we see. We have spent the month of February talking about evil, not just as a theology lesson, but to prepare us to understand our wider world. It is vocabulary that is important. It is essential that we pause to look at the world around us to name what is not working, so that one day we might come together to fix it.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Sermon - Diagnosing Difference

This morning we are talking about the way that we understand differences between people. Not differences in politics of belief. We talk about that all the time. Today we are talking about physical differences. One quick answer is to say that we are all the same and none of those physical details of a person should reall matter. Well, whether the should matter or not, we notice those differences. We see them. Whether we are talking about disabilities, racial or gender differences, or any other characteristic, we recognize differences between bodies. There’s no denying them. But we have a choice in how we understand those differences.

We talk quite a bit about racial differences on occasion. We talk about the struggle for justice and equality for people of color. But today we will focus on differences of physical ability. In some ways that is about disability, the name that we give when a person is not able to function in the way most people function. But difference also happens to each of us, when we are sick or injured. As some point in our lives, each of us faces a body that’s somehow different from the norm. Each one of us has to face up to being some how physically impaired. That’s a tough, tough moment. But there is hope.

We have all had challenges with our bodies. For some strange reason we think that we are alone in that experience. Maybe that’s because Mr. Mc Duffy McBean keeps us feeling that way so he can make money off of us. I don’t know. But we have a strange habit of feeling isolated in our difference.
Perhaps this little exercise will change that a bit.
Raise your hand if there are things you can no longer do that you used to enjoy.
Raise your hand if there are things you have never been able to do but society thought you should be able to.
Raise your hand if your body has ever made you feel different or ashamed.
Thank you! Not so alone are we?
The most important thing we ever learn and experience from church may be the radical fact that you are not along. You are not alone in feeling like your body is a challenge or source of difficulty.

This month we are focussing on Evil at UUFLB. I felt like it was important to talk about evil in human differences for a couple of reasons. One is that for so long we have been told that our bodies, any bodies are somehow dirty, or not as good. They are just something that we have to live with until our soul moves on to another place. This is a huge piece of mainline Christian thought, thanks primarily to the Apostle Paul. He was strangely afraid of his natural desires, and as a result he set Christianity on a course for self-loathing. And Christianity is not alone in this. A whole variety of traditions claim that our bodies are bad or some how less important, less worthy than our souls. I actually believe our bodies are magnificent miraculous gift, that allow us to live and love and to make manifest our dreams. Our bodies are good.
What is not good. I dare say, what is evil, is a social environment that deems some bodies better than others. Whether based on gender, race, physical or mental ability, thinness or fatness, any ranking of the worth of a human being based on physical attributes, well it is evil. I think Paul had it wrong, he had it dead wrong. It’s not our bodies that are evil. What is evil is judgment and shame, self-loathing, repression. Our bodies are not evil. What is evil is the way we deny them.

Our bodies are a gift. For you and for me and for everyone we know, our physical bodies are a tremendous gift. It’s hard to believe that sometimes, when they bring us pain or when the limit us in some way. But consider this.
Flawed as they may be, our bodies are the vessel for our life. Without this physical being, without flesh and bone we cannot eat, or drink. We cannot breathe. On the most basic level, or bodies are what make our lives possible.
But they offer so much more than simply being alive. Our bodies offer us an opportunity to be in relationship with other people. They allow us to build frienship with others. They allow us to care for our children and grandchildren. And our bodies allow us to be lovers. That’s right, we are physical, spiritual and sexual beings. Our bodies help us to connect to one another in magnificent ways. That’s not something to be ashamed of, but something to celebrate.
And there’s more. Our bodies allow us to join in the creative process. We have hands to sculpt, voices to make a joyful noise. We have ears and eyes to absorb all the beauty that surrounds us. Some people have spent a life-time training themselves, training their bodies to create beauty beautiful things. Others of us, well we just like to sing a few hymns and doodle on scratch paper. But our bodies are what allow us to create beauty in the world.
And they allow us to make a better world. There are a multitude of ways of caring for other people and caring for our earth. Whether it is in raising children or advocating for justice, planting and organic garden or volunteering at the homeless shelter, our bodies allow us to care for the wider world. They allow us to live out our convictions. They allow us to put action to our thoughts. And after all, isn’t that what gives life its meaning.

Our bodies are a gift, but sometimes they are broken and sick. Sometimes they need healing. Fortunately, a whole slough of people dedicate their professional lives to making that possible. Nurses, doctors, therapists, surgeons, counselors, lab technicians, emergency responders and an innumerable list of hospital support crew. They bravely attend to the urgent physical needs.

But I think that we can all participate in the healing of bodies. Certainly we all want to. When a loved one is in pain, who doesn’t feel helpless? I want to suggest that we can help, even if we don’t have a hospital badge or a degree.

