Can Evil Be Eradicated? (12th and Final Sermon in Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Life-Changing Truths”)

I.
Ms. J. K. Rowling, a waitress and single mother, became phenomenally successful when she began publishing her Harry Potter novels, which became as much a craze on the screen as they were in print.  As I understand it the novels were originally directed toward the older child/younger teen readership group, and Rowling intended for her readers and later the viewers of her stories to grapple with issues of good and evil.  Who could have guessed that Rowling herself would be widely accused by religious fundamentalists of encouraging evil through tales of wizardry and character confusion in the Harry Potter collection?  Yet, that is exactly what has happened, and even though Potter is at the end of his run, in the same way that several aging artists have had numerous “farewell tours,” the criticisms of his creator continue.
My friend and mentor, John Killinger, was so amused and frustrated by the criticism of these remarkable literary works that he wrote two books on the subject:  God, the Devil, and Harry Potter and then The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Harry Potter.  I guess that tells you which side of the argument he came down on.
I am quite sure that most of us would agree, generally, on what is good and evil in the world; though I am equally sure that not all of us would agree on what is good and what is evil across the board.  Some of us, and our friends would say that there is no evil.  Ayn Rand had an interesting take on evil.  She once wrote:  “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.”
Still, I would assume that most people in this church family would agree with me when I say that it is evil that so many lives have been lost in the preservation of American freedom. We honor our war dead on this Memorial Day weekend, those women and men who gave their lives trying to protect the freedom of this nation.  They should not have had to die for that reason, and freedom should not be a way of life that costs human lives to preserve.
The edgy, sometimes glorious music of Randall Thompson in A Testament of Freedom undergirds the singing of these profoundly truthful words by Thomas Jefferson:  “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”  That blood had to be shed and continues to be shed to preserve this inalienable human right is nothing short of evil.  That’s what I say, anyway.  Halliburton has a differing perspective from mine, and from what I can see when not blocked by media marionettes the Halliburton way is clearly winning out over what I’d like to call my way.  Evil is alive and well, and it’s been around a while with no plans to evaporate.
The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis detail the idyllic conditions of the world at the time of creation though some awarenesses of the ancient Hebrew people revealed that things were hardly perfect as they looked back–thus the questions, “What went wrong?”  I want to assure you that none of those stories and not of the whole of Hebrew scripture has a devil to blame for whatever went wrong.  The responsibility for the various evils considered rests squarely on the shoulders of human beings who made the choices.
The decisions made by Eve and Adam, and the serpent for that matter, had nothing to do with the lure of a devil.  Hebrew scriptures know of no devil.  If there is evil in the world, and of course there is and always has been, then it is here because of human decision and activity.  The satan in the book of Job is not a devil. Rather he is a chum of God’s.  There is no doctrine of demonology until we get to the New Testament era.
The failing of Adam and Eve and again the serpent had nothing to do with eating the fruit per se but with the effort to be divine instead of human or noble creature.  The mythologists interpreted that as a great evil.
Later after the dust from this mess settled so to speak Eve and Adam had their first two children, sons, Cain and Abel.  Severe sibling rivalry was thus introduced into human experience.  Cain came to believe that Abel was doing more to win God’s favor and was being successful at it.  Cain was envious and angry as a result so he killed his brother.  There was no devil to tempt him to do this evil act. He did it squarely, purely, only because he chose to do it.
Though probably not a precisely historic account, the ancient Hebrew story about how they took the land that was already inhabited by the Canaanites, the ancestors of today’s Palestinians, was evil.  I don’t care how many times you tell yourself and others that it’s okay, or how many times you insist that God is leading you to do it, it wasn’t, and it isn’t.  In fact, you were doing evil, not good.
Exactly the same truth applies to the Europeans coming over taking out the Indigenous Americans who had already been living here long before they, the Europeans, even thought about coming across the ocean.  Not that it should have or would have mattered how long the Indigenous Americans had been here on this land, it wasn’t Europeans’ to take any more than it would have been justifiable for the Indigenous Americans to show up in London or Paris prepared to take those lands as theirs, claiming that the Great Spirit told them to do it.
In a blog I stumble across from time to time, I found something from a blogger who identifies himself only as “Bret” meaningful and quite on target.

I think we’d be much better off realizing that people take action because of what they think and believe in. Terrorists believe what they’re doing is good for their country (and many times for their god). Serial killers have very good reasons (if you understand their thought process) for murdering their victims. The acts that result in such tragedy are obviously not to be condoned, but ultimately it’s a process of warped thinking that drives people to do horrible things, not an invisible force.

With an increasingly Christian military (evangelicals are proselytizing all over the place) and people of faith in public office, we must be wary of the consequences of superstition in relation to our freedoms, our national security, and ultimately our lives. Be afraid of superstition and irrational thought, not of an invisible force of evil in the world.

