Light a Candle, Curse the Dark

October 8, 2006

Douglas Taylor

There is an old Chinese proverb – “Don’t curse the darkness – light a candle.”  The proverb inspired Unitarian politician and diplomat Adlai Stevenson, when he came to praise Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1962 address to the United Nations General Assembly: “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”  The proverb also inspired the founder of Amnesty International who created the “candle wrapped in barb wire” logo – such a powerful and recognizable image.  Indeed, when faced with tragic, ugly, perverse manifestations of evil, it is better to light a candle than curse the dark.

During my first ministry, serving in a large church with two other ministers, I received many opportunities to explore my role and how we respond to life.  I remember one visit from an angry member of the congregation.  One of the other ministers sighed when he heard I’d be visiting with this member, and said, “This is someone who gets angry a lot.  His pattern is to get angry at someone or some thing and leave.  He’ll turn up then in one of the other nearby congregations for a while until he gets angry with something there and he’ll leave.”  So, I figured, what do we have to loose, either this angry member or me?  We meet; we talked about what was going on.  He aired his grievance and then began to develop a list of other grievances.  Eventually, I stopped him and said, “I don’t know if I’m out of place to say this, and if I am I trust you’ll tell me, but it seems like you’re angry a lot!”  He paused a moment and said, “Before my wife died, we were a great team.  I would curse the dark and she would light a candle.”  His wife had died recently.  So I asked, “Who’s lighting the candles now?”

Had I been aware then of the proverb he was playing with, I likely would have admonished him that it says the lighting of the candle is the greater task.  Indeed while the modern rendering of the proverb says it is better to light a candle than to curse the dark, implying that you could do either but the candle is better; the original says, “Don’t curse the dark – light a candle.”  And back when I was still fresh in the ministry, I did agree with the original proverb.  Don’t waste your time with the cursing, what does it accomplish, really?  Light the candle; let’s get to work blessing the world.  Now, however, I suspect we would be wise to do both.  I suspect that we as a denomination are not as good at naming evil, at cursing the darkness, as we perhaps should be.

The special edition of the UU World published immediately following September 11 focused on theology and evil.  It explored whether or not our liberal religious values were up to the task of confronting evil.  Lois Fahs Timmins, daughter of revered and renowned Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs, spoke of being shaped by the liberal religious education while growing up and becoming an adult.  She wrote,

We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humanity … I was taught not to be judgmental, not to observe or report on the bad behavior of others.  Consequently, because of my education, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent to observe it accurately, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed of talking about evil.

There was an op-ed piece two weeks ago in the Press & Sun Bulletin by Sam Harris that said a very similar thing.  Sam Harris is the author of the book “The End of Faith.”  The title of the article was “Left in the Dark.”  But the title is a play on words, it could mean someone is ‘left in the dark’ or it could mean, (and I think it was meant to mean,) that The Left is in the dark.  He was highly critical in the article of the religious left and our inability to recognize and name evil for what it is.  We are too optimistic about human nature.  We are too respectful and tolerant of other cultures.  We are blinded by our optimistic tolerance to genuine evil at our door.  I think there is something to this critique.  What is evil?  How do we as Unitarian Universalists define and understand evil?

Earlier this week a milk truck driver stormed a one-room Amish schoolhouse, rounded up the girls in the class while releasing the boys and teachers.  He then barricaded himself in with the 10 girls, tied them up and shot them all before killing himself.  Three of the ten girls were declared dead on the scene, two more died later, while at least one of the other five girls remains on life-support.  The shock of this event has been staggering.  The newspaper accounts have been, naturally, quite sparse because the Amish will not engage the newspaper people.  People outside the Amish community want to reach out and help, which is awkward.  And so we light a candle.  The editorial page carried a piece about this story and after acknowledging the choice the Amish community made as to how they would deal with this, the editor wrote: “The rest of society blinks back tears and wonders how we got to this point – and also wonders if the next headline could somehow be even worse.”

