Evil in Our Time

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is from The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11, by Richard J. Bernstein:

“This new fashionable popularity of the discourse of good and evil … represents an abuse of evil — a dangerous abuse. It is an abuse because, instead of inviting us to question and to think, this talk of evil is being used to stifle thinking. This is extremely dangerous in a complex and precarious world. The new discourse of good and evil lacks nuance, subtlety, and judicious discrimination. In the so-called ‘War on Terror,’ nuance and subtlety are (mis)taken as signs of wavering, weakness, and indecision. But if we think that politics requires judgment, artful diplomacy, and judicious discrimination, then this talk about absolute evil is profoundly anti-political. As Hannah Arendt noted, ‘The absolute … spells doom to everyone when it is introduced into the political realm.’”

The second reading is from A Pocketful of Rye, a murder mystery by Agatha Christie. In this passage, Miss Marple and a police inspector are discussing who might have committed a murder:

“[Inspector Neele] said, ‘Oh, there are other possibilities, other people who had a perfectly good motive.’

“‘Mr. Dubois, of course,’ said Mis Marple sharply. ‘And that young Mr. Wright. I do so agree with you, Inspector. Wherever there is a question of gain, one has to be very suspicious. The great thing to avoid is having in any way a trustful mind.’

“In spite of himself, Neele smiled. ‘Always think the worst, eh?’ he asked. It seemed a curious doctrine to be proceeding from this charming and fragile-looking old lady.

“‘Oh yes,’ said Miss Marple fervently. ‘I always believe the worst. What is so sad is that one is usually justified in doing so.’”

Sermon: “Evil in Our Time”

I’ve noticed something recently. In our society today, we like to talk about evil in the abstract. We like to say that racism and sexism and homophobia are evil. We like to say that the other political party is evil — or that all politics is evil. We say that violence is evil. We like talking about evil in the abstract.

But we’re less willing to talk about the specifics of evil. When we do talk about the specifics of evil, we choose a few small examples of a greater evil, and focus on that. So when we talk about the looming global ecological disaster, we talk about how people need to drive electric cars, but we don’t talk about how first world countries like the United States need to make major policy changes regarding both corporate and private energy use. Nor are we likely to talk about the other large major threats to earth’s life supporting systems, including toxication, the spread of invasive species, and land use change.

I understand why we tend to focus on a few small examples of evil, rather than seeing the big picture; I understand why we see the trees but not the forest. When we reduce evil to abstractions, or to small specific actions, we don’t have to give serious consideration to the political and social change necessary to put an end to racism. It’s a way of keeping evil from feeling overwhelming.

But when we reduce evil to an abstraction, we cause at least two problems. First, reducing evil to an abstraction tends to stop us from thinking any further about that evil. Second, by reducing evil to an abstraction, we ignore the individuality of human beings; to use the words of philosopher Richard J. Bernstein, we “transform [human beings] into creatures that are less than fully human.” We stop thinking, and we stop seeing individuals. I’ll give an example of what I mean.

Prior to coming here to First Parish, a significant part of my career was spent serving congregations that needed help cleaning up after sexual misconduct by a minister or other staff person. (Just so you know, I’ve served in ten different congregations, many of which were entirely healthy. Although I’m going to give you an example based on sexual misconduct by a minister, I’ve changed details and fictionalized the story so innocent people can remain totally anonymous.)

Once upon a time, there was a minister who had engaged in inappropriate behavior with someone who was barely 18 years old. I was hired to clean up the resultant mess. Because I’ve done a fair amount of work with teens, I was ready to demonize this particular minister, thinking to myself, “Legally this minister may be in the clear, but morally I’m going to call this person evil.” Because I thought of this minister as evil, I assumed anything they did was bad.

