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

On Doubt, Inherent Worth, and Interdependence… In the Face of Atrocity — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on August 3rd, 2008

Several years ago I was watching a news show about violence in Palestine. Specifically, the story was an interview with a young Palestinian woman who was arrested the year before by Israeli police, attempting to smuggle parts for a bomb through an Israeli checkpoint.

What pulled at my attention was how young she was, perhaps 19. She was already a mother of two young children. She was deeply passionate, with a light of fire in her eyes as she spoke to the interviewer.

When asked what she intended to do with the bomb she was smuggling, she brazenly admitted it was her hope at the time to sacrifice herself as a suicide bomber, and that she planned to try again now that she had been released from Israeli prison. She hoped to become a martyr for God. A month or so after the interview, I read a news article saying she had succeeded… she had detonated a bomb in a crowded marketplace, taking many people with her.

That young woman has been on my mind and my heart a lot these past few weeks. Through that interview, this young woman became a person to me, not a mere statistic.

In one day this week, three women killed themselves and many others in suicide bomb attacks in Iraq, many of them Islamic pilgrims. When I heard of these recent women, the face of the young Palestinian woman kept coming back to me… and prevented me from seeing these new attacks as just more statistics among the thousands who die in similar ways around the world every year.

What brings someone to the place where they can believe it is God’s will for them to commit such a horrible act? How does someone seemingly set aside their humanity in this way?

When I watched the young Palestinian woman in the interview, she did not seem inhuman. In fact, she seemed very vibrantly alive and passionate. She seemed like someone I might have liked to know. She seemed to care deeply about her people, about her family. She seemed to care deeply about justice, and though it seems odd she seemed to care deeply for her children.

Yet, a few short weeks after the interview, she walked into a marketplace and exploded a bomb strapped to her chest… an act that seems so inhuman it is hard to imagine.

I remember how my former Southern Baptist faith, and even how my military training taught me to deal with this seeming contradiction. My military training taught me to dehumanize people who commit such acts, the easier for them to become targets. My Southern Baptist upbringing taught me that such people were deluded by the devil and had become evil, less than human.

Those easy and clear answers were left behind when I became a Unitarian Universalist. Our principles of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the interdependent web of all existence do not allow us the easy answer of just describing someone else as inhuman or demonic. Though I hope and pray that we continue to evolve beyond it, any look at human history shows that violence and atrocity are deeply ingrained in humanity.

We see such atrocity in every culture, in every nation, and in every age. From the Mongols and Romans, through the Inquisition and the Conquistadors; from American Slavery through the genocide of the Native Americans; from Iraq under Saddam and in Iraq today; from Palestine to Bali, to Knoxville Tennessee, we see inhuman seeming acts committed by those who are themselves deeply, deeply human.

This seeming contradiction in what it means to be human has been on my mind this last few weeks, for many different reasons. When I was a Peacekeeper and an intelligence analyst in Bosnia in 1996, my team and I were given the mission to find a man named Radovan Karadzic. He was the former president of the Bosnian Serbs, and he was the architect of the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims and Croats. He coined the term “ethnic-cleansing”. He ordered the massacre at Srebrenica. One of my team’s missions was to find him, a mission we did not complete.

In my mind at the time, he was a monster. He was a less than human figure, a target, someone who was so different from what I viewed as normal that he might as well have been from another planet. Yet, as I learned more about him, I had to work hard to keep that inhuman image of him in my mind.

He was also an award-winning poet. I read some of his earlier poetry, and it was warm and moving. He was a medical doctor who had saved many lives. He was a devoted father and a dedicated civil servant. Yet, he committed genocide. He committed murder on a mass scale, justified by ethnic, religious, and cultural differences.

Radovan Karadzic has been on my mind, because just a few days ago he was finally arrested in Serbia. For these last 14 years he has not been hiding in some secret command bunker planning a resurgence of genocide and hatred… no, he has been traveling Serbia and Europe as a salesman and expert in herbal and alternative medicine, under a false name.

How do you reconcile that? How do you reconcile one of the greatest mass murders of the 20th century with the reality of a somewhat doddering old man selling St. Johns Wart and teaching classes in the dynamics of human energy fields?