If you are a regular reader of The Sealight, our newsletter, you know that there is usually a section called “Circle of Light.” That’s a place where we lift up the names of people who are sick or hurting in some way. It keeps us together as a community as we care for one another.
But I only recently found out where this name comes from. I’ve been here for three and a half years as the minister and I’m still finding out some pretty important stuff. The name “Circle of Light” comes from a very specific ministry that was a part of this congregation. For years, one of the members named Dorothy Nolty lead, what I would call a healing circle. People who were ill or hurting would gather in a circle and Dorthy lead them through a guided meditation. Then they would offer healing thoughts and energy to others in the group, not in a generic way, but in a focus individualized fashion.
I finally found out about this group as Russ told me it is a big part of what got him through his battle with cancer. I don’t know how many other people felt supported, even healed by this group. Probably several considering its tenure and the fact that its legacy lives on in our newsletter.
Why all this talk of healing in a sermon about how our bodies are different and sometimes flawed? Because I think it points to a radical act of holding hope, and a radical act of concentrating your energy on love and healing. So often when we are faced with sickness and disease, the pain gets transformed into anger. Dorthy offered a different way. I have since heard others of you talk about this practice of sending healing thoughts to those you know are hurting. Stick with me here, I know this sounds pretty wuwu out there to some of you but stick with me.
When your loved ones are hurting and there is nothing you can do, try pausing. And visualize a warm ball of love, compassion and healing glowing in your own chest. Then send that ball out, and offer it to the person in pain.
My faith tells me that it will help. Maybe an actual energy gets transferred from the healer to the healed. Maybe this sort of concentration can manifest in physical healing. I hold out hope for that possibility. But what I know, is that focusing our energy and our thoughts on love makes us healthier people. It makes us stronger, and it makes us more able to stay in a loving relationship with those who are in pain.
Only a few of us are blessed with the medical know how to help heal the injured person. And oh how we long to help when we really care. Try offering your thoughts and your love. Just try it. There’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

There are also ways that we can respond to assist people with disabilities. Ways of engaging that foster more genuine and respectful relationship, so I want to name a few of those.

If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted, then listen for instructions.
Speak directly to people rather than through their companion or sign language interpreter.
Offer to shake hands when introduced. People with limited hand use can usually shake hands and offering a left hand is an appropriate greeting.
Identify yourself and others who may be around when speaking with someone with a visual disability.
Don't lean against or hang things on someone's wheelchair. Remember people with disabilities treat their chairs as an extension of their bodies.
Place yourself at eye level when speaking with someone.
Listen attentively when talking with people who have difficulty speaking and wait for them to finish. If necessary ask questions that can be answered with short answers or head nods. Never pretend to understand, instead repeat what you understood and allow the person to respond.
Tap a person who has a hearing disability on the shoulder or wave your hand in the air to get his or her attention. Speak slowly and clearly and keep hands and food clear of your mouth when communicating with someone who can read lips.
Finally, relax. Most of what I have just said is very simple if you take a moment to think about it. Be aware of what you are doing and saying, and your best intentions will fill in the gaps.

Accessibility is a key word in any discussion of disability. Clearly, wheelchair users should be able to get into and throughout buildings, and people who are blind or deaf should have access to appropriate assistance. But unfortunately, we tend to understand accessibility as a one-way street. Bringing them to us, bringing the outsider in, offering access to the American dream.
But offering access is about more than just invited the outisider in. A person coming from a different persepctive can bring a completely different way of approaching problems. When we talk about disability and access, we must talk about accessibility that goes in both directions. Inviting everyone to participate means recognize that people with disabilities have much to teach the rest of the world. Accessibility is not just about being nice and hospitable, it is about being in complex relationship and learning from one another. Their "different" experiences, our different experiences are filled with lessons for everyone.

Before we close our time together, I want to say briefly that this is not the sermon that I had intended to preach today. You may have noticed that the description is somewhat different from the content of this sermon.
That’s because I came to realize what we need isn’t a lecture on the postmodern deconstruction of science. What we needed, what I needed and I think you needed as well, was the life affirming message of Unitarian Universalism. That is, that you are not alone in your joy, and you are not alone in your pain. We stand with one another and there is indisputable power in the relationships that we build. And you and I both needed to hear that these bodies that we carry around, no matter how flawed or imperfect, they are what we have to work with. They are our tool for living in this world. They are beautiful. And it’s high time that we celebrated them, rather than moping about their differences.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sermon - "The Problem of Evil"

The Problem of Evil
People have been wondering about the problem of evil since they have been wondering about anything. As Alexander’s mother explained to him, we all have terrible no-good very bad days. Even people in Australia do. But why, why do bad things happen to good people? This is a core challenge of religious of philosophical life. Why do bad things happen, and how can we transform the bad into good. For the month of February we will be talking about evil here at UUFLB. It’s a heavy topic. In fact the Intergenerational reading set up evil to be a more lighthearted concept than it really should be. The challenges that Alexander faced were frustrating and real for a young boy. But as we talk about evil, I hope we have the courage to hold more significant issues up to the light, at least for this month. We are talking about bigotry, starvation, needless degradation of the environment, genocide and the like.

