A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered online on February 22, 2015
Video didn’t work out as hoped for for this sermon. Sorry!
When I was preparing to visit Charleston, South Carolina a few months ago, I posted on facebook and asked what recommendations people had for places to visit or things to do there. Along with some fantastic restaurant suggestions, one of my colleagues recommended a popular plantation, but also said that she had found it “very disturbing.” Feeling like I had a pretty good handle on what she meant, my traveling companion and I made plans to go. In fact, on the same day, we visited two plantations: one right down the road from the other. The differences were profound, and I learned firsthand what my colleague found disturbing – it was not the history of slavery that was so disturbing, but the way that they talked about it in the present.
The other plantation, the one right down the road, passed through many generations of family ownership before being transferred to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1974. Today, the site is a National Historic Landmark operated by a preservation trust. The tour of the plantation house started in the basement, where the enslaved people worked. The guide constantly referred to “enslaved people” rather than slaves. This language humanizes those who were kept in slavery, and it suggests that someone was doing the enslaving.
On the tour, we learned about an enslaved woman who had been written about in one of the early owners diaries. The guide pointed out where she would have worked until the day she died. He didn’t whitewash the history – “the only freedom she experienced was in death” he told us. Throughout the rest of the tour, the guide talked about how the enslaved people would have worked in each room of the house – how they would have brought in furniture, set up tables, used the small, hidden stairway to bring food & chamberpots up and down. The enslaved people were present in each room.
Contrast that with the recommended plantation, which, though it is open as a public garden, is still owned and operated by descendants of the the original owners. The tour we took was to the slave cabins that are onsite – one cabin each from 5 different time periods. The guide was very friendly as she talked about the conditions the slaves worked in, and the unique task work system they operated under, and about how former slaves still lived worked on the plantation even after being set free from slavery. She talked about Mr. Johnny, who was born and raised on the plantation, and both he and his children still work there.
My companion and I felt odd. It was not that she was patronizing, and not that she was condescending – we got the feeling she really liked Mr. Johnny and his family who worked there. It was almost as if she were using Mr. Johnny’s story to prove that the white slave owners weren’t so bad after all. This approach is echoed on the plantation’s website, where it says that on this tour, visitors “will experience an engaging and interactive discussion of the dynamic issues that shape this delicate inquiry…This arc of history conveys the tumultuous times continuously challenging African-American families….” On their website and on the tour, there was little about who might have been responsible for the continuous challenges – as if it had been a spate of bad luck that African-American families fell under. There was no ownership of the history of oppression.
This, I realized, is why my colleague found this plantation disturbing. It was not the history of slavery that was so problematic, but the way they treat that history in the present. We had bumped right up against ongoing, systemic evil.
Now, I am not saying the guide was evil, or that the owners of this plantation are evil or that any individual associated with it is evil. Instead, I am talking about a systemic evil, which is also called group or institutional evil. And that is the theme of this sermon today. I am going to explain what it is in more depth, and then discuss ways that we, as individuals contribute to systemic evil, and then share ways that we can counter it.
In his book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil M. Scott Peck writes that “Evil..is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.” With this definition, either individuals or groups can commit evil acts.
I was first introduced to the concept of group, or systemic evil, by theologian Walter Wink when I was in seminary. In his book Powers that Be, Wink points out that “Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequence of huge systems over which no individual has full control.” Wink says that these systems of domination are “characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”
Let me take a minute to unpack that, because there is so much there. Wink is saying that where we see these characteristics, we see systemic evil at work. So when we see unjust economic relations, such as gap between CEOs and workers, where CEOs make over 300 times what the average worker makes, then we can point and say that systemic evil is present there.
When we hear about voter suppression laws, we know that oppressive political relations are at work, which indicates systemic evil is present.
When we look at how differently the police treat black men than they do white men, we see evidence of biased race relations and know that systemic evil is present.
When women are oppressed and told that they are a “lesser cut of meat” these are not only the words of one state congressman, they are a symptom of patriarchal gender relations – a sign that systemic evil is present.
And it goes on. Though Wink did not explicitly mention oppression based on sexual orientation or gender identity, we know that systemic evil is at work there, as well. Wherever there are systems of domination over which no single individual has control, we have systemic evil.
But even though one person may not have control over systemic evil, individuals obviously do contribute to it. We see this clearly in Hannah Arandt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem in which she introduces the the expression and concept “the banality of evil”. Otto Adolf Eichmann was a German Nazi SS lieutenant colonel and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. After the war, he was captured and brought to “Israel to stand trial on 15 criminal charges, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people. Found guilty on many of these charges, he was sentenced to death by hanging and executed on 31 May 1962.”
Reporting on the trial for the New Yorker, and then writing a book about it, Arandt suggested that Eichmann was neither “a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on cliché rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology. Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann’s actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional.” (wikipedia)
Both Arandt and Peck indicate that two factors allow systemic evil to take hold: selfishness and ignorance. This combination creates in us the narrow-mindedness that allows us to deny, to not see, our connection to others. For many of us, unless we are being directly effected by systemic evil at the moment, it is easier to focus on our own lives and on our own individual struggles to get by. We are like horses with blinders on so that the evils of the world around us do not distract us from plodding forward along the path. Meanwhile, we don’t see the oppression, death, and devastation that is happening just feet away. Those of us with the privilege of having such blinders are not outraged, because we are not paying attention.
