I was a little uneasy this week when I saw how Phil had put the announcement of this week’s sermon title on the Silverside side of the large sign out front. The sign usually reads: “Dr. David Albert Farmer Talks about…” sermon title or subject or an abbreviation of one of those. Lately, I guess my titles have been getting longer, and the “Talks about” has been removed, leaving as in the case of this week’s sermon this: “Dr. David Albert Farmer,” followed by, “Sending Evil on Its Way.” That could be read a number of ways, and I’d really prefer that we find a way to get “Talks about” back up there. A detractor this week could read the sign to say that the church has decided I’m evil and is sending me on my way; there’s even a service or a ceremony to celebrate this discovery and this church action. I hope my comments on that subject haven’t given anybody any ideas.
Evil is in the eye of the beholder. The rants of Iran’s president and his willingness to build and use nuclear weapons sound, evidently, safe and sound to him, something he must do to protect and secure his nation. To Israelis, many Americans, and others his rhetoric and blatant willingness to harm his real and imagined enemies are proof aplenty that he is evil or, at least, that his intentions and aspirations are. The way this works is that it’s ok for us to have and to keep producing nuclear weaponry, us and other countries on our approved list, but unethical and ultimately evil for any countries not on our approved list to have them.
In the triangle I’m about to describe, where does true evil lie? 1) With a young woman, Sandra Fluke, who merely made a statement about her personal views of women’s rights including sexual activity in relationship to health insurance coverages? Republican Congressperson, Darrell Issa, from California rejects a simple request from some Democrats on his committee to allow Ms. Fluke of Georgetown University in DC to testify regarding her views on the subject or the collection of subjects. The hearing was scheduled to gather information on citizen responses to government rules requiring employers to offer their employees health insurance policy options that pay for contraception.
Issa got his way, but the Democrats had an unofficial hearing on the same subject at which Ms. Fluke was allowed to speak. As Issa had expected she speaks, and in her comments she criticizes health insurance policies specifically at Georgetown University, which most of us hadn’t realized was a Roman Catholic institution. Well, duh, to the anti birth-control attitudes there–the official attitudes I should say. Ms. Fluke said essentially that students at Georgetown as with most universities in this country have students who are sexually active. Not all students are, but some are. For those females who choose to be sexually active, contraception should be not only available but also encouraged. Georgetown’s blocking of care specifically for that one health issue, or potential series of health issues, Ms. Fluke insisted in her own words “has a harmful impact on the female students.” Then, she said quietly, succinctly, boldly given where she was speaking, “I’m an American woman who uses contraceptives.”
Well, immediately the conservative media began having a series of hay days. Outrageously exaggerated versions of what Ms. Fluke had said started appearing in all the places we’d except to read such distorted stories, but not limited to those.
Back to my triangular question. Is Ms. Fluke who takes contraceptives and is having or at least is ready to have sexual connections outside the bonds of marriage should she meet the right companion, is she evil?
2) Or does the evil lie with Rush Limbaugh who disagreed with the young woman’s views and called her a slut and a prostitute because he didn’t agree? In a pathetic excuse for an apology, which appeared on Limbaugh’s website, he said he was just trying to be funny. Really? No, what he said and how he said it didn’t fit in with any comic genre that anybody else knew anything about. Summarizing news sources, Limbaugh makes a concerted effort over his radio waves to humiliate Ms. Fluke, claiming that she and others like her are asking the government to subsidize their sex lives. “What does that make Fluke?” he asked. Answer: “It makes her a slut. It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.” Brushing off criticism of him that began immediately, Limbaugh intentionally made matters worse. Back in front of his radio mic, he babbled on, “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, Ms. Fluke, thus paying for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is: We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.” Is Rush the embodiment of evil in this situation?
3) Or, third option, does the evil lie with Clear Channel Communications that produces the Rush Limbaugh radio show and endorses what he says on his talk radio show at least to the extent that his grossness, abuse, and rudeness keep it an exceptionally wealthy company? Complicit with Clear Channel, if that is where the evil lies, are the sponsors who pour big bucks into keeping Rush paid and the company executives wealthy as well. Does the evil actually rest with Clear Channel Communications and Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors? Evil is in the eye of the beholder.
Only recently did I learn that, “Don’t be evil” is the informal corporate slogan of Google. I’m not sure Google is always on the up and up, but maybe they are; and if so, bravo for Google. The founders admit they wanted this slogan to be a jab at their competitors whom they perceived were seriously exploiting customers. In a 2004 document titled, “The Don’t Be Evil Manifesto,” they said to those helping them build their company from the ground up, “Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served–as shareholders and in all other ways–by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains.” When the time came for the corporate philosophy to be listed for the sake of shareholders and employees, this is one of ten points that made the list: “You can make money without doing evil.”