But then I found out that this minister had helped someone else in the congregation escape from a domestic violence situation. This required extended effort on the part of that minister, extending over a period of several years. This minister whom I had thought of as evil helped the domestic violence survivor to get out of the abusive relationships, find safe housing, extricate the children from the control of the abusive spouse, and settle down to a new life of safety. I was very suspicious of this story — surely this evil minister must have done something inappropriate with the person whom they had helped, or engaged in some other evil act. But it slowly became clear that in this case, the minister had done nothing wrong, and by extricating that person from domestic violence, that minister’s actions were wholly good.

This little story was a useful reminder to me: individual human beings are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. A person whom I had considered wholly evil was not, in fact, wholly evil; was, in fact, capable of amazing goodness. I had been in the wrong: when I called that person evil, I stopped myself from seeing the good they had done; I transformed that person into someone who was less than fully human. Mind you, I still kept my distance from that minister, feeling it was safer to do so, but at last I could see them as more than a caricature, I could see them as a complex individual.

We human beings are complex creatures. I would venture to say that no one is wholly evil — no, not even that politician that you’re thinking about right now. Even that politician whom you love to hate has redeeming qualities, though you may not be able to see them. We must always keep an open mind, and assume that every human being has the potential of doing good.

By the same token, I’d have to say that no one is wholly good. This is point the fictional character Miss Marple makes in the second reading this morning. Even someone who is essentially good can carry out evil actions. I don’t quite agree with Miss Marple when she says, “I always believe the worst. What is so sad is that one is usually justified in doing so.” Unlike Miss Marple, I don’t go around always believing the worst of everyone. But I do live my life in the awareness that everyone is capable both of evil and of goodness. Every human being has the potential of doing evil, but also of doing good.

If every human being is capable both of evil and capable of good, then you can see why we should not brand someone as wholly evil, or as wholly good for that matter. When we brand someone as wholly evil, that stops us from thinking about the evil that they caused. In that example of the minister that I just gave, when I branded that minister as wholly evil, I stopped thinking. When I started seeing them as a human being who was capable of both good and evil, I began to think more clearly, and I realized that there were external factors that led them into misconduct — external factors that were still at play, and that could lead to someone else engaging in misconduct. As I began to think more clearly, I was able to work with others to make that kind of behavior less likely in the future. It was only when I started thinking again that I was able to begin to work with others to try to prevent evil from happening again.

From a pragmatic standpoint, then, it’s foolish to brand someone as wholly evil; but it’s also morally wrong to brand someone as wholly evil. When we do that, we remove their individuality; we turn them into something less than human. We deny their individuality and deny their freedom, their capacity to make free choices in the way they act. The philosopher Richard J. Bernstein points out that this is the way totalitarianism works: he writes, “totalitarianism seeks to make all human beings superfluous — perpetrators and victims.” When we brand other people as evil, we are doing exactly what totalitarian regimes do: branding opponents as evil, denying human individuality, stopping everyone from thinking. Totalitarianism thrives when people stop thinking.

It is this tendency that troubles me about politics in the United States today. We brand our political opponents as being evil. Democrats say that Donald Trump is evil, and Kevin McCarthy is evil, and Marjorie Taylor Green is evil. Republicans say that Joe Biden is evil, and Nancy Pelosi is evil, and Barack Obama is evil. Even those who are independents — and here in Massachusetts, more people register as independent than either Republican or Democrat — even political independents play this game when they say all politicians are corrupt.

This kind of thing stops people from thinking. When Democrats brand Donald Trump as wholly evil, not only are they denying his essential humanity, but they have started walking down the road to totalitarianism. When Republicans say that Nancy Pelosi is evil, they are denying her essential humanity, and they too are starting to walk the road towards totalitarianism. When political independents claim that all politicians are corrupt, they are denying the essential humanity of all politicians, and — you guessed it — they have started walking the road towards totalitarianism.

Evil exists, but totalitarianism is not the solution for evil. Totalitarianism means that one person, or a small group of people, make all the decisions. But that one person, or that small group of people, can easily slip into doing evil themselves — and there will be no one to hold them accountable, to tell them to stop. This is what is happening in Russia right now: Russia has become a totalitarian state, so when Vladimir Putin decided to do evil by invading Ukraine, there was no one to stop him.

