I am an optimist. I like to look for the good in people. This may be why a friend once shared with me some fortune cookie like wisdom, “Those who look at life through rose colored glasses tend to miss red flags.” A psychologist once told me something similar when he said, “Chris, you are the opposite of paranoid. When “they” are out to get you – you will be the last one to know.”
So this morning I am going to try preach against type. I am going to try to take off my rose colored glasses in order to speak about spirituality in those moments when we can no longer be in denial that “they” are out to get us. To use theological language I want to talk about evil and the text for today’s sermon is from the book of Romans, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
In the Harry Potter Books we are told about a class at the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry called the Defense Against the Dark Arts. In these classes students are taught how to use their magic wands for self-defense; how to cast defensive spells and counter jinxes and otherwise protect themselves against malevolent magic.
Severus Snape, one of the teachers for the course, explained to his students, “The Dark Arts are many, varied, ever-changing, and eternal… You are fighting that which is unfixed, mutating, indestructible.”
The Harry Potter books are set in a land of magic and make-believe. However, in real life there are times when all of us need to be on guard to protect ourselves from malevolent powers and toxic relationships. I have a friend who leads a Harry Potter camp at her church that includes a Defense Against the Dark Arts class to help young people learn to deal with bullying, mind-games and other forms of oppression.
The dark arts are a real thing that can enter into our personal relationships and our body politic. When right wing activist Steve Bannon was asked by a reporter if he had any qualms about his polarizing political tactics he replied, “Darkness is good…Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”
Bannon is simply being more honest that most political operatives. Since time began it has been a temptation felt by people of every political disposition to tap into the powers of darkness, to tap into the power of the ends justify any means.
Howard Thurman, who was an elder and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King once wrote that in the fight for equal rights it is very important not to look at life through rose colored glasses in, “We must not shrink from …the evilness of evil,” he said, “Over and over we must know that the real target of evil is not destruction of the body, the reduction to rubble of cities; the real target of evil is to corrupt the human spirit and to give the soul the contagion of inner disintegration. When this happens, there is nothing left, the very citadel of the human being is captured and laid waste. Therefore, the evil in the world around us must not be allowed to move from without to within.” In other words we must make sure we work diligently so external oppression never becomes internalized oppression.
The evil that does the most damage is the evil that targets our spirit. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood,” the apostle told us, “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
All of this is to say that each one of us can benefit from practicing our defenses against the dark arts, to find a spiritually grounded way to respond to abusive powers and personalities. Sometimes the abusive personality might be our partner and other times it might be our president or it may be someone else entirely.
In the Harry Potter world there is a counter spell for every spell. In our world we need protection from many forms of negativity that may not be supernatural but can be super painful and super destructive.
Many of the dark arts I am about to describe are mind games. They are the techniques that abusive people use to maintain control over their partners or their families or their employees or their neighbors or whoever. The techniques are related to many forms of oppression from racism, sexism, homophobia and other kinds of bias and bigotry. The list of dark arts I will provide today is not exhaustive. Indeed, one might think of this as a crash course, a Defense Against the Dark Arts 101 class.
These techniques are about addressing the spiritual dimension of the problem. Therefore if you ever feel physically threatened or physically unsafe remember safety first. Find a safe place first and then you will be in a better environment to contemplate the problems of the spirit.
As we listen to these techniques we may identify with the victims but it is also possible that we will see ways that we have also been victimizers. Human beings are capable of both, but for today due to limitations of time our focus is going to be on defense not offense.
Technique 1: Practitioners of the dark arts try to undermine our self-esteem. They try to make us feel like we are nobody. They use name-calling, verbal abuse, insults and intimidation to maintain control over us.
Technique 2: Practitioners of the dark arts try to undermine our self-confidence by making us doubt the evidence of our senses, distrust our own perceptions, minimize our legitimate concerns, belittle our feelings and intuitions, sabotage our own efforts to change the relationship or our circumstances.
