Recently a Strafford neighbor emailed me a question: “When does mental illness, such as narcissism and all its horrible attributes become evil? When does mental illness excuse evil?” The questioner suggested that true evil may require that perpetrators know they are doing wrong. If someone (the questioner had a public office holder in mind) with mental illness does something horrific believing that there is nothing wrong with it, can we call it true evil?
This Sunday the lectionary gospel passage is Mark 6:14-29, the story of King Herod executing John the Baptist. It offers the opportunity to reflect on evil and mental illness, especially in rulers and leaders and government actions, but also in our individual lives.
The Bible is full of writings by people who were struggling through evil times or responding to evil actions. It offers a wide variety of portrayals and ways of thinking about and reacting to evil. We also have many recent voices of wisdom born of suffering through terrible oppression and genocide.
The amazingly good news is that while fear, rage, grief and paralyzing despair are natural stages of our response to evil, the spiritual teachings all show a path to positivity and empowerment and transformation. Perhaps the most important thing we can say to any question about evil is to keep moving on that path to a response that can overcome evil’s effects and change the world for the better.
We will read the wisdom of Psalm 37 that says in response to the wicked and their wrongdoing, “Do not fret—it leads only to evil.” We will hear Paul saying that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength,” meaning that the way of Christ-like love offers a higher power that can overcome and transform evil. (from I Corinthians 1)
We will hear Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” and a related beautiful and inspiring personal story by Maggie Hooker on using our “one wild and precious life” to serve the force of love and life and light in the world.
We will sing hymns from the struggles against evil in three different centuries: “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee” and “Once to Every Heart and Nation” and “God of Grace and God of Glory.”
Becky Bailey will be leading the choir and Nicole Johnson will join us as guest pianist, playing the Sarabande, Allemande and Courante from J.S. Bach’s French Suite no. 5 in G, BWV 816, as well as the Menuet from M. Ravel’s Sonatine.