If we can’t agree exactly on what evil is, then we certainly will not be able to agree on who, past and present, is evil. Yet, there are those who try. A gent by the name of Cliff Pickover made a list of the ten most evil people in human history along with a companion list of the ten best people in human history. His initial lists were made, I believe in Y2K, and have been modestly adjusted a couple of times. I think there have not been changes, though, in ten years.
Here is Dr. Pickover’s list of the ten most evil people of all time as of 2002. We might have heard about another one or two in the last decade.
Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor (and “Chief Punishment Officer”) of the Inquisition. He roasted a few feet and suffocated a handful of those who failed his theological tests, but, far and away, his preferred method of causing those whom he declared heretics to suffer and die was burning them at the stake. Historians say at least 2,000 women and men were burned at the stake by Torquemada for doctrinal failings.
Vlad Tepes, also called Vlad the Impaler, the real world model for the fictional Dracula.
Hitler. Enough said.
Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of Russia. He enjoyed cutting up his enemies in small pieces and frying them up in a big frying pan.
Adolph Eichmann, chief executioner during Hitler’s Holocaust. He, from all indications, was fond of saying, “The death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.”
Pol Pot, Cambodian despot. About a million of his own people and others died because of his policies of forced labor, intentional starvation, untreated disease, torture, and execution.
Mao Tse-tung killed between 20 and 67 million of his fellow Chinese, mostly older people who could no longer pull their own weight and intellectuals whom he desperately feared would figure out a way to unseat him.
Idi Amin, a cannibal who murdered somewhere around 300,000 of his own people who opposed his rule when he was president of Uganda.
Soviet Dictator, Joseph Stalin, starved about 20 million of his own people to death for intentionally or not interfering with his plans for the Soviet Union.
Genghis Khan, Mongol warrior and ruler. Attracted to war, he’s one of the top ten who did more damage to his enemies than to his own people. He’s credited with saying, “Man’s greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding, then use his women as a nightshirt.”
Evidently, Dr. Pickover just couldn’t figure out how to order these good folk so he chose the option of listing them alphabetically based on the first letter of their first names. We do need some uplift after hearing that last list; let’s see if this one does the trick.
Abraham Lincoln, for his contributions to helping our country move, however slowly, to begin freely slaves.
Baha’u’llah, whose teaching is the basis of the Baha’i religion. Baha’is officially believe that all the founders of the world’s great religions have been manifestations of God and agents of a divine plan for the religious and moral education of the human race. Despite their apparent differences, the world’s great religions, according to the Baha’is, teach an identical truth. Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah was a manifestation of God; his primary calling or function was to overcome the disunity of religions and establish a universal faith. Baha’is believe in the oneness of humanity and devote themselves to the abolition of racial, class, and religious prejudices.
Buddha. Buddhism, far more than Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, has a pacifist leaning that is impossible to overlook. The nonviolence these leanings promoted positively affected the countries that had a significant number of citizens embracing the religion the Buddha inspired.
Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan Buddhists and, until 1959, both spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, an attempt to honor him for his nonviolent campaign to end harsh Chinese domination of Tibet.
Jesus, for preaching the reality of God’s love for all people.
Martin Luther King Jr., the face and the voice of the American civil rights movement and a prominent advocate of nonviolent protest.
Moses, freedom leader who got the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery.
Mother Teresa who was asked how she could continue day after day after day, visiting the terminally ill: feeding them, cleaning them up, giving them comfort as they lay dying in the streets of Calcutta. She said, “It’s not hard because in each one, I see the face of Jesus in one of his more distressing disguises.”
Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian leader who established his country’s freedom through a nonviolent revolution.
Dr. Pickover couldn’t settle on a tenth to balance his two lists. He wondered about the person most responsible for the creation of birth control methods, that have saved the bringing into this would millions of unwanted children, children who had they been born in the contexts where their parents lived at conception would be sure to die from disease, malnutrition, parental abuse, and so on.
Now, if you were listening carefully, as I know you always are, you caught onto the fact that women were severely underrepresented on both lists, the list of evil folks and the list of good folks. Only Mother Teresa appears on either list, and we have her on the list of the top ten good folk in human history though the late Christopher Hitchens said she was some kind of fraud. I just don’t buy it.
To our evil persons’ list we could have added Queen Mary, Bloody Mary. And we could have added Lizzie Borden. To our exemplary persons’ list we could have added Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt among several.
We will soon get to Jesus’ struggle with evil. For now, two penetrating quotations. The first is from Seneca: “It is extreme evil to depart from the company of the living before you die.” The second is from Dr. King, shortly before he was martyred: “We shall have to repent in this generation, not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Ha satan. A Hebrew definite article plus a noun–and not a proper one, meaning that it’s not a name. The satan, introduced in the book of Job, means “the adversary.” He is not God’s enemy, but God’s chum. The adversary, the satan, does evil to Job and Job’s family, but with God’s consent. Bottom line, the satan successfully tempts God Godself! You’d think God would have been more understanding of Eve and Adam whose only fault when we boil it all down was succumbing to temptation.