Nothing he has done since in any way excuses the crimes Radovan Karadzic has committed, and I thank God that he will now answer for those crimes before the laws of humanity. But the image of him that I had built up over the years, of this scheming personification of evil that must be holed up in a bunker somewhere preparing to launch his hatred in another war… that image has been shattered by the reality of an alternative medicine salesman. How do we merge the reality of a bright and passionate young woman, who loved her family, becoming a suicide bomber?

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Also in the last few days, the FBI believes they have identified the individual who committed the horrific act of sending anthrax through the mail to media and government offices in 2001. Yet the individual they have identified was by all reports an emotionally disturbed but well liked scientist, who was most known for his passion for his work and his bright and happy demeanor. He was a leader in his church, and trusted so much by the military that he played an active role in analyzing evidence for the FBI’s case. When he learned he would be charged, he committed suicide.

How do we make sense of these seeming contradictions?

The challenge of the principles we claim as Unitarian Universalists lies not in seeing them at work within the mass of people who would never become a suicide bomber, never commit genocide, never bring a weapon into a church, never send anthrax through the mail. The test of Unitarian Universalism does not come in finding the inherent worth and dignity in such as Gandhi or King. The challenge of Unitarian Universalism comes in seeing the inherent worth and dignity in those who commit atrocity, and accepting our own interdependence with them.

The test of our faith and our principles lies in looking at the human face of atrocity, and accepting that these individuals share the same inherent worth and dignity we do, and that they are just as connected in the interdependent web of all existence as we are.

When, last Sunday, I learned that a man took a shotgun into the worship service of my hometown congregation, into a sanctuary I had attended worship in and even preached in, and killed and wounded several of our fellow Unitarian Universalists, my heart stopped beating, just for a moment. It was impossible to believe. Why would anyone do such a thing?

As we prayed for the victims, we learned that the motive for this act was a hate crime. Someone hated liberals and liberal faith so much that he was willing to commit an atrocity to make a statement. What kind of inhuman monster would do such a thing? I felt this anger rise within me, an outrage fueled not only by the nature of the atrocity, but also by my own fears.

But, he’s not… not an inhuman monster. Far from it. Neighbors of Jim David Adkisson say that he was a good neighbor, always willing to help. They say he was upset over not being able to find a job, but that he was often a happy person. He had been through a bad divorce, and he had been listening to conservative talk radio.

Understand this… I am not excusing what he did, and I am glad he was subdued by the congregants before he could do more harm. I pray for the children and adults who were present, and for the families of those wounded and slain. I pray for the congregation, as they hold a special worship service this morning to re-dedicate their sanctuary to the worship life at the center of our liberal faith. I pray for our liberal faith, as we face the fears and anger and reality once again that we can be the target of such hatred. I pray for a world that abounds in such atrocity and hatred…

I am reminded of a story found in one of the lesser known Buddhist Sutras. Once when the Buddha came to a village, he was surprised to see that all of the houses were boarded up, that there was no one on the streets, and that the people in the village were living in fear. They were afraid of a serial killer who was living in the woods beyond their homes, named Anguilamala. He was a fearsome beast of a man, who believed that if he collected a thousand human fingers, he would have the power to rule the world.

The Buddha set out from the village into the woods to meet Anguilamala. The serial killer saw the Buddha walking along the path, and surprised that someone could be so brazen he went down to challenge the Buddha. When confronted, the Buddha said that he was not afraid to die, because he knew that he was connected to all things. The Buddha also said that he was Anguilamala’s friend, and far from fearing him, the Buddha would love him as a brother.

After hearing these teachings, and meeting someone who was willing to befriend him, Anguilamala threw down his sword, and became a student of the Buddha. The Buddha gave him a new name, cleaned him up, and brought him to the Jeta Grove were all of the students lived and studied. The man who had been Anguilamala became one of the wisest and gentlest of the Buddha’s students.

When years later the people of the village learned that the wise and gentle monk had once been the serial killer, they demanded that he be executed. They held a trial, and in that trial Anguilamala offered himself for execution, if it would calm the fears and sooth the anger of the villagers. His willingness to sacrifice himself, and the wisdom of the Buddha calmed the villagers, and Anguilamala spent the rest of his days as a monk, a teacher, and a servant of the village he had once terrorized.