Often when we approach the problem of evil, whether on a grand scale or a personal one, we want to move toward quick answers, but that is a mistake. We have all heard someone offer a quick off the cuff answer to a personal tragedy. Saying God needed that person in heaven, or this suffering will make him or her a stronger person. I always cringe at those moments. Although they are well intennded, those quick answers can be terribly insensitive. When we rush to a quick and easy answer, it’s usually not a good one.
All of March we will talk about redemption, that is how we return to the good. But for this month, I want to challenge us to sit with the very difficult topic of evil. It’s something that humanity has wondered about forever, so I figure we can give it a month here in our worship services.
The classical question of Evil that we hear about in our culture even has a specific name. It is called “Theodicy”. That is the question of evil in a monotheistic context. If God is good and all-powerful, then how can evil exist in the world. It’s a sort of theological algebra problem. With an all-powerful all-good God on one side, and the existence of evil on the other side. It doesn’t match up, so something has to give.

For the most part, the challenge of the problem of evil revolves around the goodness or power of God, which for many of us here is a very solid belief. But not all of us are so solid on a belief in God, especially the omniscient and omnipotent God involved in the problem of evil.
But that doesn’t let us off the hook. While UUs have a diverse theology, we do hold a few key concepts in common. One is that creation is inherently good. The world that we live in is a wonderful place. And the other is life in inherently good and worth living deeply. With or without some idea of an omnipotent God, we still have to face up to the fact that sometimes life is painful and hard. Sometimes things happen that seem categorically wrong. Call it evil or something else, but some very bad things happen in this good world, in our good lives. So what gives? How do we answer this problem of evil? Why do bad things happen to good people?

I want to take you on a quick tour of the problem of evil with some of the answers that different people have come up with. Each one of these answers could be a book with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. It’s likely the one of these will appeal to you and your sense of what is right and fair. Try to hang on to that because I’d love to hear what rings true for you. And remember, this is just a surface level sampling of some of the different answers.

One of the most common classical answers, and one that we hear often today is the idea that difficult experiences are a sort of training ground. Through our suffering difficulties, we can become better people, or our soul can be purified in a way. Those who have a strong sense of God being the creator of all things, understand these challenges to be put in place by God for our benefit and growth. But even without a sense of God, we can see our challenges as opportunities for learning. We all know the saying “That which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Whether it is said as a quick pithy comment, or as a part of theological treatise, it is probably the most standard answer to the problem of evil in our culture. What appears to be evil actually is an opportunity for growth and deepening; our task is to figure out how to learn from it.

Another major concept of evil rooted in Christian theology is evil as original sin. The Biblical moment of this, of course is the moment in the garden of Eden when Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. Subsequently all of humanity was born into a sinful nature. Evil is just a part of who we are. It’s pretty harsh theology.
But there are modern variations as well. How about the idea that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or simply the idea that humans have a certain amount of greed within them, and sometimes that greed wins out over the goodness. With nearly seven billion people in the world, the greed that rests in their hearts accounts for a pretty fat chunk of evil. Maybe evil is something that we act on as humans. That’s the second answer to the problem of evil. It comes from us.

There’s another answer for the problem of evil that’s a little more complicated. But I find it pretty compelling, so I want to talk about it for a minute. It’s a view that comes out of process theology. Although it’s mostly a Christian concept, it can fit in with many different views. The basic idea is that as the world continues in its process of creation, more and more goodness is made possible. Process theologians talk about harmony and diversity being the good or the goal of creation. So as we get more and more harmony and diversity created in the universe, we get more and more potential for evil created along with it.
It’s pretty easy to think of in terms of human development. As we grow in knowledge, technology empowers us to impart tremendous good on our world. But at the same time, that technology contains within it tremendous potential for evil. Much of it we see in environmental degradation and weapons production. So, as there is more good, there is more potential for bad. It’s like a physics equation. For you physics geeks out there, it’s like potential energy. As something is raised in the air, it’s potential energy increases. As the amount of good increases in the universe, so does the potential for evil. It’s all a balancing act this good and evil business.

So far we have heard from the major Christian answers to the problem, or at least my interpretation of them. But eastern religions also offer some helpful insight.