That editorial gave me pause.  I take no issue with the tears being blinked back; tears are good, tears are a recognition that you empathize with the tragedy, they mean you are human.  I take no issue with the editor’s line, “society blinks back tears.”  But, the part about wondering how we got to this point stopped me in my tracks.  Has anyone been paying attention?  Do we as a society have perpetual amnesia between news reports?  Liberal religion is accused of being optimistically naïve of evil to the point of negligent and irrelevant, but secular liberal culture seems to be willfully oblivious to it.  Do you wonder how we got to this point – as if all of a sudden an atrocity takes place on a Monday but the preceding week was blissful and the newspaper had nothing of evil or violence to report?  I don’t wonder how we got to this point because we’ve been at this point for a long time.

Some people thing of violence as an interruption, like a flash of lightning breaking onto the landscape.  Suddenly the event takes place and, like an afterimage on the back of our eyeballs, slowly fades.  For people who think of violence this way, it may seem like we are suddenly seeing a new level of crime, violence of a harsher order.  But that is not the only way to see it.  It is perhaps more useful to recognize that violence in not an interruption, like a flash of lightning, rather it is like poison in the ground water, always present, a part of daily life for some, a part of what is going on in the world around us.

It is shocking for a man to barricade ten Amish girls into a one-room schoolhouse and then to shot each of them and himself.  This happened on Monday not too far from here.  Meanwhile this past week: a man was shot multiple times over on Chenango street, another man was jumped by several people and beaten badly enough to need hospitalization, the police blotter listed among the drug busts and burglaries a second degree rape involving an incident with a female less than 15 years of age.  And yesterday I read that an eighth-grade music teacher from the Vestal Schools has been charged with sexually abusing students.

Elsewhere in the world this past week, Hamas militiamen in Gaza City attempted to break up anti-government protests sparking gun battles across the Gaza Strip that killed seven people.  An Afghani suicide bomber blew himself up in a busy pedestrian alley next to Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry on Saturday, killing at least 12 people and wounding dozens more. Another suicide bomber in Baghdad blew himself up in a fish market killing several dozen people.  A few days ago, four U.S. soldiers patrolling Baghdad were killed by gunmen, bringing the number of Americans killed in combat since last Saturday to 21.  Iraqi authorities Wednesday pulled a brigade of about 700 Iraqi policemen out of service in its biggest move to uproot troops linked to death squads.  Meanwhile the United States House and Senate both voted in favor of legislation allowing the president to detain, interrogate and try terrorist suspects according to the presidents own guidelines, a startling capitulation on the part of those who are elected to uphold democracy and the constitution.  Meanwhile North Korea plans to test a nuclear explosive today.  Meanwhile ten young girls were barricaded into their one-room schoolhouse, tied up, and summarily shot.   Meanwhile throughout this past week countless other acts of violence and violation were committed.  This is just one week’s worth of news, from our little local paper, to boot!  This evil, this violence is not an all of a sudden flash.  This is both much dark to curse and a great many candles to light.  When faced with tragic, ugly, perverse manifestations of evil, seeping up into our lives and our concern like poison in the ground water, they say it is better to light a candle than curse the dark.

Are all of these events ‘evil’?  What do we, as Unitarian Universalists, have to help us evaluate, judge, and recognize evil when we see it?  As Unitarian Universalists we do not subscribe to a belief that we as human beings are naturally depraved, evil and sinful until saved by grace from above.  Neither do we have the Devil to blame it on.  We also make a strong objection to the idea that the body or things corporeal are evil while only the abstract is real and truly good.  Some among us do say that good and evil are human moral constructs and the concepts holds no meaning beyond what any given culture allows it to hold.  But that is not in keeping with our heritage.  None of these definitions of evil offer an understanding that fits the theology and practice of Unitarian Universalism over time.

And it goes back to our understanding of human nature, our core theology as Unitarian Universalists.  Back in August when I preached on this I said, “Our theological cornerstone is our radical acceptance of every person as being of the same human family without segregating anyone out as saved or unsaved, clean or defiled, saint or sinner, worthy or unworthy; all we have are human beings: blessed, whole, capable of good and evil, fully part of the evolving nature of life.  Unitarian Universalism proudly insists that every person has inherent worth and dignity as a basic root element of their being.”  And tucked in there is the beginnings of our theology of evil.  As human beings we have the capacity for both good and evil.