We can only stop evil through communal action, through cooperating with as many people as possible. This is the principle behind democracy: by cooperating widely, we minimize the chance of totalitarianism. But it’s hard to cooperate with other people when you brand half of the population as evil — as happens when Democrats brand Republicans as evil, and Republicans brand Democrats as evil, and Independents brand everyone else as evil, or at least corrupt. Calling other people evil is not serving us well. We don’t want to sound like Vladimir Putin.

There’s actually a religious point buried in all of this: Every single person has something of value in them. That something of value might be buried pretty deep, but it’s there. That’s what the Unitarian Universalist principles mean when they talk about the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” That’s what the Universalist minister and theologian Albert Zeigler meant when he said, “every person and what they do and how they do it is of ultimate concern, of infinite significance.” When you brand a person as evil, you deny their inherent worth and dignity, you say that person somehow lacks infinite significance. We can say that a person has done something evil; we can say that we no longer trust that person, and that we don’t want to have anything to do with them if we can help it. But that does not mean the person is evil; some of their actions were evil, yes; but the person is not evil.

There’s another religious point that goes along with this. When we recognize that each and every person is of infinite significance, we make a statement of great hope. Each person, each individual, has within them an infinite capacity for goodness; they may also have a capacity for evil, but evil is finite and good is infinite, so their capacity for evil can be overpowered by their capacity for goodness. Every person, even someone who has done something evil, can be redeemed. Remember the fictional minister I told you about: that minister did something horribly evil, but they also had within them the capacity for amazing goodness.

In the end, the collective human capacity for goodness will win out over the collective human capacity for evil. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Dr. King was actually paraphrasing a sermon from the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.” So said Theodore Parker a century and a half ago.

Today, we still have a long way to go before we overcome evil. I’m pretty sure we won’t overcome evil in my lifetime. I doubt we will overcome evil in the lifetime of anyone alive today. But I’m sure that the universe bends towards justice. Like Moses leading the ancient Israelites, or like Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, we know the Promised Land is somewhere ahead of us; we hope to catch a glimpse of it before we die; but we will not reach it ourselves. Yet we continue to strive towards justice.

We continue to hope. We continue to see the good in others whenever we can: so that we may cooperate as much as we are able; so that one day, justice may one day roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

People Are Basically Good

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


From Hosea Ballou’s “Treatise on Atonement,” 3rd. ed.

The origin of sin has, among Christians in general, been very easily accounted for; but in a way, I must confess, that never gave me any satisfaction, since I came to think for myself on subjects of this nature. A short chimerical story of the bard, Milton, has given perfect satisfaction to millions, representing the introduction of moral evil into the moral system which we occupy. The substance of the account is: Some time before the creation of man, the Almighty created multitudes of spiritual beings, called angels. Some of these creatures of God were much higher in dignity and authority than others, but all perfectly destitute of sin, or moral turpitude. One dignified above all the rest, stood Prime Minister of the Almighty, clothed with the highest missive power, and clad with garments of primeval light; obsequious to nothing but the high behest of his Creator, he discharged the functions of his office with promptitude and dignity, suited to the eminence of his station, and to the admiration of celestial millions. But when it pleased Jehovah to reveal the brightness of his glory and the image f the Godhead in humanity, he gave forth the command (see Psalm xcvii. 7), “Worship him, all ye gods.” And (Heb. i. 6) “and again, when he bringeth the first begotten into the world, he saith, and let all the angels of God worship him.” Lucifer, Son of the Morning (as Christians have called him), surprised at the idea of worshipping any being but God himself, looked on the Son with ineffable disdain, and in a moment grew indignant, brushed his strongest pinions, and waved his wings for the throne of God, challenged supremacy with the Almighty, and cast his eye to the sides of the north as a suitable place to establish his empire. Legions of spirits followed this chief in rebellion, and formed a dangerous party in the kingdom of the Almighty. The Son of God was invested with full power as Generalissimo of Heaven, to command the remaining forces, against the common enemy. And in short, after many grievous battles between armies of contending spirits, where life could not, in the least, be exposed, Lucifer and his party were driven out of Heaven, leaving it in peace, through in a great measure, depopulated!

