Reflecting on Evil

Fountain of Peace, St John the Divine

By most counts I am a religion nerd. Not only is it a favorite topic of discussion, but if there is a church, temple, mosque, synagogue, shrine or ritual place of note in the area that allows visitors, I am there. So when I learned that the fourth largest Christian church in the world - the Cathedral of St. John the Divine - was in New York City, I of course had to go.

The cathedral itself was grand, Gothic, and a little too dark, but what I most remember is that just outside the building was a sign inviting visitors to stroll in the “Children's Peace Garden.” And in the center of the small garden, dominating the space, was a very large statue of the Archangel Michael, wings unfurled, sword drawn, standing over the prone and nearly decapitated body of Satan, his horned head hanging over the edge of the piece by a single bronze ligament. And I thought in horror, “Who in their right minds would put something this violent in a children's peace garden?

Reading the inscription, I understood. For the creators of this garden, peace comes when good annihilates evil. In their theology, there are good people and bad people. If you are a good person, then goodness is inherent and evil is external to you, and if you are a bad person, then evil is inherent in you. Actions are neither inherently good nor evil, people are. So killing an evil person is a good act because it reduces the amount of evil in the world. The ends justify the means. According to that theology, Michael decapitating Satan is the triumph of good over evil.

This is the same thinking, regardless of religion, that motivates religious wars and attacks. It's the thinking behind capital punishment. It's the thinking behind most murders, actually, like the many we’ve grieved this month including in Baton Rouge this morning. And if I am honest, it's the same thinking, on a smaller scale, that I revert to when someone has hurt me and my first reaction is to hurt them back. Verbally. When my desire is to say something so devastating that the person is overwhelmed and does not mess with me again.

In those moments, I have to stop and remember that from a Buddhist perspective, overcoming evil doesn't work that way. First, as the Heart Sutra says, “All phenomena in their own-being are empty.” No thing including us is inherently in and of itself anything. All things including us are conditional upon other things. (That whole interdependent web of existence.) Thus, people are neither inherently good nor evil. Whatever state we're in is the result of our conditions.

Now, emptiness doesn't mean that there is no good and evil. It's not “all relative” and “anything goes.” Rather, the focus is on actions, not people. Those actions that benefit beings are wholesome and can be considered good and those that cause harm to beings are unwholesome and can be considered evil.

The focus is on actions, or karma. In common usage, karma is often interchangeable with punishment. Sometimes, punishment and reward. In the original Sanskrit, however, the word “karma” literally means action. Simply put, karma is the consequences of our actions, all consequences of every action. We cannot take any action, good or bad, without it affecting both the wider world AND ourselves. From a Buddhist perspective, even an angel of God such as Michael cannot kill someone, even the Devil himself, without that act of violence tainting their own being, making them more inclined to violence in the future. Because of karma, the means are the ends. Thus, we cannot end evil through violence, because violence itself increases the evil in the world.

And unfortunately, that includes name-calling and insults. The only way to overcome evil is to meet it with good, to meet violence with compassion. SO MUCH easier said than done. But then I remember that the good news is, if every action we take affects our being, then when we do kind things - even if we don't feel particularly kind at the moment - it makes it easier for us to be kind in the future. Little by little, it makes us better people. We really can “fake it to make it.”

Earth-Based Ethics Or Pagan Morality in the 21st Century

Nearly all spiritual belief systems seek to provide their adherents with some sort of moral code, be it simple or complex, to guide their lives. The Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have shaped Western culture to the extent that their basic moral paradigm is accepted without analysis even by those who no longer embrace the theological worldview that birthed it.

The traditional Western worldview sees God as a transcendent deity who is the ultimate source and personification of "good" with "evil" conceived as opposition to God's will. God is sacred and divine because he is ultimately good and vice versa. Goodness is obedience to God's will; evil is disobedience. Building on this basic concept Western nations built more or less humane societies and millions have been inspired to noble acts of unselfishness and charity. Millions have also slaughtered their fellow human beings in the name of God/goodness. For there is a great pitfall in this dualistic worldview. If to do good is to do God's will and to oppose God's will evil, then in the complexity of human life it is far too easy to see one's self, or one's religion, country, or belief system as being "of God" which carries the automatic corollary that one's opponents must be evil and anti-God. And once you truly believe that, then anything becomes permissible. "If God be for us, who can stand against us?" Most of us are familiar with the sad history of war, violence and strife arising from this belief, from the religious persecutions of the Reformation to our current political leaders condemning of the "Axis of Evil."