Technique 3: Practitioners of the dark arts know that the best defense is an overwhelming offense so they blur the issues by blaming the victim, attacking the critic, changing the subject, creating distractions and redirecting attention away from their own behavior to someone or something else, anything that keeps anyone from shining a light on to their own actions.
Technique 4: Practitioners of the dark arts try to isolate us, make us feel like we are the only one with a problem, that no one shares our concerns, that no one agrees with us or supports us or loves us.
These are four techniques. There are many others. In the Harry Potter books the students of Hogwarts have to take the Defense Against the Dark Arts class every year, which seems to suggest that it is a continual learning process. We are never done. Defense against the dark arts takes a commitment to lifelong learning.
So here are a few defenses we can use against the dark arts. Rather than be prescriptive let me be descriptive. Let me share some things that have proven helpful in my own spiritual journey and in my own efforts to overcome evil with good.
Speaking for myself, coming to this church is a defense against the dark arts. Coming to church reminds me that there are others who share my concerns, a place where – at our best – we love each other, support each other and encourage each other, a place where I am not isolated or alone.
Many years ago, I was in a class called Build Your Own Theology where each of us were invited to write down on an index card our own personal definition of the word God. Since we are Unitarian Universalists you could opt out of the exercise but I decided to do it and I wrote, “Whenever two or more are gathered to love, support and encourage each other there is a power greater than ourselves that can renew, restore and sustain us. That’s my definition of God,” but it is also an excellent defense against the dark arts.
Another defense against the dark arts is prayer or meditation. This is because practitioners of the dark arts have a way of getting into our heads, dominating our thoughts and our imaginations. And we need to find way to clear our minds and open ourselves in order to experience greater freedom. And in such moments I often remember the prayer of Howard Thurman,
Open unto me, light for my darkness
Open unto me, courage for my fear
Open unto me, hope for my despair
Open unto me, strength for my weakness
And I might add
Open unto me, pride for times of humiliation. Open unto me clear vision when I want to wear rose-colored glasses. Open unto me dignity in the face of discrimination. Open unto me the self-respect that overcomes evil with good.
However, sometimes the most effective prayer is with our actions. If we are in an abusive situation we need to pray with our feet, get to a safe place and then we will be in a better position to pray and meditate, but once we are in a safe space, prayer and meditation can be a good thing, a way of bring inner resistance to outward oppression. Don’t let the bad come from the outside in, but let the good come from the inside out.
If spoken prayer doesn’t help us we can always try silent meditation. If you take a cup of water with dirt and debris at the bottom and you stir it up it will be dark and murky but if you let it be still and wait for all the sediment to slowly sink to the bottom then we can see clearness and clarity and light can shine through it. So it is with our minds and our spirits when we meditate.
Practitioners of the dark arts love to make us angry because they know that angry people are often not as effective as we would be otherwise. We can get so caught up in our own emotions that we start to make mistakes, to react instead of act. So meditation can help keep us grounded in that clarity and clearness that can be a very effective defense against the dark arts.
These are just some of the techniques we can use in our defense against the dark arts. I’m sure there are many, many more techniques we can use. This week I was in one of our church restrooms. If you know anything about our restrooms then you may know that the lights are on a timer that is connected to a motion detector. So I was in the restroom when suddenly everything went completely dark. I couldn’t see a thing. But I knew what to do. I waved my arms and that enacted the motion detector and the lights came on. And for a moment I felt like a wizard practicing defense against the dark arts – a very powerful wizard.
And so in conclusion let me say that I hope you leave church today feeling equally empowered to address the problems in your life. The prayer of Saint Francis tells us, “where there is darkness may we bring light,” and this describes to me the mission of our church. There are many different kinds of people in this church. Some of us look at life through rose colored glasses and some of us see red flags (and some of both are on the church board together.) Some of us are cynical to the point of paranoia and some of us are the opposite of paranoid. However, everyone of us can work together to build the kind of community that will our best defense against the dark arts.
(This sermon was preached by the Rev. Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 3, 2017.)