I believe there are three lessons for us in this story from the life of the Buddha. The first is seen in the bravery of the Buddha, who came upon this village living in terror, and knew that he had to do something about it. The villagers had encouraged him to come inside the boarded up houses, to join them in their fear. Instead, the Buddha set out into the woods, to confront the serial killer.

This spirit was alive at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church last Sunday in the members of the church who risked their own lives to subdue the attacker. This spirit was alive that morning in the adults who shielded young children with their bodies. This spirit was alive that morning in the members of the Presbyterian Church next door sheltering children in their gym until their parents could come for them. This spirit was alive in those who called out a warning, and in those who stayed to minister to their friends and congregants. From amid this one horrific act came a flood of bravery, of defense of others, of compassion, and of community.

We see this spirit live among those who face and react to atrocity the world over, rarely remembered amidst the notoriety of the horrific act itself… yet this bravery and compassion is a more powerful aspect of what it means to be human. It is often in the reaction to the worst that we see the best of humanity. Human nature is complex, yet weighted toward the good.

The second lesson I see in this story from the life of the Buddha is the struggle to see the humanity in that which can seem inhuman. The humanity is there, yet we must be willing to see it. It would have been easy, considering the horror of his actions, to dismiss Anguilamala as something other than human. Anguilamala had come to see himself this way. Yet the Buddha knew he was interconnected with Anguilamala, and that Anguilamala was just as human, and had just as much inherent worth as the Buddha did. With his declaration of friendship, the Buddha changed the world that Anguilamala lived in.

I don’t know if I would have it within me to offer the same kind of friendship to Jim Adkisson, if I had been in that sanctuary in Knoxville Tennessee last week. But what I do have within me is to let go of the anger that I have been feeling towards him. I do have it within me to feel not only compassion for his victims, but also compassion for him, and hope that he will find healing from the anger, hatred, and pain that drove him to commit this act. I have it within me to see that, like me, like you, he is a flawed human being.

Perhaps in compassion for he who committed this act, I can also let go of some of the fear and anxiety that I feel. In that compassion I can insure that I do not contribute to the cycles of violence with which our society is plagued.

The third lesson is in the reaction of Anguilamala himself. He had built for himself a worldview, one in which he could become all-powerful by collecting a thousand human fingers. He had built up an image of himself as a ferocious beast, destroying everything in his path. He believed that everyone hated and feared him, and so he hated everyone. Because of that hatred, he believed he could do anything to anyone.

Yet within this worldview, there was a tiny little bit of doubt. There was a tiny spark of doubt that arose within when the Buddha walked up to him, unafraid. That spark of doubt kept his sword at his side instead of striking down the Buddha as it had so many others. That doubt caused him to listen, and that doubt caused him to break down into tears when the Buddha said the words “But I am your friend, Anguilamala”.

It is the mark of Fundamentalism, be it fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Atheism, fundamentalist Islam, fundamentalist Republicanism, or whatever kind of fundamentalism one might embrace… the mark of all fundamentalisms is that they do not allow for doubt. Doubt is a weakness to be overcome. Doubt is a threat.

The mark of a liberal faith is the importance of doubt. Doubt is what reminds us that we can never know the whole truth, and that all of the truths we cling to in life depend upon our own flawed and limited perceptions. As such, we have to be willing to change our beliefs when our perceptions change. Doubt is transformative, doubt is healing, doubt is salvific. One of our primary practices of faith as Unitarian Universalists is not just to allow for doubt in our lives, but to cherish our doubts… for they are all that save us from our own fundamentalist excesses.

If I have a prayer for Jim David Adkisson it is this… I pray that he turns towards his doubts, learns from them, and allows them to transform his life. I pray those doubts never allow him to commit any kind of fundamentalist or hate filled act again. I pray for his doubts to save him.

I believe that these three lessons from this story in the life of the Buddha call us to our mission in this world. We saw Unitarian Universalists in Knoxville Tennessee live this mission in the last week. We are called to stand within this world with bravery and hope. We are called to treat this world and those within it with compassion. We are called to cherish our doubts and allow them to save and transform us.

If we can do these things, then someday I believe we may actually help humanity overcome those aspects of our nature that call us to horror and atrocity.

So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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