Yet, it was not always this way. For most of human history, most people did not worship a single supreme deity, or see deity and the world as separate. The result was that goodness and the Gods were not identified. Typically, Pagan creation myths begin with something already existing - a great sea, great mountains, mud... - and the deities emerge from it. They remain a part of the world, the personification of natural forces, and continue in the seasonal cycles of creation and destruction, death and birth. These belief systems describe the world without judging it, accepting all that is as divine.

In the Pagan view, there is no transcendent Good or Evil. The natural world is sacred but is not divided along moral lines. However, Paganism is not amoral. Pagan morality arises from the belief that Divinity, the Spirit of Life, is immanent in the world, beside us, in us, all around us. When we look at nature we see that She values life and diversity and the balanced interplay of life and natural forces. We see ourselves as part of that variety and balance and feel oneness, love and completion as part of this divine whole. A sense of oneness with the divine world shapes our awareness of the consequences of our actions and provides a context in which to judge them. Acts which deny our connection to other beings do not lead to punishment but to natural consequences. If we treat people as objects rather than as expressions of the divine then the world we live in becomes less pleasant and we too become objects. If we treat the Earth as an object, heedlessly exploiting and polluting Her, we will also reap the natural consequences. For the Pagan, evil is failing to see all life as sacred, and failing to understand where the balance lies in our lives and in the life of the Earth.

While not offering an absolute moral standard, this belief system does provide a very effective guide for decision making. Every action and reaction reverberates in the universe, and we must seek, insofar as is possible, to always act to respect and promote the Life Force, or, as our UU principles put it, "to respect the great web of existence of which we are a part."


Morally wrong; immoral; wicked - a lack of concern or an outright defiant disregard for right conduct or its principles. Evil is a term we use to describe a person or act that is more than just bad or a wrongful deed. It prescribes a state of inherent badness or wrongdoing.

Evil is also a tool that is often used to set a diametrically opposed alignment of the hero and the villain, the saint and the sinner. Look at our president, "the axis of evil," "Bin Laden is evil," "Saddam Hussein is evil," as if by labeling things, people, and countries as "evil" is enough justification to annihilate them. But, what about Bin Laden's or Al Qaeda's claims that the western world or more explicitly the United States are "evil"? Evil is a tool to ostracize or alienate someone from there humanity, to make them less human, therefore easier to discredit and in extreme cases kill. So how does one become evil? Can someone be inherently evil?

As UUs, we focus on the inherent dignity and worth of each and every person, in other words, the inherent good of humanity. We sometimes refer to this as the divine spark within us all. It is the understanding of our first principle that compels us to do social justice work, to strive to right all the injustices or "evils" of the world. Although goodwill is behind these beliefs and actions, it is these same beliefs and lines of thought that can lead us to the same dichotomy of "good and evil" used by the "right," the conservatives, the Christian Coalition, the fundamentalists, our president.

Rarely do UUs consider the issue of inherent evil. Some would say that there is no possibility for inherent evil if you believe that all are inherently good. Some others would say that you cannot have inherent good without inherent evil - that one defines the other, sets the parameters of the other's space. To know good is to know evil.

One of the age old questions is "Did Hitler have inherent dignity and worth?" Some would say that he was "evil" and leave it at that. Others would show a form of intellectual compassion by suggesting that there was something about his upbringing or abnormal brain chemistry that lead the way to such atrocities of humanity. But rarely do I hear UUs questioning: "Is there some part of me that has the potential for such inhumane acts? Is there some part of me that is inherently evil?"

For us to truly do good things in this world, to better this world, we need to move beyond our intellectual compassion and gain compassion from our core being by asking these difficult questions of ourselves. We must find potential for evil within us all. Own it. Understand it, and consider the potential for evil within us all IS part of the human condition. Without this understanding, I feel that UUs will always have one remaining barrier to a true understanding of dignity and worth.

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