If we take our blinders off, we are often immediately overwhelmed with the evil that is all around us and over which we feel powerless. And so we put our blinders back on, and we become inured to it. Evil becomes normalized. We accept, for years, the war on drugs that unjustly targets african americans even though blacks and whites use and sell drugs at the same rate. We accept that the media continues to use the wrong gender pronouns for transgender people, such as referring to the recent murder of a 22 year old transgender woman by her father as a “man who was charged with stabbing his 22-year-old son to death.” We participate in systemic evil if we have other options, yet continue to shop at Walmart, knowing that they make enormous profits and yet continue to pay their employees a pittance (even with the raises they announced last week). We do it when continue to buy pop music because it is catchy and easy to dance to, even though it tells women “you know you want it” indicating that consent is really just about “blurred lines”. Or when we go about our limitless consumption mindlessly ignoring the damage we are doing to our planet. These are all ways in which we participate, daily, in systemic evil. And there are so many more.
I hope you are squirming a bit right now. You probably should be. I know I am! As Peck points out, whenever
“it becomes possible and easy for the individual to pass the moral buck to some other part of the group [evil occurs]. In this way, not only does the individual forsake [their] conscience but the conscience of the group as a whole can become so fragmented and diluted as to be nonexistent…The plain fact of the matter is that any group will remain … evil until such time as each and every individual holds himself or herself directly responsible for the behavior of the whole group.”
And therein lies our salvation: holding ourselves directly responsible for the behavior of the whole group. But that is easier said than done. How can we hold ourselves accountable for this systemic evil that is so much bigger than any us? By holding ourselves accountable, I don’t mean that we have to take the total blame for it. I mean recognizing ways we perpetuate the systemic evil, and seeking to stop doing so when we can. I mean taking off the blinders, allowing our hearts to break and our spirits to become outraged. For example, the plantation that talked about the enslaved people took ownership and held itself accountable to the history of slavery it perpetuated. The one that considered it a “delicate inquiry” did not.
I want to offer three concrete ways that we can, as individuals, seek to neutralize evil and hold ourselves accountable. The first is by educating ourselves. Peck says that “The task of preventing group evil – including war itself – is clearly the task of eradicating or, at least, significantly diminishing [intellectual] laziness and narcissism…The effort to prevent group evil…must therefore be directed at the individual. It is, of course, a process of education.”
This might look like educating ourselves about the history of discrimination and oppression perpetrated by our justice system upon people of color so that when an incident of police brutality against a person of color occurs, we are able to understand the event in the larger context. It might look like educating ourselves as to the different Muslim sects so that we are able to affirm a peaceful people while at the same time condemning fundamentalists of all types. Educating ourselves so that we might prevent or eradicate systemic evil might look like learning about the complexities of gender identity so that we we can write to educate the KY state senator who sponsored the infamous bathroom bully bill, who clearly does not understand such complexities himself.
But while we engage in education, we do not want to emulate those who seek to oppress or continue the systemic evil; we don’t want to contribute to the evil – no eye for an eye. Wink tells us that “Evil can be opposed without being mirrored. Oppressors can be resisted without being emulated. Enemies can be neutralized without being destroyed.” This leads to the second way we can address systemic evil in our lives: to engage our sense of wonder and curiosity. Wink points out that “Provoking a sense of wonder…tends to defuse hostility. It seems to be nearly impossible for the human psyche to be in a state of wonder and a state of cruelty at the same time.” We can ask questions – of ourselves, and of those around us. We can ask the Texas Attorney General who is seeking to overturn Friday’s first, and only, same-sex marriage in Texas, how he might feel if one of the women involved were his sister, or his daughter. We can write a quick email to a columnist who refers to a trans person with the wrong pronoun educating them on the issue. We can wonder aloud to our legislators what will happen to our children, or our grandparents, if food stamps, or social security benefits are cut, or if bus service to the poor part of town is reduced. And even if we cannot change it, we can pay attention and wonder about the ways that we benefit from unearned privilege, either from our race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic class, education level, or more. In these ways, we are able to take responsibility for our participation in systemic evil and decrease our unintentional participation.
Of course, we can’t spend every waking minute engaged in this pursuit, and there is a lot of systemic evil around us. So the final, but most important step, is to more frequently take off our blinders and pay attention. Allow ourselves to see things for the way they are. When we do, I believe our empathy cannot help but be engaged, and when our empathy is engaged, we will act in ways that affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of individuals as well as honoring our place in the interdependent web. Such a hope can be found in the story of Annelie Keil, as told by the Rev. Victoria Safford8, which I want to end with today. Safford shares:
A woman writes about her long ago life as a child in World War II. She was six years old, a German child in a Russian prison camp. She tried one day to steal food and was caught by a Russian officer. He grabbed her arm roughly, and then, she says, “looking into my frightened eyes, he recognized the longing and anxiety of his own little daughter who together with [the rest of his family] was killed near Leningrad by the Germans. He started to cry, and as he smiled at me through his tears, we joined hands. Two homeless people, without any words, decided to take care of each other, to be father and daughter. This lasted for nearly two years, the only time in my life that I ever had a father…I began to learn then that life in its fullest sense can exist only when the appropriate conditions for living are provided… life is an invitation, a challenge to take the next step into the darkness of uncertainty and creativity. A decision must be constantly made to make life possible,” a decision you make only partly for yourself and in large part for others. That, [Safford says] to me, is an interesting idea about how good exists in this world: as a series of tiny human decisions, sometimes premeditated, but sometimes seemingly spontaneous – these very small choices to make life possible. He grabbed her arm, then he took her hand.
Systemic evil can be found wherever there are systems of domination and oppression that seek to suppress life. We participate in them daily, we benefit from them. But there is a degree to which we can choose not to. We can choose to remove our blinders, be curious, and to educate ourselves. May we chose to promote life and liveliness, and whenever we realize it, wherever we can, cease our participation in systemic evil. May it be so. Blessed be.