The Power of Evil

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Bantam on August 26, 2012.  (See the editorial in the New York Times of August 26 entitled “No Crime, No Punishment.”  Obviously the preacher and editor were responding to the same angels!)

I’m sure you remember the storm last October  and how so many people lost power and how so many lives were disrupted.  We had people shivering in unheated homes,  reading by candlelight, food melting in the freezer,  stores that couldn’t open and millions of dollars lost in business. I remember reading about investigations  into what went wrong and how one or two executives were fired but of course it quickly faded from the headlines  and whether anything has really changed we won’t know until the next storm strikes.

It’s a similar pattern, it seems to me,  to the bursting of the housing bubble four years ago which had much more widespread and long-lasting consequences  and, again, an investigation that resulted in  very few changes.  If anyone was charged with a crime, I haven’t heard about it.

If someone had set out deliberately to cause all that damage, deliberately, sabotaged the grid, blown up key generators, and so on, I’m sure they would now be in jail or in hiding.  But it wasn’t deliberate, so it wasn’t a crime.  

Clearly a number of people acted to enrich themselves  at the expense of others but they didn’t use guns  and we find it very hard  to deal with this kind of fraud. It’s easier to steal and get away with it  if you can do it smoothly from an executive office. We find it hard to criminalize conduct  that is all done with paper no matter how many people are hurt.

And here we get into theology.  When is a crime a crime?  Two weeks ago we read, “Let those who stole,  steal no more.” But what is stealing? When is it OK to steal money and endanger lives  and when is it not OK?  If a young man from the inner city  breaks into a home or store and walks away with a few dollars,  that’s clearly a crime  and the perpetrator will  be sent to prison if caught.  But if a corporate board  puts millions of dollars into their pockets by repackaging mortgages  thousands of lives  can be drastically affected and far more damage done but somehow there is no crime and no need for  punishment.

Now this, as I said, gets us into theology,  and I meant that very seriously. Today’s epistle talks about a struggle “not with flesh and blood” but against  “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  The King James Version called it  “spiritual wickedness in high places” and some people think that refers to Washington but the new translations say “in heavenly places” and that clearly isn’t Washington.

The subject is “spiritual wickedness” – and perhaps not just in high places,  but in all of us.  But first of all beyond all of us. Because what is it that goes on here?  I’ve known people who sat on corporate boards and they’re no worse than the rest of us.  But they are in position  to make decisions  with enormous consequences. Suppose a manager at CL&P  is told that there’s line work that needs to be done but he or she also knows that postponing it will increase profits. Maybe no one will even know how you did it  but you will be commended  for the money you saved. I mean, who plans for a colossal snow storm in October? So why would you do that  If you can make more of a profit by putting it off.

What would you do?  You and I are not on corporate boards, but we have our own decisions to make and if we have a leak under the sink but we can use the money to go out to dinner and put off fixing the leak under the sink  a few more days . . . what’s your priority? It may be stupid, it may cost us more in the long run,  but we don’t put lives in danger. On the other hand,  every one of us makes decisions every day with enormous consequences we never even consider. I’ve been trying for months to persuade myself  that I really need an iPad or smart phone or tablet. It sometimes seems that everyone else has them  and can whip them out at a moment’s notice to show me children’s pictures  or the best route to New Haven or the latest news bulletin  and all my cell phone is good for is phone calls. But do I really – I mean really – need something more?  I argue it out in personal terms:  a fancy cell phone versus medical bills or dinner out but beyond that  is my need for an iPod  greater than the need of an African child for food.  Do I need to buy another book for myself  when there are children elsewhere  who have no books? If I put my decision-making in global terms,  how can I justify my convenience in a world of overwhelming need? It’s not just bad people who cause problems.  It’s our own short-sightedness and self-interest.

Or think about the anger and division  in American politics or in the Episcopal Church?  Is it true, as some would argue, that there are really people  out to destroy the country or divide the church? No, but there are good people  so blinded by their fears or self-interest that they act in ways that can harm millions  and somehow it always looks like the other guy  who causes the problem.