The Holocaust was a great evil.  That is one of the easier agreements we find on the topic.  But how was it evil?  Was there an evil force outside of humanity that created the holocaust?  The Devil, the Great Satan?  No, it was humanity – humanity committed that evil.  We shy away from saying that each and every person who participated in making the holocaust happen was pure evil.  We don’t say that.  They were people, human beings capable of good and of evil.  They participated in committing evil. Even Hitler, according to our theological heritage, we do not see as pure evil, and isn’t that always the example that comes up.  Do we affirm and prompt the inherent worth and dignity of Hitler?  That doesn’t mean what Hitler did was of worth, only that he was acting as a human being – not as a demonic force.  Even Hitler was capable of doing good.  Saddam Hussein, Caligula, Stalin, Pol Pot, George W. Bush – they were or are all capable of doing good; there are no monsters. As Guinness said in the reading this morning, “To restrict evil to such men is to slip into the error of seeing it as an aberration, a rarity, an exception, as something well distanced from ourselves …  To think like that is to miss the real menace of evil here and now.”  We say no one is pure evil, instead everyone is purely human.  And to be human is to have the capacity for both good and evil.

But that doesn’t get us off the hook from Lois Fahs Timmins and Sam Harris.  Recognizing the capacity for evil in ourselves does not take care of the fact that our government is doing a terrible job building up Iraq after our immoral war against them.  It doesn’t take care of the Islamic fundamentalists who want to inflict great harm upon the United States.  It doesn’t take care of the nuclear bomb that will be tested soon in North Korea.  It doesn’t alleviate poverty, dismantle racism, insure civil liberties, or transform the culture so women are no longer seen as sex objects.  But it gives us a grounding from which we can start to deal with these structures of evil.

There is a systemic element to evil, a communal level always present.  The event was evil, 9/11 or the Holocaust – these were evil events.  But the individuals involved were human beings, and as such were not evil.  We don’t believe in evil people.  We believe that there are structures of evil that are built up, which we participate in or rebel against, or comply with out of necessity.  There is a communal level to evil, at least as it is seen through our Unitarian Universalist theology.  Rebecca Parker, president of the Starr King UU Seminary in California calls it transpersonal evil.  She cites Channing and Ballou as expressing these understandings early in our liberal religious heritage.  Evil is built; it is organized.  There are structures that perpetuate racism, war, environmental degradation, economic disparity.  These structures are evil.

Goodness also must be organized.  Goodness must be organized; I get by with a little help from my friends.  Think back on things you’ve done that you would consider ‘good’.  Chances are most of it was accomplished because you had support or a group of which you were a part.  Great evil and great good are done through organized structures.  You and I participate in both kinds.  But this is our work: weave the fabric, reweave the fabric of life rather than tear at it; to light the candle and curse the dark.  Adrienne Rich said, “My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed, I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, and with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

So much has been destroyed; there is much to curse and much to cause us anger.  I recall that angry member of the congregation from several years ago.  He did end up leaving the congregation.  But the in the next congregation he went to he discovered a new love, and remarried.  I heard later that he had mellowed.  I don’t know, but I’d like to think that he learned to do both; that he learned to light the candles while still cursing the dark.  And we, who are accused of leaning to far the other way, we who are happily lighting candles and avoiding all mention of cursing, will we learn to balance?

Do the critics receive an answer when we say we do not believe in evil people but in evil deeds – and in structures that oppress, that tear the fabric of life?  I do hope so, for that is what we have to offer – an appreciation of the complexity, a love of humanity, and sleeves rolled up ready to rebuild.

Blessed are the peacemakers, it is written, for they shall be called the children of God, … and theirs will be the kingdom of God.  I say more blessed are those who gather in groups to make peace for they shall build the kingdom of God here on earth.  We, together, will build the land where peace is created, where justice flows, where were will see each other as brothers and sisters.  Our work, our religious task is to gradually dismantle the evil structures, to curse the dark; and then to raise up and restore the good and holy places through compassion, understanding, and righteousness: to curse the dark and light a candle.

In a world without end,

may it be so.