On the Mystery of Evil

On the Mystery of Evil

by The Rev. Dr. Richard Tolliver Rick2251@aol.com

The Rev. Dr. Richard L. Tolliver preached the following sermon at St. Edmund's Episcopal Church, Chicago, Illinois on The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2001.

Romans 7:21-23

On Friday, September 14th, President Bush, four former presidents and thousands of other persons gathered at Washington's National Cathedral in a prayer service to pay tribute to the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center, The Pentagon and the air plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Three of the service participants used the word "evil" in their remarks. The Very Rev. Nathan Baxter, Dean of the Cathedral, stated: "Today we are mindful that much of the world lives with the kind of terror and fear that we Americans are experiencing following these evil and dastardly acts. We pray that our belief in God's justice and love will continue to sustain people of good will whatever their faith tradition and will save us from blind anger and hasty judgment." He also began a prayer with the following words: "God of Abraham, Mohammed and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are today a people of heavy and distraught hearts. The evil hand of hate and cowardly aggression which has devastated the innocent in many other lands has visited America this week and too many of her children are no more…"

President Bush stated: "Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history, but our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." Dr. Muzammi Siddiqi, Imam of the Islamic Society of North America, quoted the Koran. It states, "Those that lay the plots of evil, for them is a terrible penalty; and the plotting of such will not abide."

One might ask the question, in this particular instance, who is the perpetrator of evil? To help you ponder an answer to that question, I will quote answers given by four different sources. In the Friday, September 13 Internet edition, Chicago Tribune editorialist, Steve Chapman, made the following statement in an editorial, which he titled, "Why has America become a target?" He states: "Americans aren't yet sure who carried out the atrocities that shocked the nation and the world this week. What we do know is that there is no shortage of people with a motive. Plenty of our fellow human beings around the world despise us, our system of government, our economic order, and our way of life, and some of them have so much hatred that they are ready to kill and to die." A few paragraphs later, he states, "The 18th-Century English writer Samuel Johnson believed 'there are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.' More common, particularly outside the Western world, is the biblical notion that the love of money is the root of all evil-an adage that makes America's centers of commerce, such as the World Trade Center, look like pits of iniquity."

The same Internet edition of the Chicago Tribune, featured an article titled, "Sentiments short on tears in Some Nations: Many Suggest America paying for its Arrogance." The first paragraph states: "For many Americans, the global dominance of the nation's economy, military and culture are sources of patriotic pride. But for many around the world, those very achievements inspire hatred." In that article, Ana Paula Brasil, 28, a set-design student in the drama school in Rio de Janeiro, says, "The U.S. is to blame for this because they were never concerned about the anger they caused in other countries. They are responsible for deaths across the world and caused unwarranted pain in other countries economic policies. The terrorists chose the World Trade Center for the attack because it is the symbol of globalization and U.S. imperialism."

A press statement issued from the Black Radical Congress and widely circulated on the Internet, states: "The Black Radical Congress (BRC) strongly condemns the horrific terror attacks which occurred on September 11th, 2001. The brazen murder of countless thousands of civilians cannot be supported or condoned. It is without question that U.S. imperialism has brought genocidal levels of death and destruction to people around the world. Whether one looks at the situation in Iraq with the continual blockade and air bombardments, the situation in Palestine where the U.S. continues to give virtually uncritical support to the Israelis in their national oppression of the Palestinians, the economic blockade against Cuba which aims to undermine its economy and weaken its population, or any number of other places, one clearly see the callousness and evil intent with which US imperialism treats the lives and property of others, especially non-white peoples around the globe. Yet, even with a firm understanding of the causes of the desperation, fury, and hatred of US imperialism, turning to terrorism to fight global oppression and exploitation is not an acceptable strategy."

Yesterday's New York Times states that the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson set off a minor explosion of their own whey they asserted on television on Thursday that an angry God had allowed the terrorists to succeed in the deadly mission because the United States had become a nation of abortion, homosexuality, secular schools and courts, and the American Civil Liberties Union. What Rev. Falwell said on Thursday on "The 700 Club," while chatting with the program's host Mr. Robertson, was this: "What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve." Pat Robertson responded, "Jerry, that's my feeling. I think we've just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven't even begun to see what they can do to the major population." A few moments later Rev. Falwell said, "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"

Who is the perpetrator of evil in this particular situation? I leave that for you to ponder. Perhaps as we try to make sense of the fact of evil in our midst, the words of St. Paul might help us in our reflection. In Romans 7:21-23 he writes: "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and makes me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members." Paul is baring his very soul; and he is telling us of an experience which is of the very essence of the human situation. He knew what was right and wanted to do it; and yet, somehow, he never could. He knew what was wrong and the last thing he wanted was to do it; and yet, somehow, he did. He felt himself to be a split personality. It was as if two men were inside the one skin, pulling in different directions. This feeling of frustration, his ability to see what was good and his inability to do it haunted him.

Often we blame the devil to explain the evil, which we and other people perpetrate. You might ask the question: If God made the world and everything in it, then who made the devil? Did God make him, or has God accepted him and settled down to co-exist with him in the same universe? You can see what we are coming to, can't you, the immemorial problem of evil, or as I should prefer to call it, the mystery of evil.

