Sermon from July 15, 2018

Do Not Fret—It Leads Only to Evil
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
July 15, 2018   Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 37; I Corinthians 1:25-28; Mark 6:14-29

Recently a Strafford neighbor emailed me a question: “When does mental illness, such as narcissism and all its horrible attributes become evil?  To take children away from their parents and lock them up in wire cages is, by my definition, evil. And I know what I am talking about since years ago I met evil, true evil.  It had a smiling face always while doing its depraved and disgusting deeds behind that facade.  And it was true evil because it was well aware of what it was doing and that it was wrong.  So when does mental illness excuse evil?”

Her questions lead to others.  How do we think about and respond to evil?  How do we endure times that seem dominated by forces of evil?  How can we make a difference when we are small and the evil massive?

The wisdom of our scriptural tradition finds evil in the world from the beginning, but Sam Arthur Meier, a professor of Hebrew Studies at Ohio State University, writes, “Evil is not an intrinsic feature of the physical world, for everywhere in the Hebrew Bible creation is seen as good and submissive to the will of God.”

“There is, however, one place where evil exasperates God: the human heart, that is a man or woman’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual center.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered from systemic evil in the Soviet Gulag slave labor camps.  He wrote, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties—but right through every human heart—and then through all human hearts…. And even with hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.  And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil.” (The Gulag Archipelago Vol 2 pp 615f)

This insight has practical implications.  It affirms the Taoist saying,

No peace in the world without peace in the nation,
No peace in the nation without peace in the town,
No peace in the town without peace in the home,
No peace in the home without peace in the heart.

Our heart, our intellectual, emotional and spiritual center, is where the struggle with evil needs to begin.  The struggle in our heart is the essential prerequisite to any hope for success against outer forces that perpetrate evil, as I will discuss more next Sunday.

John the Baptist led a mass movement with the slogan, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  John called people to pledge their heart’s allegiance to the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of Herod found it revolutionary and treasonous.  According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, “Herod feared that the great influence John had over the masses might…enable him to raise a rebellion…so he thought it best to put him to death.”

The Gospel tells a more elaborate story, but it is easy to see behind it the fear of losing power that Josephus describes.  John had condemned Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias.  Herod and Herodias both were threatened by John’s condemnation.  If the people turned against them and joined with Herod’s other enemies, they could lose everything.

Mark portrays the evil at work in the king and queen’s hearts in the final act in the political drama.  It takes place at a banquet Herod throws in his own honor.  We can picture drunkenness and seductive dancing and Herod is so moved that he offers the girl anything she wants up to half his kingdom.  Herodias seizes the opportunity to force Herod’s hand.  She demands John the Baptist’s head on a platter and demonstrates her ruthless power in a way that makes it likely no one else will dare to attack her.

The clinical diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder includes symptoms like a grandiose sense of self-importance, a fantasy of unlimited power, the demand for excessive admiration, a strong sense of entitlement, the exploitation of others to achieve his or her own ends, a lack of empathy and an arrogant, haughty attitude and behavior.

It is impossible to make an accurate diagnosis on the basis of a story, but certainly the attitudes and behaviors of Herod and Herodias align with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  So we return to the questions, when does mental illness, such as narcissism and all its horrible attributes become evil?  Does mental illness excuse evil?

Some mental illnesses cannot comprehend the difference between good and evil and disable any self-control over a person’s actions.  Some people are helpless victims of their own body chemistry and delusions, or past traumas and conditioning.

Perhaps this was true of Herod and Herodias.  Who can say?  So do we excuse them?  Or do we excuse the policy of separating children from their families at the border because it may have been ordered by people with mental illness?

We can get lost in such questions and their complex ethical considerations to the point of being paralyzed by them.  Fortunately our spiritual tradition offers an abundance of wisdom to help us find the sacred way through terrain that may confound us.

The first principle is Christ’s categorical commandment, “Do not judge.”  We are called to stay out of the whole business of assigning guilt to a person, even if we are dedicating our lives to opposing what they do.

The second principle is to love our neighbor as ourselves, including our enemies. The act of judging focuses us on blaming, shaming and punishing the guilty person, it is retributive justice, based on an eye for an eye.  Love is interested in restorative justice.  The nonviolent movements of Gandhi and the American Civil Rights Movement had suffered the worst kinds of evil, yet what they sought was not to judge and punish their oppressors but to change their hearts so that they would no longer act out of evil and could be transformed from enemies into friends.  South Africa followed the same wisdom in response to apartheid with its Truth and Reconciliation process.

The third principle is the one we heard in today’s psalm.  “Do not fret—it leads only to evil.”  If we get caught up in fretful modes of analyzing and judging and punishing evil, the little corner of evil in our own hearts gets stronger, for evil is contagious and feeds on agitation.  A whole society can become infected that way.

We need to be extremely careful in an evil time not to let ourselves get drawn into it.  We need to be more attentive than ever to the condition of our heart.  This is counter-intuitive.  Our tendency is to rush out and do something, or else to feel we are too small and insignificant and so do nothing, but the struggle to contain the evil in our own heart is the heroic first step in the struggle against evil at every other level, whether in our home or town or nation or world.  The inner work makes our outer work more effective, or even possible.

Father Zosima taught in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially seeing human evil, asking oneself: ‘Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?’ Always resolve to take it by humble love.  If you so resolve once and for all, you will be able to overcome the whole world.  A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it.”

So do not fret, do not be intimidated by the wrongdoers no matter how powerful they are or how much pain they can inflict.  Do not let them infect your heart.  Trust in the humble, self-giving love that is the greatest force in the universe.  Nurture that love in your heart because it can overcome all forms of evil.  

The Psalm says, “Be still before God and wait patiently.”  Practices like meditation and mindfulness that we do here on Thursday evenings in our Heartfulness Contemplative Circle are designed to still our hearts and free them from fretting.  It is natural to feel fear, anger, grief, depression, even paralyzing despair in the face of overwhelming evil, but if we keep turning to the Spirit and choosing the sacred way of love and seeking the light that shines in the darkness, then there is a natural progression through those negative emotions to a positive and empowered place.  Meditation and mindfulness promote that progression.  Gandhi said his greatest weapon against evil was silent prayer.

Suffering can be transformed into wisdom; endurance can be transformed into power.  The Spirit wants to lead us to become instruments of justice and peace, to counter evil and overcome it, and it requires this foolish and weak-seeming first step of turning within, of being still, of cultivating humble, all-overcoming love.

It may be that some people who do evil have no choice, they are slaves to mental illness beyond their cause or control.  But most of us can choose what to do with our heart.  We can choose which side of that line between good and evil we will stand on, we can choose to be still and look to the Spirit, we can choose to do whatever nurtures our light, we can choose to use our “one wild and precious life” to make a difference for the good.

Let us pray together in silence, letting go of thoughts and letting our deepest heart make its choice known to our listening minds…

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