I read an article a while ago  about the AIDS pandemic in Africa: there’s a hospital in Lusaka where a child dies  every fifteen minutes; a cemetery in South Africa  where people have to wait in line  to carry out burials, farms uncultivated because so many have died,  children dying of malnutrition because there’s no one to provide food. But the means are there to halt it – here and there  action is being taken which could halt it if only everyone would work together,  but not enough do. Governments and agencies lack the will  to concentrate and coordinate resources. And the resources aren’t there  because no one dares raise taxes even on the super-rich and pledges to churches and aid agencies  are so far below what we could do if we really cared. I saw it referred to once as  “murder by complacency.”

The problem is not the evil that some do deliberately  but the failure of good people to go out of their way at all to do what needs to be done.  And I believe that’s a theological problem.  It is, first of all, the spiritual sickness that afflicts the human race, that weakens our will, saps our energy,  enables us to avoid, ignore, overlook, the work that needs to be done  for good to triumph.  It wouldn’t take much; but that little is somehow beyond our reach.  And in this battle  it seems to me the diagnosis we heard this morning is critical. It’s not just “flesh and blood;” it’s “cosmic powers.”  Yes, there’s a lot of evil in us, but not enough to produce so much suffering.  You and I don’t will bad things to happen. Give us something direct and immediate to do  to help someone else and we’ll do it.  But I don’t believe we really understand  the nature of the battle, the spiritual forces arrayed against us.

Paul is saying there’s more to it than meets the eye.  Left to our own devices, we might be alright; but we aren’t left to our own devices.  There’s a power beyond us at work and at work so smoothly and subtly,  we seldom have any idea what’s going on. Someone once said, “For evil to triumph it’s only necessary for good people  to do nothing.” Yes, but even if we do something but not enough,  – and that’s generally what happens – evil will still often triumph.

All this begs the question  of what evil is and where it comes from. The epistle locates it outside ourselves;  it defines it as the ruling power of this world. And there we really identify  the theological problem.  Yes, there’s evil in all of us,  but not enough to account for the evil around us.  The men and women on the boards of Wall Street firms aren’t evil enough themselves to cause so much suffering. The people of Afghanistan aren’t evil enough  to cause the chaos there. The people of Israel and Palestine  are not so uniquely evil that no one can hope to resolve their problems. The people of Africa aren’t evil enough to cause the millions of deaths,  the suffering, that’s afflicting that continent. But we are weak enough  to let ourselves be used by the evil beyond us –  “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” – and let our good intentions  be turned into paving stones  on the road to hell.

People sometimes see the Bible  as taking a negative view of human nature. I think they miss the point.  I think in fact  that the Bible takes a very optimistic view  of human nature and sees potential in us,  possibilities, that we might not have imagined. The Bible doesn’t condemn us as evil;  the Bible on the contrary says God created a good world  and put good people in it made in the image of God.  And the problem is the serpent. Not just in Eden, but here: in Afghanistan and Africa and Texas and Bantam and in you and me.  There’s an epidemic of evil  and we haven’t taken the shots we need to avoid the universal infection.  Why not?  When an epidemic breaks out people wear masks  and avoid certain areas. When winter is coming, we line up for flu shots.  But with the forces of chaos and evil always breaking in on us  we go on with life as usual and let the epidemic rage. As long as we aren’t challenged directly,  we’re willing to let it rage and we never do see  how it’s at work in us, that we are already dying of it.  We find it hard to believe that evil is really that bad and really is beyond our ability to resist if we stand alone.

It’s not the Afghans or the Africans or the Taliban or Al Qaeda or the Irish or North Koreans  who are the root of the problem, nor is it us.  It’s the power of evil that constantly invades this world from beyond,  for the most part quietly, boring from within  until it makes us part of the problem, complicit ourselves in all the horror that we could prevent with God’s help.

We’ve been reading this wonderful letter to the Ephesians for six weeks now. It begins quietly enough  with an appeal to brotherhood  and peace and unity but here toward the end it zeroes in on basics  and reminds us that we’re in desperate need of help  to achieve that goal.  The enemy is stronger than we are and we’re doomed to defeat  unless we recognize our need and act on it, unless we fight spiritual evil  with spiritual good,  the help that’s available here, right here, at this altar, today.

“Take the shield of faith,”St.  Paul writes, and “the helmet of salvation,” and “the sword of the Spirit,” praying always and keeping alert.  We have the means available  in prayer and sacrament, the Bible and our faith. God is already at work within us.  How much more could God do if we opened ourselves more fully  to the grace available?  In the battle against evil, are we willing to offer ourselves more fully  our whole selves, our whole lives in God’s service  and finally let God win the battle through us?

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