The story of Job is an amazingly crafted fictional tale coming from three or so oral sources. The moral of its story is that things kinda sorta all work out in the end for those who love God and who remain faithful to God’s standards no matter what. The adversary who tempted God doesn’t pro-gress or re-gress to become a devil or THE Devil. He is a fictional character who symbolizes temptation–how real temptation can be and how powerful temptation can be. If we read all the Apostle Paul wrote that made it into the final collection of books regarded as sufficiently sacred to be included in the Bible, we will eventually find him overcome with personal grief and self-loathing. He’s frustrated with himself and with the way life works from his point of view. He says something like this: “I couldn’t be more devoted to God than I am. Imperfect though I am, serving God with my all matters more to me than anything in the world. Yet, I find myself doing the very things I set out never to do, and those items on my this-is-the-way-I-must-live list are the very tasks, however essential, that I end up neglecting.”
There’s this very odd, yet stirring and unforgettable, episode in Jesus’ ministry where temptation has been working heavily on him. In his case, it wasn’t a routine temptation to steal a little something to pad his bank account. He didn’t want someone else’s wife. He didn’t long to be prominent and popular. Temptation was telling him, “Look, Jesus. With your skills and your well-known spiritual commitments, you can be rich and famous. People will be falling at your feet, not to get healed for a change, but to praise and honor you; to let you know that they will take your cue about everything from how to treat a personal enemy to how to get along with Rome. Keep in mind,” temptation went on, “you don’t have to do anything spectacular to get this kind of notoriety. Heal a few folks. Turn some desert stones into cakes of bread. That kind of thing. You’ll be the most highly loved, supported, and sought after person in the world. Most people will love you, will adore you.”
At this particular moment, Peter, perhaps, was mouthing the words aloud that temptation had already been whispering in Jesus’ ears. This was all in conflict with the demanding pathway Jesus knew he had to follow to serve God with complete faithfulness. It was not taking a pathway to prominence and prestige; it was a pathway of down and dirty service to those who could never further his career in any way.
His plight was not to be well placed with the movers and shakers; his plight, and he understood it more certainly with the passing of each day, was to be with those who brought criticism and condemnation to him. He knew that his life would end no better than he lived; his Roman enemies would be certain of that because he dared to preach a God greater than any one of their emperors or the best of the bunch melded together. Jesus believed that it would have been an evil move for him to let selfishness determine the perimeters of his ministry and his life. He knew that the painful path he was going to have to take if he would dare to be true to himself was to go out to the periphery of his comfort zone in order to be able to tell as many people as he could that God’s love reached out to them in their self-hatred and despair, in their illnesses, in their fears, and in their required subordination to an empire that would never give them full freedom.
Peter was saying to him, “Teacher, you’re too good for this. Surely God has a better plan in mind for you. Don’t let yourself fall into such self-defeating attitudes; they make you crazy.”
Suddenly, Jesus burst out in response, as the story goes, “Get behind me, satan. I can’t take you any more. You do not determine how I must live and serve. That is God’s task alone.”
In this fictional account, we’re not sure to whom Jesus is speaking. Some think he was speaking to Peter who, without knowing it, was trying to pull Jesus away from the way Jesus knew in his depths he had to go. Others think he was speaking to a devil as, many years later, Martin Luther would do routinely. As familiar as Jesus was with Hebrew scripture of which the book of Job is a part, you can bet he had Job’s “ha satan” in mind when he said, seemingly to his close associate, Peter, “Get thee behind me, satan,” which was the same as saying, “Get behind me, temptation! I know the pathway I must take.”
That Jesus struggled to understand his role is not fictional. That he wanted to avoid the cross if there had been any way at all was not fictional. That he spoke harshly to temptation in his heart is not fictional, but that he decided to engage in audible conversation with an invisible evil force, that is fictional. Yet, the truth the incident teaches is on target. Too many of us, and maybe all of us in ways, let temptation talk us into being people we’re not and heading into places people go when they expect praise rather than thanklessness from people in the gutters and gullies who may forget the name of the one who helped them sober up, clean up, and get some food together for themselves and their kids.
Two stanzas of the hymn the crowd sung when my grandparents were commissioned as short-term missionaries for an unspecified time of service in Mali, West Africa. Much more of what Jesus knew was ahead for him than what temptation described, the hymn writer imagined God saying these words to someone who, like Jesus, was willing to send evil on its way and face instead the reality of what it takes to serve those who have been overlooked if not intentionally neglected:
So send I you to labor unrewarded
To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown
To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing
So send I you to toil for me alone
So send I you to leave your life’s ambition
To die to dear desire, self-will resign
To labor long, and love where they revile you
So send I you to lose you life in mine.