Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Origin and Nature of Good and Evil — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on February 20th, 2011.


Reading    Excerpt from “What Torture’s Taught Me,” by Rev. Bill Schultz

Taken From “What Torture’s Taught me” by Rev. Bill Schulz
Former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association
Former Executive Director of Amnesty International

So who are the torturers? Are they madmen? Deviants? Hardened criminals? Sexual predators? Almost never. In fact, most police and military units weed out the psychological misfits from their midsts because they know such people have trouble taking orders. No, the horrible truth is that the vast majority of torturers are average Joes (occasionally, but rarely, average Janes)

And it is remarkably easy to turn Joe into what most of us would regard as a monster. You put him in a restricted environment like a police or military training camp under the command of a vaunted authority figure. You subject him to intense stress. (The Greek military police in the time of the Greek generals, for example, were renown for their brutality and they got that way because each of them was subjected during training to severe beatings, forced to go weeks without food, and not permitted to defecate for up to fifteen days at a time.) And then, having created an angry, bitter, but obedient servant, you provide the sanction, the means, the opportunity and the rationale for that servant to take his outrage out on a vulnerable but much despised population. “These are the people who are threatening our country.” “These are the people who are killing your comrades.”


Reading         “Genesis, Chapter 3,  King James Bible”       

  Genesis 3

 1Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

 2And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

 3But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

 4And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

 5For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

 6And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

 7And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

 8And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.

 9And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

 10And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

 11And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?         


Message     “The Origin and Nature of Good and Evil”      by Rev. David Pyle

It is amazing to me, the power of stories.

We human beings are shaped and molded

by the stories we tell one another…

by the stories we tell our children.

Some of those stories have been so foundational to our society

that we sometimes do not see

how deeply we are affected by them.

The story Jozef read for us this morning is one such story.


This sermon was originally written

because the Professor of the Sociology Department

at Northwestern University bought it

at the annual Church auction of the Evanston IL UU Church.

When Dr. Bill Irons asked me to preach a sermon

on the Origin and Nature of Good and Evil,

the utter audacity of that topic was awe inspiring.

Visions of a doctoral dissertation

in a 20 minute sermon danced in my head,

along with visions of which of those two words…

Good or Evil… the students of Professor Irons

might apply to him if he regularly hands out

assignments such as this.


In profound ways, the story that Jozef read

just a few minutes ago has shaped our world.

The story of a tree in the middle of a garden,

an order from God, a talking snake,

and two rather normal, curious people.

It is one of the most over-interpreted stories in human history.

Into this story has been read the belief

that human nature is inherently evil, not inherently good.

Into this story has been read the belief

that woman is inherently more sinful than man,

something my own experience denies.

Into this story has been read the belief that God is a being

who can walk in a garden, and hold conversations with humans.

Into this story has been read a belief

that sexuality is evil and sinful.


Into this story has been read the belief

that humankind is a failed experiment, and needs to be fixed.

Into this story has been read the belief

that Good and Evil existed before human kind,

that they are forces in the world which contend,

with us as the battlefield.


All of this, and more… in one short story

from over 3000 years ago.

Patriarchy, the repression of human sexuality,

the idea of original sin… all of this finds its roots

in this simple, incredible, unbelievable story,

and though we may have rejected the literal truth of the story,

we still live in a world created, in part, by it.


In this story there is a question that is not answered…

or even asked.  From where did Good and Evil come?

Who created them?

In the creation stories that precede this one,

at no point does the author say,

“And on the third day, God created both Good and Evil”.

Both Good and Evil simply exist,

an understood part of the universe.

In the preceding chapters of the book of Genesis,

God creates something, and then recognizes it as Good,

but Good already existed.  I

n this story, eating the apple did not create Good and Evil,

it simply gave humans the ability to see,

to understand, to recognize Good and Evil.


There is an attempt later in the bible

to give some account of the origin of Evil, at least.

It is in the books of Isaiah, Exodus, and Revelation

that we find vague references to a “War in Heaven”…

but even this war did not create evil…

it was a result of it and gave it a center…

an advocate and a home for Evil,

just as God and heaven were an advocate and a home for Good.


Much of the Bible can be understood

through this lens of a war between Good and Evil,

in which humanity is the battleground

for these two contending forces.

In one of the oldest stories in the Bible,

Job is clearly the battleground between Good and Evil,

which are given the names of God and Satan.

Though to me, everything that happens to Job is evil…

even when he gets everything back,

his land, his family, his herds, after all of that suffering.

How cruel and evil to be put through that,

at the whim of the Gods.


And yet, that is the image of the place and purpose of humanity

that is presented by many of these ancient biblical stories.


I am focusing on the stories of the Bible this morning because,

no matter what these stories mean to me,

no matter how true or untrue I think them to be,

I cannot deny that the culture and world we Americans live in

has been deeply shaped by these stories.

There are many stories out there

about how Good and Evil came to be that I like more…

but in western culture they are not our foundational stories.


It amazes me that, in the foundational story

of the Garden of Eden,

which has doubtlessly been rewritten time and again

from its first telling,

there is no mention of the origin and nature of Good and Evil.

