as preached for the February 21, 2021 online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
The title of my sermon is “A Unitarian Universalist Response to Evil.” It is, of course, inspired by the distressing events of the last week. I suspect that my experience of them was a lot like many of yours. Does any of the following seem familiar?
On Monday morning at about 1:00 a.m. my power briefly flashed off. Northerner that I am, up until that moment it had not occurred to me that losing power was a serious possibility. In the places where I have spent most of my life the weather that we experienced over the last days would not have even merited a conversation. I mean, at some point on Monday morning someone might have said, “it snowed a little last night.” And maybe later in the week they might have remarked, “it is a little cold tonight.” But probably not.
Anyway, on Monday morning my power flashed off. It woke me up and with the demise of the power came the realization that I might quickly run out of water. I live on the fifth floor of a Montrose mid-rise. Electricity is required to get water into the sink. As soon as the power flashed back on, I found myself frantically scrambling to fill both of the bathtubs and whatever spare pots and jugs I could grab. Fifteen minutes later, the bathtubs half full, the power went down for good.
I read a bit. Calmed the kid and the cat. Camped out on the couch watching the swirls of weather. And eventually I fell back asleep anticipating that by the time I woke up the electricity would have returned. It did not. It did not come back until Wednesday evening. Except for one brief period, the water only started flowing again on Friday morning. It still is not drinkable. Nor is it hot. I had to boil several pots to bathe this morning.
Monday afternoon we went over to the house of two members of the congregation. They still had power and, at that point, clean water. The power went out there on Tuesday. Dinner was by candlelight without heat. Cards were played–I did not win. By Wednesday I was starting to have my doubts that power would be coming back anytime soon. My cellphone had also stopped sending and receiving texts, except for in short bursts or if I sat in the parking lot of the Museum District campus. Some people reported that the pipes in their homes had burst. I learned that we were on the cusp of a truly devasting disaster, one which might take out the power for weeks or even months. I found out that most of the skyscrapers had maintained power throughout and that Ted Cruz was on his way to Cancun for a family vacation.
Incidentally, Texas Monthly posted a response to the Senator’s junket titled “13 Curses to Mutter Against Ted Cruz While You Boil Snow to Drink.” It is well worth the read: “May you attempt to do the indoor tent thing only to remember that your tent requires you to create tension by driving stakes into the ground. May you weep while you try to push the tent stakes into the carpet.” Most of the rest are too scatological for the pulpit.
Wednesday night I was back in my place with power but no water–flushing the toilets from a bucket filled from the bathtub. I was one of the lucky ones. My only losses were a couple of workdays, a bit of sleep, and the entire contents of my freezer and refrigerator. Other people had severe damage to their homes and lost significant property. More than twenty-four people have died in the Houston area. The statewide toll is probably higher than fifty.
I want to pause here and remind you that the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston is ready to help those of our members and friends who need assistance. Our ministers’ discretionary fund exists precisely to provide aid in these sorts of situations. I have been in touch with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Their Disaster Relief Fund is available to offer assistance to those of you who need it. So, if you need immediate aid or if you need someone to talk to please do not hesitate to reach out.
Within everything I have described above, and within much of what many of you and I have undergone, we have all ingredients necessary for our “A Unitarian Universalist Response to Evil.” Evil, it is a harsh word. Evil, it is one I anticipate that many of you are uncomfortable with using. It bespeaks a neat division of the world into two categories: good and evil. It contains echoes of theologies that our tradition rejects: notions of original sin and inherent wickedness.
Here I turn to a source I often do when attempting to make my way through the most difficult of problems. The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote great deal on the subject of evil. She made the observation that the art of politics lies in the ability to make distinctions. The same might be said of theology. If we Unitarian Universalists are to develop a response to evil then we must have some understanding of what we mean when use the word.
A basic definition of evil can be found in the works of the Unitarian Universalist theologian Tony Pinn. Tony’s name might be familiar to some of you. He is a professor at Rice, a personal friend of mine, and a long-time friend of the congregation. Like Arendt, he has written a great deal on the subject of evil. He names it “[s]uffering and unmerited suffering.”
Within that definition, I think that there are three kinds of evil–two of which Unitarian Universalists are especially equipped to address and one of which we fundamentally reject. I want to start with the kind that we reject because our rejection of it is at the core of who we are as a religious community.
I speak of ontological evil. Ontology is a fancy theological word for the nature of being itself. It describes what you or I fundamentally are as human creatures. Ontological evil is the Trinitarian Christian belief that we are born in original sin. Augustine was the architect of much of Trinitarian Christianity. He claimed we are inherently wicked creatures who can only find goodness through complete surrender to, and the undeserved grace, of God. This is a claim we refute in the first principle of our religious association when we speak of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” No person, no being, is born fundamentally evil. None of us emerge into a world filled with starlight and wonder, cold air and ice crystals, warm water and almost infinite greenery, with the sole purpose of inflicting suffering upon others.