God, having created the earth, and placed the first man and woman in a most happy situation of innocence and moral purity, without the smallest appetite for sin, or propensity to evil, the arch Apostate enviously looked from his fiery prison, to which he was consigned by a command of the Almighty, and beholding man placed in so happy a situation, and in a capacity to increase to infinite multitudes, by which the kingdom of Heaven would be enlarged, was determined to crop this tree in the bud. He, therefore, turns into a serpent, goes to the woman and beguiles her, gets her to eat of a fruit which god had forbidden, by which means he introduced sin into our system.

I have not been particular in this sketch, but it contains the essence of the common idea. I shall now put it under examination, looking diligently for the propriety of accounting for the origin of moral evil in this way….


One of the most basic propositions of Unitarian Universalism is the simple statement that people are basically good. We Unitarian Universalists know perfectly well that all of us human beings have our problems, and we know perfectly well that some human beings are worse than others. But we are firmly convinced that on the whole, and taken as an average, human beings are basically good.

This is a simple conviction to state: people are basically good. This simple conviction of ours comes out of a long history of theological reflection from both our Unitarian heritage and our Universalist heritage. Let me just briefly outline something of the history of our conviction that people are basically good.

From our Unitarian heritage, we inherit the concept that people have a certain freedom of choice; that we have some measure of free will that allows us to make moral choices. And with this concept of the freedom to make moral choices, we have also inherited the concept that, if we are given the option, we human beings tend to choose what is good over what is evil. As Unitarians, we feel that if given the option, human beings will make morally good choices.

From our Universalist heritage, we inherit the concept that all human beings will be redeemed in the end. Originally, this concept came from the Universalist understanding that God is essentially good, that God is so good that God will redeem each and every human being and allow each and every human being into heaven. Those old Universalists felt that ultimately it is God who is so good that God will redeem us human beings, but at the same time they were quite sure that every human being had enough goodness so as to be capable of being redeemed. As Universalists, we feel that all human beings have goodness as a part of our constitution.

Well, these old concepts have evolved and changed over the centuries. Today, as Unitarian Universalists, we might articulate these concepts somewhat differently. Today we would be more likely to speak of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” we would affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations,” and because we trust that people are basically good we would assert that everyone should participate in governance and would therefore affirm the “use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.”

That is the briefest outline of the history of our conviction that people are basically good. But of course this conviction leads to certain complications in practice. I suspect most of you would in general go along with this notion that people are basically good, yet I also suspect that each one of us here might wish to qualify this statement in various ways. We might wish to expand upon what we mean when we say that we are convinced that people are basically good. Let us therefore take some time to expand upon this simple statement.

(1) Let us begin with the notion that we can all be redeemed. This is a fine proposition to state in the abstract, but it is a challenging moral standard to live out. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

On Sunday, July 29, just four weeks ago today, James Adkisson of Powell, Tennessee, went into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, during their weekly worship service and he opened fire with a shotgun. The children of the church were about to begin a musical production in the worship service. Adkisson killed two people and wounded six others. He left a letter at his home that morning saying he hated the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church for its liberal views, and for its support for gays and lesbians. In addition, his ex-wife, who had a restraining order out against him because of his violence, was a former member of that church, so he apparently hated the church for that, too.

