In the Unitarian Universalist Church we teach our kids to think for themselves. Of course, not everyone appreciates our denomination’s approach to religion. My friend Doris Wilson once told me the story of how her very young daughter asked a question in Sunday School. It was one of the big theological questions, “Is there a God?” or “Is there life after death?” and the girl’s teacher responded, “What do you think?” After class the little girl walked up to her mom and proclaimed with disgust, “What kind of church asks a 5 year old what they think?!”
She grew up to be a Catholic. So not everyone approves of our approach to religion. Another little girl might have found the question liberating, a chance to share her own ideas on the subject, however, this little girl wanted adult guidance not an invitation to self examination. For that reason, I say to parents, “Tell your kids what you think and then ask them what they think – because they are UU kids and they are going to think for themselves anyway.”
Of course, the UU church is not the only church to disappoint the young. I grew up in the Episcopal Church where we were taught to confess our sins. The liturgy guided us to say, “we have sinned in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”
This emphasis on confession is shared by many faith traditions. Many denominations practice confession and have issued apologies for their historic stances on slavery or colonialism or their complicity with sexual abuse or misconduct. Every summer, the season of denominational conferences, there are apologies issued by conferences for historical errors. Our denomination is no exception. This summer the UUA will hold its annual gathering in New England in the lead up to 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower and it will be an opportunity for an honest backward look at the treatment of Native American people in American history.
However, I remember that as a young person I was always disappointed by the confessional tone of church. I remember thinking something to the effect of, “What kind of church has 20/20 hindsight but not 20/20 foresight?” How come we only seem to be able to recognize evil after it has already happened? Why don’t we see evil coming? Why are we all about apology after the fact instead of prevention before the fact?
On some level, this is just a young person holding adults to impossibly high standards. We see through a glass darkly, none of us has 20/20 foresight. However, I do think we would be wise to give some thought to prevention, so that our apologies for the past can inform our actions for a better future.
In this congregation we love to sing the hymn, “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door.” For that reason I think we need the theological equivalent of canaries in a coalmine. In the old coalmines they kept canaries that would serve as a warning should dangerous odorless and colorless gasses fill the mine and kill the workers. Now if you think about it, the theological concept of evil is odorless. Evil is colorless. Evil is dangerous. So what warning system do we have in place to prevent disaster?
Now I know right now there is someone out there who wants to ask the questions, “What is evil?” or “What is your personal definition of evil?” And so I will answer those questions by saying, “What do you think?”
This morning I will not attempt to offer a definitive definition of evil instead I will work within the parameters established by Justice Potter Stewart who when asked to define pornography simply said, “I know it when I see it.”
Of course, evil may be more complicated because we don’t always know it when we see it. When I was serving as hospital chaplain 20 years ago I walked by evil everyday and I did not recognize it. Everyday, I walked by posters that offered the benign statement, “You have the right to remain pain free.” On one level this seemed like compassionate medical guidance until you understand who was paying for the posters and understand their motivations.
During that era pharmaceutical companies were marketing new forms of opiates that they claimed were less addictive and dangerous. The claims were misleading and false. For instance, last year more Americans died from opiate addiction than died in the entire Vietnam War. Now think about it. I am a chaplain studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry at a Quaker school with a peace tradition and everyday I am walking by the marketing campaign that will kill more people in a year than one of America’s most bloody wars and I don’t even see it.
When I was in junior high school teachers took classes on tours of the local cigarette factory. Did you know that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths. Smoking is responsible for 85% of those deaths. Over 150,000 people die from it each year. And the schools were taking kids on field trips to the cigarette factory. They would never do that now. No doubt many of the people involved in those decisions to offer those field trips have confessed their sins -20/20 hindsight.
When I was in junior high, tobacco executives would testify to Congress under oath that nicotine was not addictive. A parade of them would say the same thing over and over again, the corporate talking points – nicotine is not addictive. They were lying and we know they were lying because someone who worked for Brown and Williamson, the company my junior high school used to tour, leaked the documents so that the whole world would know they were lying.
Someone had the guts and the courage to say enough, enough, enough. Enough with the confession of sins of the past let’s take action for a better future. The pattern established by the tobacco companies has been slavishly followed by other corporations. Lie, lie, lie! We know this because of the people who have been brave enough to leak the documents so that we can see the pattern of deceit.
Many institutions have been funded by the money amassed from this practice of deceit – the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Tate Gallery, Cornell, Columbia, Tufts, George Washington Universities, many medical schools. Have you ever been to any of these places? Did you feel like you were in the presence of evil? I will confess that I have been to many of these places and I did not feel it.
The journalist Hannah Arrendt wrote about the banality of evil, how we can be around evil and not even notice it. She wrote, “In the Third Reich evil lost its distinctive characteristic by which most people had until then recognized it.” The Nazis redefined evil as a new civil norm. When she covered the trail of Nazi leader Adolph Eichmann she wrote, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that they….were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were…terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
A psychologist who interviewed Adolph Eichmann described him as a, “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” How scary is that! That one of the architects of genocide would come across as more normal than the mental health professional who interviewed him.
There are those who are trying to disrupt the normal so that we can open our eyes and see. Recently a group of activists staged a protest at the Guggenheim museum where they threw down over 400,000 prescriptions on people who came for a normal day at the museum. The protesters shouted, “400,000 dead. 400,000 dead. 400,000 dead.” Similarly activists have blocked traffic in cities across this country including this one to protest police brutality and affirm that Black Lives Matter.
Last year a teenager name Greta Thunberg was protesting inaction on climate change all by herself. This week many young people across the world joined her including students at the University of Tennessee and Maryville College who went on a Global Climate Strike to point out that the way we are living may seem normal, but it is not normal. These young people, these activists, are our canaries in the coal mine; warning us of danger; trying to save lives, trying to avert disaster chanting, “What do we want? Climate action! When do we want it? Now!”
Did you know that the bird population of the US and Canada has gone down by 3 billion in 50 years – a loss of 29% of North American songbirds? I am reminded of a confessional prayer I once heard next door at 2nd Presbyterian when I was visiting with one of our Sunday school classes, “God help us to see that our present lifestyle is unsustainable, help us to repent and change course.”
Hannah Arendt observed that Adolph Eichmann was not trying to be a villain. He was simply trying to advance in his career according the rules of his society and his times. “It was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals… That such …thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together …”—that is a sobering lesson.
In Al Gore’s movie about climate change The Inconvenient Truth he quotes the journalist Upton Sinclair who warns us, ““It is difficult to get ourselves to understand something, when our salary depends on us not understanding it.” Sometimes, when we do evil it is because it is our job. Sometimes when we do evil it is because it’s the normal thing to do.
And so when we look back on our lives in retrospect it is appropriate that we might be moved to say that we have sinned in thought, word and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. Confession is good for the soul but we need more than confession. We need to transform this world through acts of love and justice in order to save the world.
All too often when people do evil it is because it is the normal thing to do. And this leads me back to why I want to be a part of a Unitarian Universalist Church, even if not everyone approves of us. I want to be part of a Unitarian Universalist Church because nobody thinks we are normal. There is no one out there in Knoxville who will say to you, “TVUUC that’s where the normal people go.”
We are the church that teaches our kids to think for themselves and we think for ourselves also. I believe it is our willingness to challenge the world’s ideas about what is normal that helps to make us the hope of the world. Confession is good for the soul, transformation is good for the world. The activist Malala Yousafzai once said, “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” Let’s be that voice!
(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. This sermon was delivered on Sunday, September 22, 2019)