We do harm to each other. We inflict immense suffering on our human fellows. This is what we can call moral evil. In Tony’s words it is “oppression, injustice, inequality, and the resulting psychological and physical damage.” Moral evil is an active choice. In the world of politics, it comes through policy choices. Ibram X. Kendi has written on the difference between racist and antiracist policies. “A racist policy,” he tells us, “is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.” Policies, he helpfully explains, are “written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people.”
We can extend Kendi’s distinctions to evil and good policies. An evil policy is one which inflicts suffering on other human beings. A good one alleviates suffering or promotes human flourishing. Good policy empowers you or I or any of us to unleash our full human potential, to uncover the spark of the divine within, grow in our abilities or experience more of the good things in life. Evil policy does precisely the opposite.
After ontological and moral evil there is a third kind of evil to be named. I call it natural evil. Natural evil is things in that cause suffering which are beyond human control or influence. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, the existence of illness, the fact of death, the presence of natural evil is what has historically prompted many religious thinkers to wonder about the nature of the divine and the nature of humanity.
Augustine’s classic text “City of God” is perhaps the most influential such account. In it he queries, “can anyone deny that God is supremely good?” His rhetorical question comes after a list of the deity’s supposed attributes. Chief amongst these is an unchanging and incorruptible nature. Augustine greatly feared death. Death for him was the ultimate natural evil. Death came from the beautiful truth that our bodies, our minds, change and shift as we grow and age. Rather than seeing the mutable as a source of aesthetic joy, he believed that it was the source of suffering, the root of natural evil. “Thus we say,” he wrote, “there is only one unchanging Good; and that is the one, true, and blessed God.”
This claim that God is the unshifting Good led Augustine, and those who followed him, to conflate ontological and natural evil. Since humans mature and experience pain, since we change across time, we must be evil, he reasoned. Natural evil is what “God in his just judgement and mercy” has visited upon us, he believed.
We Unitarian Universalists, I have already pointed out, reject such a conflation of ontological and natural evil. The universe arguably exists because it is mutable, not immutable. The Big Bang was not an unchanging moment. The birth of matter and energy required the refutation of the static of nonbeing, nothingness, or an eternal steady state. The changing cosmos, the slow then swift then slow again evolution of life on this planet, have all brought us to this point where we can celebrate beauty and name evil. No being that exists, exists solely as evil. And if there is a God, she is a God who celebrates, who rejoices in, who loves, who might even hold as the highest good, change.
With the rejection of ontological evil must come an inquiry into the nature of natural evil. So often what we perceive as natural evil is, in truth, a product of moral evil. It is the result of policy choices which inflict suffering upon individuals and groups.
The poet Audre Lorde names this dynamic in her poem “A Litany for Survival.” She wrote:
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
We were never meant to survive. Lorde was a Black lesbian and explicitly wrote from that perspective. It allowed her to name many moral evils. This act of naming evil was something she viewed as an essential task. “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson — that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, Black or not,” she said elsewhere. She called upon anyone who suffered from moral evil to define the moral evils they faced by breaking the silence that surrounded them. “What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” she asks.
Here we come to a purpose for our religious communion. The free pulpit, the free religious association, in which you and I come together to form a congregation, exists in part to name, to break the silence around, moral evil and, in doing so, transform silence into action. The “vocation of the church and of the minister,” claimed the Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams, is “to point to hidden realities of human suffering, and… to point to hidden realities that offer release and surcease.” He charged us to engage “in specifying, in identifying the principalities and powers and in launching an attack on them.”
We Unitarian Universalists congregate, in other words, to name moral evil and then attempt to do something about it. This purpose does not presuppose, somehow, that we are good, and others are evil. Rather it acknowledges that moral evil exists, it is a human creation, and it is within our human power to choose differently. It is true of our condition that we cannot escape inflicting suffering upon others. It is also true of our condition that we can pursue policies that will bring more or less evil into the world and which either are or are not in service of the great project of collective liberation.
The frozen winter dead in Texas, those of you without running water, with broken pipes, who are struggling to find potable water or food to eat, anyone, and I include myself in this category, who suffered through or are suffering through the recent winter storm or its aftereffects, needs to name the recent disaster as a moral evil if something like it is not to be repeated. Most mislabeled natural disasters are, in truth, not natural evils–the result of forces beyond human control–they are the consequence of evil policy. Evil policy can be overcome with good policy.
This is certainly the case of the recent storm. The deaths that resulted from it came from willful policy choices in pursuit of independence from federal oversight. Former Governor Rick Perry felt it necessary to opine, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” Given recent events I might rephrase Perry’s statement thus, “Texans would be willing to die by the dozens, suffer by the hundreds of thousands, and have millions go without clean water to keep the federal government out of their business.” That is quite explicitly an evil policy, it is a policy that causes unmerited suffering.