Now in this example, a self-professed hater of religious liberals enters a Unitarian Universalist church during a children’s play and kills and wounds eight people with a shotgun. If the members of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church believed in original sin or if they believed in hell, they’d give up on that guy. They would have said: that Adkisson is going to straight to hell. They would have siad: See how hard it is to escape from the bonds of original sin? Adkisson is damned for all eternity. But that’s not what the poeple of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church have said.

John Bohstedt, a member of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, took issue with some of the media coverage of the recent shootings at his church. Bohstedt, a retired history professor from the University of Tennessee, sent an email message to Michael Paulson, religion correspondent at the Boston Globe, giving his viewpoint about what really happened:

“An eyewitness who was protecting her children a few feet from the gunman said it was remarkable how everyone was doing exactly what they needed to do — subduing the gunman, calling 911, tending to the victims, and evacuating the sanctuary….

“The reason I am saying all this is — Media have done much to make us a fearful people — to emphasize the danger in the world. Real life is often NOT like that, and in this case — evil was overcome efficiently by LOVE.

“I have been studying the behavior of crowds for decades, in old documents and in our University of Tennessee football stadium, and more often than not there is METHOD in the ‘madness’ of crowds — the METHOD of our Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church is organized Love.”

So said a member of the church where this shooting took place.

We Unitarian Universalists do believe in the power of love. We may not all believe in God any more, but we are pretty sure that anyone can be redeemed — or more properly, we believe people can redeem themselves if they wish to. This is like the old Universalist belief that, while we surely don’t understand how it happens, God somehow manages to redeem even hate-filled destructive persons like the killer at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. We would say: James Adkisson is capable of redemption — with a lot of help, and acknowledging the very real possibility that we probably won’t want trust him in one of our Unitarian Universalist churches ever again.

Redemption remains mysterious to us. People whom we think are beyond redemption manage to redeem themselves; others who seem capable of redemption never manage to find redemption. But I’m pretty certain that redemption has to be something that we strive after actively. You can’t just wait passively for someone else to be redeemed, you can’t just wait passively for yourself to be redeemed. We have to encourage redemption in others, and when it is necessary we have to actively seek redemption for ourselves. The basic goodness of human beings is not a passive characteristic; it is an active process.

So you see, being convinced that people are basically good is not mere abstract belief:– this conviction forces us to seek after redemption for ourselves, and to encourage redemption in others.

(2) How else might we expand on the simple statement that people are basically good? One obvious way we do this is that we organize our church communities around our simple conviction that people are basically good. Thus our church communities are organized on the basis of trust: if people are basically good, we should be able to trust them, right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

Back on a Sunday morning in February of 2001, the New Bedford Standard-Times ran a front-page article that included allegations that a recently retired minister of this church had engaged in [quote] “inappropriate sexual behavior towards ten women in his former congregation.” Now mind you, these were allegations, and the Standard-Times also published a statement by the recently retired minister that the allegations were not true. And so in such a situation, it may become difficult to know whom to trust — are the allegations true or false? Whom do you believe? In such a situation, it would be easy to give up on trust altogether, give up trusting the church community at all.

Let me give you a less serious violation of trust, from my own experience. A couple of decades ago, someone from the Unitarian Universalist church I was then attending called me up and asked me to volunteer for something. I asked her about it, and then said that I did not wish to volunteer. Why not? she asked. I said because I felt the program concerned involved cultural misappropriation; at which point, she raised her voice and told me in no uncertain terms that I should reconsider. She came pretty close to yelling at me. Let me tell you, it is not pleasant to have a church leader raise their voice at you, and question your integrity. It took me a year before I wanted to volunteer for anything at that church again. I mean, why stick around a church when someone treats you like that?

It is much easier to just run away from the church and stop trusting that church community. In fact, now that I think about it, it would be much easier to just accept that people are basically evil. If I could just accept that people are basically evil, then I could stop trusting anyone except a small circle of people I have decided are trustworthy. Of course, if one of those people I have decided to trust then violates that trust, then I’d really be in the soup, wouldn’t I? I wouldn’t be sure if I could trust anyone at all.