Buddhism deals heavily with the idea of suffering. Suffering is what everyone experiences throughout our lives, and the primary task of our religious life is to acknowledge and transcend that suffering. The cause of human suffering isn’t a universal force called evil, or some imbedded sinful human nature. The source of suffering is our misunderstanding of who we are as individuals. When we think of ourselves as isolated individual beings, we suffer. But when let our sense of self dissolve into a wider compassion, then we can transcend suffering. For Buddhists, there is no specific core source of evil. The confusion that we humans seem to be under is a source of suffering.

Similarly Hinduism doesn’t typically uphold a particular source of evil. But there they do have something we might learn from. As you probably know Hinduism celebrates an array of gods and goddesses. One of the most important of them is Shiva, the destroyer. Shiva is a major deity, definitely in the top five. And Shiva is especially helpful in our discussion of evil because he helps us to know that destruction and decay are also necessary parts of existence. What we often see as evil: death, decay, hatred, destruction, these are all a part of the universe and part of our human experience. Rather than rejecting these hard realities and calling them evil, many Hindus celebrate them in one of their most significant gods. Perhaps we should do what we can to learn from them.

Finally I want to mention an atheist perspective on the problem of evil. They would probably say evil does not exist as a force within the universe or a force within human hearts. Rather good things and bad things happen in the world. We humans are capable of doing tremendously good things and tremendously bad things. Our only response to the “evil” in the world is to improve ourselves and to make life better for each other as we can. Further, the use of the world evil can be distracting. Saying “the devil made me do it” chips away at our responsibility for our own actions.

So there you have it, a long list of how some people have answered the question of evil. It’s a learning opportunity, it rests in human failings, it’s the flip side of creation, it’s a necessary part of creation… Hopefully some of what you have heard up to this point makes some sense. But this still doesn’t tell us how we as Unitarian Universalists answer the age-old question. I can’t say that today I have a perfectly concise UU explanation. I can’t give you a concise Unitarian Universalist answer, but there are some important pieces of it that I am fairly certain of.

It may be easier to start with what evil is not. First, Evil is not a punishment. It is not a cosmic punishment like lightning bolts shot down from on high. To suggest that bad things happen to bad people ignores the incomprehensible suffering endured by innocent people every day. To suggest that people have somehow earned the hardships that they endure, especially in the case of children makes no sense. Blaming the victim will not do as an explanation.

Evil is not a punishment from on high, and it is not a cosmic obstacle course. It is true that we can learn from our challenges, and that we make what we can out of the lives we are given. However, assuming that God put those tremendous stumbling blocks in place to teach a lesson just doesn’t seem right. Sure, maybe in the case of minor challenges that we face. Even major illnesses could be seen as a teachable moment. But what about genocide and famine. Believing that those unspeakable things were created by a God to teach us a lesson is maniacal. Besides, who would want to worship a God who did create such pain and suffering. Evil is not a punishment from on high and it is not an obstacle course laid before us.

I also want to be clear that evil is not what some people are. Yes, there are evil actions, there are things that each of us occasionally do that are destructive or vengeful. In a variety of ways we make actions that are bad. We do evil acts, but we as people are not evil. No person is inherently evil. They may be sociopathic, they may do bad destructive things, but no person is inherently evil.

The last and most important thing I want to say about the way we deal with evil is that we have the power to resist it, and we should. This was the biggest point of Unitarianism’s beginning as a separate religious tradition. This is why at Harvard Divinity School in the early 1800s liberal religious thinkers began to call themselves Unitarians. While mainstream Christians preached that humans were inherently sinful and could be saved only through the grace of God, Unitarians knew that we were better than that.

Unitarians believed, and we believe today in the capacity for reason and moral development within each person. We are not depraved, we are not saints either. But, we have a choice. It’s a choice that we make every day over and over again. Each person, each one of us has the ability and the responsibility to confront evil in our lives. We have the power to stand up against systems of oppression. Even if our voice is small, we are called to stand with others who share our passion. We have a power and responsibility to stand up against evil in our world. And we struggle in a day-to-day basis to do the right thing. As I just said we are not depraved, but neither are we saints. You and I and everyone we know occasionally does things that we know are not the best. Whether it is motivated by fear, greed or lust, each one of us has to make choices in our own lives about how we will respond to temptations toward the bad. The bottom line is, we each have a choice in what we do.

One of the questions from the question box a couple of weeks ago was about the book of Job and what the Unitarian Universalist response was to that story. I hope the writer of that question is here. The remarkable thing about Job is that after the tremendous heaping piles of pain and suffering that he endured, he remained with the question, why me? He didn’t give up in the face of evil. He didn’t offer a quick and easy answer. And that’s what I’m asking of us for the month. That we sit with some discomfort and continue together to ask the question why? Maybe we will find an answer, maybe we won’t. But I do know that in the process we can encourage one another to resist evil where we see it.