Much of Texas has its own energy grid. It is the only state in the nation with a grid that does not cross state lines. This means that the energy grid is not subject to federal regulation. This keeping “the federal government” out of the state’s business makes the state’s political leaders, particularly Perry, current Governor Greg Abbott, and the Republican dominated state legislature, uniquely responsible for the massive power outages, frozen pipes, lack of potable water, and deaths that Texans have experienced. As far back as 1989 federal energy officials have warned that the grid would fail in the event of a significant spell of below freezing weather. Yet, for decades state leaders–freed from the supposed bondage of regulation–have failed to weatherize the power facilities or tie the state grid to power grids beyond the boundaries of the Lone-Star state. It is notable that Beaumont, which is on the same grid as Louisiana, did not experience the kind of power outages that we have suffered here in Houston.
The moral evil wrought by former and current state leaders like Perry and Abbott did not end with their decisions to ignore longstanding warnings about the preparedness of the state’s grid for winter weather or their refusal place Texas on a grid with other parts of the country. They extended it by the decision to lie and continue to promote evil policies in the opposition to good ones. Perry claimed, “If wind and solar is where we’re headed” then further blackouts were inevitable. The good policy, he lied, was “natural gas, coal, and nuclear.” This despite the fact that much of the grid failure came from the controls from natural gas and other nonrenewable energy sources freezing.
Abbott, meanwhile, went on that leading source of disinformation, Fox News, and told another prince of lies, Sean Hannity, that our state’s emergency “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” Hannity, I must mention, spent months downplaying the deadliness of the coronavirus–a moral evil significant enough that scholars who study such things observed that people who watched his show were more likely to die from the virus than folks who got their information from elsewhere.
Creating a place to name these policies and actions as moral evils is one of the purposes for gathering in Unitarian Universalist communities. It is the central reason why you entrust your ministers with the free pulpit, so that we might seek out and name what is true and good, and what is evil and false.
In the past, I have spoken with you about the politics of the living and the politics of the dead and how these connect with beliefs in the resurrection of the living and the resurrection of the dead. I preach the resurrection of the living, the waking up to the beauty and complexity, the knowledge of the good and evil, that exists and our power, however limited, to either increase or decrease suffering. I reject the resurrection of the dead, the claim that the life and the reward that I should point myself towards will come in a realm beyond this one. There is no universal connection between those who tell us that we should orient ourselves to the resurrection of the dead and the pursuit of evil policy or the politics of the death. Do not hear me saying that, for in saying that I would be disavowing some of my own beloved mentors and friends who believe in the resurrection of the dead. But do hear in my words, my own understanding of how a belief in the resurrection of the living on my part encourages me name moral evil, to embrace the politics of the living, the politics which seek to encourage you, and me, and everyone known and unknown to us, to reach their fullest potential in this life–a recognition that at least as far as I know there is nowhere else but here.
With that recognition, I will continue to use this pulpit to name moral evil when I encounter it. And I will encourage you to do the same. And that encouragement comes with an understanding that none of us, and no policy, is perfectly good. I cannot be ontologically good, just as I cannot be ontologically evil. My being, and your being, will never be purely one or the other. But we can make choices to pursue evil–choices that increase the suffering of others–or to pursue good. We can name for each other when we participate in moral evil and when we extend the moral good.
Two closing codas as I move towards my conclusion. First, it is not a coincidence that three of the thinkers to which I have turned to articulate this response to moral evil are Black. Much of the moral evil in the world is closely tied to the structures and practices of white supremacy. There is a direct line to be traced between Perry’s rejection of federal regulation and the longstanding rejection by White Southern neo-Confederates of federal civil rights oversight. There are powerful resources within Black theological, philosophical, and political traditions for naming and responding to moral evil. Those traditions encourage me to name the ways in which I have benefitted from, and continue to benefit from, many of the evil policies propagated by men like Abbott and Perry. It is not providence that many of the communities hardest hit by the power outages were communities of color.
Second, while the power outages were a result of moral evil, the response that many people had to them can be seen as an example of moral good. There were hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people who took in those without power during the storm and shared what food and warmth they had. There are those who are now diligently laboring to provide water and food to those who are in need. There are those who in light of all that has happened will work as hard as they can to translate words into action and demand the morally evil policies that led to the recent disaster be overcome with good ones.
This is where we finally come down in a Unitarian Universalist response to evil. We are blessed with the power of language to name moral evil and moral good. We are blessed with the ability to translate language into action, to pursue the good rather than the evil. We are not promised that the world is ontologically good, that the good will triumph over evil, or that the purely good is even possible. In the end all we have is this: the knowledge that there is good and there is evil, that we can lessen suffering, or we can increase it, and that we have the power to choose moral good or moral evil.
May we remember that and, in doing so, may we as a religious community, as individuals, and residents in the state of Texas, choose wisely.
Amen and Blessed Be