From that absence comes, I believe,

the most profound implication of the story.


The story implies that Good, and Evil simply are…

there is nothing we can do about them but notice them.

Within this story I believe lies a call for a kind of social apathy,

a resignation that Good and Evil are forces beyond us,

that we have no control over, and that actually control us.

It is one of the most damaging ideas I have ever come across,

and yet it is foundational within our culture.


Our society has built into it the idea that Good and Evil

have existed since the dawn of time,

that they came into existence with the universe,

and that we are trapped between them.

Good and Evil each have their own champion, God and the Devil,

and they each have their own geographical location,

heaven and hell.

Like the ideologies of two opposing armies,

they meet in the middle to do battle.

In the middle is where we are.


Is it any wonder that the world

created by this view stands in constant chaos?

Is it a wonder that there has never been a time

in which war is not being fought somewhere by someone…

usually many somewheres by many someones?


The very understanding of our world

created by these foundational stories

is of a battlefield between two opposing forces.

We live in conflict because conflict is our understood reality.


Now, I can intellectually say that I believe these are just stories,

not told by God but told by a pre-modern tribal people

attempting to describe the reality they lived in.

Even if I don’t believe in the stories

I am still a product of the cultural understandings

produced by this world view.

Our world was created by this understanding,

one that is also found in many other cultural traditions

besides Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

If we are going to change this understanding of our world

as a battlefield between Good and Evil,

it will not be through science or rational argument,

but through stories, different stories…

for it is through stories that we humans

make meaning of our world.


My former Zen teacher, Joshin Roshi,

tells a story of how he came to find the origin of Good and Evil.

Let me first tell you a little about Joshin,

and why he was my teacher.

You can just tell on meeting him that,

in the late 1960’s and 1970’s,

he was deeply involved in protesting the war in Vietnam.

I can just imagine him, a young Buddhist monk,

a westerner, sitting lotus style at a protest,

with the police wondering just exactly what to do with him.

Smiling and sitting, offering no aggression,

he practiced his pacifism not only in his opposition to the war,

but in how he encountered police.


And yet, he is deeply moved by the experience of the soldier,

and has a depth of compassion in him that connects

with the direct experience of war.

For months after I met him,

I wondered where his compassion

and understanding for soldiers came from,

in someone who had never served in the military

and had been very active in opposing the war in Vietnam.


When I brought him to meet and discuss meditation

with some of my then fellow seminary students

at the Meadville Lombard Theological School,

he told us the story of finding the origin of Good and Evil,

although those are my words, not his.


Awhile ago he was part of a Buddhist meditation retreat

held in the camps in Auschwitz, Germany,

where millions had been executed in Hitler’s gas chambers.

The majority of those executed were Jews,

but many on the religious margins joined them,

including a few Unitarians.

For several days, these Buddhist monks and teachers

sat in the former death camp in silent Buddhist meditation.


Through those days of meditation,

Joshin said that he had a realization,

one the profoundly shook his soul.

He realized that, if the circumstances of his life had been different,

if he had been born in a different time and place,

with different experiences, ideals, and values,

he could have become one of the guards at that camp,

instead of a Buddhist teacher and pacifist sitting meditation in it.

He realized that he carried within him the ability

to commit such evil, as well as the good

he had chosen throughout his life.


In that meditation, he had encountered the origin

of both Good and Evil, within his own heart.


In our other reading this morning, Rev. Bill Schulz,

the former director of Amnesty International

and President of the Unitarian Universalist Association

tells of his experience meeting with people

who had committed acts of torture.

Did he find them to be sick, twisted monsters?

No.  They were in most cases average people,

who found within their own hearts the capacity

to do both Good and Evil,

and due to their circumstances and values

had chosen actions that we,

through our perception of our values and principles,

believe to have been evil.


Perception.  I fought with myself for many years

about what the difference between Good and Evil might be,

and in the end it has come down to perception.

I will admit that it frightens me that the inherent difference

between what is Good and what is Evil

is not some solid dividing line,

or a set of commandments from God,

but rather that most murky of diagnostic tools, human perception.

What values we hold and what judgments we make

determine what is Good and what is Evil…

so it really does matter what we believe.  It matters deeply.


The question Dr. Bill Irons asked me was

“What is the Origin and Nature of Good and Evil?”


The Origin of Good and Evil is the human heart.

The Nature of Good and Evil is human perception.


In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,

the board of the church I was serving in Galveston Island, Texas

“loaned” me to the American Red Cross for a few weeks

to serve as the night manager for one of the shelters

we set up on the Island.

Within hours of the levies breaking,

evacuees plucked from the waters

were being flown by helicopter to Galveston,

and brought to our shelter.

The clergy and the churches of the Island

came together to set up, staff, and fund the shelter.

Hundreds of volunteers came to work.

The local hospital set up, staffed,

and supplied a medical clinic at the shelter.

A local businessman donated flights of his helicopter

to bring families back together

that had been separated by the storm.

Local restaurants donated food for the shelter.