Several years ago, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote a book titled, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Dr. Peck attempts to establish a psychology of evil. He does this by integrating the best insights from various disciplines of study. He offers some illumination to the question, which we are considering this morning. He states, "The problem of evil can hardly be separated from the problem of goodness, were there no goodness in the world, we would not even be considering the problem of evil.

"It is a strange thing. Dozens of times I have been asked by patients or acquaintances: 'Why is there evil in the world?' Yet no one has ever asked me in all these years: 'Why is there good in the world?' It is as if we automatically assume this is a naturally good world that has somehow been contaminated by evil. In terms of what we know of science, however, it is actually easier to explain evil. That things decay is quite explainable in accord with the natural law of physics. That life should evolve into more and more complex forms is not so easily understandable. That children generally lie and steal and cheat is routinely observable. The fact that sometimes they grow up to become truly honest adults is what seems more remarkable.

"Laziness is more the rule than diligence. If we seriously think about it, it probably makes more sense to assume this is a naturally evil world that has somehow been mysteriously 'contaminated' by goodness, rather than the other way around. The mystery of goodness is even greater than the mystery of evil." So says Dr. Peck.

I return to the question I originally posed, who is responsible for evil in this particular instance? In considering your answer, you must not be so preoccupied with this question that you become an unoccupied human being. There are some people, particularly in the younger years of their lives, who become so absorbed with these speculative questions that they are paralyzed for action. All they can do is sit and think. They are unprepared to plan a course of action until they know the answer to all their questions, so their intellectual activity produces an actual inactivity.

In the old days we used to see at railroad crossings a sign "Stop, Look and Listen." Good advice, and unwise was the person who failed to heed it. But also unwise was the individual who sat there all night! You have to come to some working answer to this question and, after all, that is the way with most of the ultimate questions in life. You may never come to the final meaning, but you have to settle down in some workable answer.

Sooner or later, however, you have to come to something more than a working answer. This is not the time for us to give the alternative answers to this problem and weigh them carefully against each other, but simply to state the Christian answer and make one or two comments, which may perhaps illuminate it. The question, you remember is this, in its childlike form. If God made the world, did he make the devil too? The Christian answer is yes, by all means he made the devil. The Christian says, yes, everything that exists, good and bad, exists because of Him and in Him, and without Him nothing would exist.

What this means to you, you see, is this, and I shall put it first in general terms. When something terrible happens, it is not necessarily something that God deliberately does; yet there is nothing terrible that happens that is entirely outside the orbit of God's control. For everything, good and bad, depends for its existence upon Him, and is ultimately derived from Him. And what is not outside the orbit of His control is not beyond the reach of His redeeming love!

Now, if you can take that in, you have something to stand on when the storms come. I realize that it is terribly abstract and general. I am going to put it now more concretely in a picture. In 1940 the Nazis bombed almost completely out of existence the beautiful 14th Century gothic cathedral in Coventry, England. Many people were shocked. To be sure, the Allies proceeded to do the same thing in retaliation shortly after, but at the time the conscience of the world was shocked by this. After the war there was a picture taken of what remained of the cathedral. There were the beautiful gothic walls, the apse and the crossing, still standing; nothing overhead by way of a roof, and under the picture was this caption: "These are the ruins." As many of you are aware, a new church has been built alongside the old, but the ruins remain, and it contains an altar of rubble, on which is inscribed the words, "Father, Forgive." Do you see what this means? Evil recognized for what it is, but nevertheless so completely within the orbit of God's control and care that somehow in the course of time even that dastardly thing can be redeemed and brought back into the realm of good.

Now, one last word, and again this I think may help some of you more than anything that I have said up to now. The story is told about a five-year-old boy whose father was a great surgeon. The boy was devoted to his father. He idolized him. One day one of those malicious people went to the little boy and said, "Do you know what your father does? He puts people to sleep, and then he cuts them up with knives, and takes some of their organs out, and sews them up again." And he went on and on, and the boy looked at him in utter, naïve amazement and said, "But that can't be true. There must be some other explanation. I know my daddy!"

It is worth remembering when life seems to knock you out when you are already down, and you wonder whether a God can be so thoughtless and cruel, and the voices around you seem to say to you, "Well, that's the kind of God he is, heartless, meaningless. That's the kind of thing He does. You can't expect anything else from Him." You can say to them, "That can't be true. There must be some other explanation. I know my Father."

Finally, as you ponder your answer to the question, who is responsible for evil in this particular situation, I conclude this sermon with the following quote taken from an editorial included in yesterday's New York Times, titled, "Beware Unintended Results." That editorial's final paragraph states: There is no way to reason with people who think they will go directly to heaven if they kill Americans. Nor is there a way to reason with the Rev. Jerry Falwell when he says, as he did, that American secularists have offended God and so 'helped this happen.' But here on earth, as President Kennedy suggested, we human beings are responsible-and must act to prevent evil."

Let us pray. Guide us, O God, as we try to make our way through these deep waters. Take away all pretense of intellectual prowess and spiritual pride, and help us to rest so completely on the things that are unshakable that we may deal creatively with the things that are incomprehensible. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Master. AMEN.


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