We build our church communities on trust in part because the alternative is so grim: if we’re not willing to trust our church community, then we’re left with a pretty small circle of people whom we can trust. At the same time, we are realistic about trust. We have to be realistic. Yes, people may be basically good, but people are never perfect. Anyone can do bad things to someone else. We are also quite clear that some of us are less likely to do evil things than others. Jim Adkisson, the man who shot people at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, has proven that he is more likely to do evil things than me. When we base our communities on trust, realistically we have to understand that there are some people we just cannot accept into our church communities. Thus we would say that when it comes to James Adkisson — no, he cannot come into this church!

This means we also expect certain behavioral standards of each other. If someone violates those standards, we may have to call them on it. When that woman raised her voice at me, I wish I had had the courage to say: “Hey, stop yelling at me, that’s not acceptable!” And of course, calling someone else on their behavior is not always possible: if you’re being physically or emotionally abused by someone, I’m here to tell you that you need to get away from that person; don’t waste time calling them on their behavior, just get out. Yet generally speaking, we should expect the people around us to live up to certain behavioral standards; and it is up to each one of us, and up to us as a community, to gently maintain a high level of trust in our church community.

It’s up to us to maintain a high level of trust in our church. Trust requires forgiveness. I guarantee you, nearly everyone whom you trust will violate your trust in some way, large or small. We may trust our parents, but most of us can give some example of how our parents violated our trust in some way, whether large or small. The same is true of spouses, relatives, friends,– and all of us here at church. Now again, if you’re in an abusive situation, you need to know that forgiveness need not be face-to-face;– sometimes trust has been so violated that forgiveness has to take place at a distance. But the general point here is that in order to trust anyone again, we have to forgive those who trespass on our trust. In order to continue trusting, we must reach forgiveness in the honesty of our own hearts.

So you see, being convinced that people are basically good is not mere abstract belief:– this conviction requires us to trust one another, and it requires forgiveness; and boy is it difficult to trust and to forgive!

(3) How else might we expand on the simple statement that people are basically good? Let me give you one example of how we live out this conviction of ours here in our church.

Because we are convinced that people are basically good, we are convinced that when we’re born, we are not somehow stained with evil. That’s why we do child dedications, not baptisms. (Explain how this works.)

I don’t mean to imply that children are like little angels — they’re not. They need firm guidance from us adults, and they need firm boundaries re: acceptable behavior. The opposite of goodness in human beings is often not evil, but chaos and lack of social structure. We are social animals who live within social constructs that we must maintain.

Thus, living out our belief that people are basically good requires that we train up the next generation in how to act so that we can teach them how to be good instead of chaotic. This is why I want to be in a church that has children in it: because while I am convinced that people are basically good, I know too that I have a moral responsibility to help move humanity towards increased goodness through raising children; and that responsibility is yours whether or not you have children of your own, whether or not.

Again we see that being convinced that people are basically good requires more than abstract belief: it requires the hard work of raising up the children and moving them away from chaos. This is hard work!

Well, when I started out, you may have thought that this was going to be one of those feel-good sermons. You may have expected me to talk about people’s essential goodness — and instead, here I mentioned mentioned murder, and clergy misconduct, and other difficult topics. On top of that, I have said that we have responsibilities:– we’re supposed to keep children from being so chaotic, and practice forgiveness, and base our church communities on trust, and encourage redemption.

After all that, original sin may start to sound very attractive! It almost seems easier to just accept that people are basically evil, tainted with something called original sin, that will prevent them from being good, dooming most people to an eternity of torment after death.

So, if you want to believe that people are basically evil, I for one will fully understand — it is the easier path — even though it involves a certain amount of self-loathing. But I’m going to remain convinced that people are basically good — even though it requires me to help move children away from being so chaotic, and practice forgiveness, and base our church in trust, and encourage redemption. Even though it requires work on my part, I’m going to stick with the proposition that people are basically good.