Local landlords made their apartments available

to evacuees without deposits or even first month’s rent.

It was an amazing series of acts of goodness

that welled up from within the hearts

of the people of the community.


And yet, almost two thousand people had died in the storm.

Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.

Many of the evacuees I met had lost everything,

and many of them did not have much to lose in the first place.

I sat with a woman who had just seen live camera footage

of her sister, still trapped on her roof, shown on CNN.


I sat with a man who had no idea where his children were…

they had been visiting family,

and now they were nowhere to be found.

We did find them, they were safe.

I prayed with a woman who could not understand

what she had done to make God so angry at her.

Why would a good God allow such evil to happen?


For many, the perception of the storm itself was evil,

for all the grief, destruction, and suffering that had come with it.

For many, the storm brought forth such a tide

of goodness, compassion, and charity

that it was a blessing to our community in Galveston,

because it brought us together and let us learn to care for others.

That storm broke our apathy, even if just for a little while.

It meant a lot when, just a few weeks later,

we were the evacuees, in the face of Hurricane Rita.


I remember another part of this story.

One night, perhaps three days after the levies broke,

the volunteers and many of our evacuees were sitting in the lobby

watching the video footage CNN was broadcasting,

footage of the waters in the 9th Ward,

of the chaos at the Convention Center,

and of people everywhere trapped on rooftops.

They were two distinct groups,

with the evacuees watching the footage in numbed horror,

gathered close around the television,

and the volunteers about twenty feet back,

sitting at the registration table, not knowing what to say or do.


Into that silence, among the volunteers, one woman,

who came from a rather conservative church on the island,

said “Well, its horrible, but what did New Orleans expect?

I mean, eventually God had to destroy it, didn’t he?

New Orleans was evil.”


What I thought had been silence before

was nothing compared to the aftermath of that comment.

I could see several of the evacuees turn towards us,

hurt, anger, and anguish in their eyes.

This woman had just said

that they deserved what they had gotten…

like Sodom and Gomorrah, another bible story.


As I was trying to think of how to deal with this

without yelling and screaming,

an older African American woman

from one of the Island’s full gospel churches said

“Well Lordy, I’m sure glad

I don’t have to believe in your kind of God.

The Jesus I know would love all of those people,

and would never punish anyone like this.

God is Good, and a storm is a storm.”


It was like a wash of peace, love, and goodness

swept through the room…

As I pulled the first woman aside and told her

it might be best if she went home, people began to smile.

Several of the evacuees came over and sat with the volunteers,

thanked the older black woman for what she had said,

and began to tell stories about the New Orleans they knew…

one of close knit but poor communities, of families, and of love.

Several of the volunteers got up and stood with the evacuees.


From that moment on,

there was no longer that kind of separation.

We were now just human beings, comforting one another.


All of that good, sparked by one of the most evil things

I have ever heard anyone say.


Why do I call that comment evil?

Because my perception, based upon my values says it is.

I realize that it is my perception

that makes what she said evil to me.

I’m sure her perception of my sending her home

might have been equally evil…

she said as much to me as she slammed the door.

I take responsibility for defining what she said as evil…

and that is the major difference between the view

of Good and Evil presented in the Garden of Eden story,

and what I am calling a Human Centered understanding

of Good and Evil.




I believe that the commitment to work for Justice in the world

is a part of our faith because we as Unitarian Universalists

hold to this kind of a Human Centered understanding

of the Origin and Nature of Good and Evil.

We understand that, if each of us carries within us

the capacity to do both Good and Evil,

then that has certain implications for our lives.

It means, as our first principle

of Inherent Worth and Dignity implies,

that the possibility of transformation exists for us all.

That even someone who has done evil can learn to do good.

And even someone who has done good has the capacity for evil.


It also means that the responsibility

for what good and what evil exists in this world lies with us…

There is not a devil we can blame evil upon,

and there is not a God who takes care

of making sure good occurs.

When our values, principles and ideals say to us

that something evil is occurring,

it is up to us to speak out about it…

it is up to us to work for its resolution.

When someone does something good in this world,

it is up to us to praise them, to hold up their example.


It also means that it matters what people believe…

because those beliefs and values determine

what they perceive to be good, and what they perceive to be evil.

It matters what people believe.

The fate of the world depends upon it.


And, as important as I believe it is

that we address the outward manifestations of Good and Evil

that exist in this world,

each of us must also continually look inward,

and see the complex nature of our own hearts and perceptions…

the true origin and nature of both Good and Evil.

If we are ever to banish warfare from humankind,

it must begin with banishing

the conflict that exists within our own hearts.

It will require us to forgive ourselves

for the parts of ourselves we might not like,

and learn to live in balance between our best and worst selves.


For it is from this idea of a continuing war

between these parts of ourselves,

between the Good and Evil within each of us,

that comes the motive for all war…

war in the heart, war in the home, war in the community,

and war between nations.


If we cannot depend upon a victory

of a Good God over an Evil Devil,

then we must find the balance of peace within ourselves…


So may it be, and blessed be.

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