II.
It seems to me that while evil can certainly happen on a truly individual level most evil thrives in groups.  Even individuals taken initially to be acting alone in committing some heinous crime, as it turns out, are often only the puppets of a larger group giving orders and directions.
Many people at first refused to believe Lee Harvey Oswald was acting alone in the assassination of President Kennedy.  They still today are looking back with great suspicion of the single sniper theory.  Similar thing with the assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Earl Ray.
In thinking about much less graphic evil, the Apostle Paul discovered that problems in churches that were ripping them apart were rarely caused by individuals.  This was a matter of concern for Paul because he believed that a church was supposed to be a place of reliable doctrinal instruction; but also, in his eyes, the church was supposed to be a place of hope, encouragement, and support amid the evils of the world.  Another way of describing church was supposed to be oasis.  Those who would rob the ones in the church who needed encouragement of that encouragement by creating disharmony and negativity were acting in a manner he considered evil
I don’t buy in to everything Paul wrote, nor do I believe he was successful at all he undertook.  I am convinced, however, that much of the time his heart was in the right place, and he hoped to advise churches to live according to the principles of love he delineated when he was at the summit of his writing ability and his theological reflection–both at the same time.  I’m talking about when he penned what we now designate as the thirteenth chapter of the book of 1 Corinthians.
Surely, no one lives under the delusion that everybody in a church will always agree on every principle unless a given congregation is ruled by a dictator, and even then there are very secret disagreements spoken only in the most secret of places.  The fundamental principle from Paul about dealing with conflicting opinions can be summarized with this kind imperative:  “Speak the truth in love.”  In other words, don’t speak any words to or about anyone that are destructive, harmful, hurtful, selfish, belittling.  Otherwise, we can wound struggling seekers, and that Paul regarded as evil.  It’s certainly something we must consider.
Now, jump back before Paul.  Jesus’ disciples became more than a little bit concerned about how unrecognizably many doers of evil could comfortably and naturally fit into and blend in with the general population.  They, the disciples, took themselves to be the good guys and gals as is typically the case with those to sit down to assess what is evil what is good.  Usually what I as the assessor am doing is considered naturally to be for the sake of good–at least by me.  And what others are doing that disrupts what I want to have happen is evil from my perspective.
So, the issue prompted Jesus to tell his now famous parable, the wheat and the tares.  This in essence is what Jesus had to say about the intermingling of good and evil in the everyday lives of all the folks he knew anything about.
Wheat was the most important food staple in the diets of all but the poorest of people in Jesus’ day, in their part of the world; the poor folks had to settle for barley, which ironically has been discovered in recent years to be healthier for us than wheat.  Farmers grew wheat wherever they could.  An enemy could easily sneak into a wheat field under the cover of darkness and sow seeds for tares right in the middle of the developing wheat.  By the way, doing such a thing was considered so vile and destructive that it was against the laws of the Roman Empire.
In the early stages of growth, wheat and tares, which are darnel plants, are indistinguishable.  By the time the wheat and the tares could be differentiated from each other, the farmer was in a mess.  One couldn’t uproot a tare without also uprooting the wheat plants to which the tare roots had attached themselves.  Leaving the tares to grow to maturity almost certainly would damage some of the wheat, but trying to weed the wheat fields would damage much more of the wheat.
There’s a fair amount of turmoil among Mormons these days; that is not a situation unique to them among religious groups.  I find it humorous, maybe only because I have an odd sense of humor, that a blog devoted to the liberal Mormon perspective, a new and popular blog it seems, carries the name, “Wheat and Tares.”
The disciples, growing in their theological sophistication, see, metaphorically, the wheat as the good people in the world (including themselves, of course) and the tares as all the evil people in the world.  OK, so it’s one thing to say this or think it, but facing it in a real world way is more than problematic.  Alas, all people outside Hollywood and Bollywood look alike.  They’re all growing together as it were, and trying to separate them until the actual time of harvest was a lose-lose situation for farmers and their wheat.  Only the tares could win out, as it were, because they had accomplished their destructive purposes.
The disciples asked Jesus how in the world they were supposed to deal with such an unnecessary and dangerous complication.  I mean, in a worst case, real life scenario, what if they who wanted to protect Jesus in every way were somehow duped into bringing someone into the inner circle who pretended to care deeply about Jesus and the Jesus Movement, but in reality this person was only there finding a way to do harm to their beloved leader?  Little did they know that those who would ultimately hurt Jesus most would not be malevolent spies, but rather those who honestly loved Jesus with misguided love, or else they meant well but simply didn’t have the strength of their convictions, therefore, in the end, letting evil take the lead.
Jesus said, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, as unfair and as frustrating as it seems, you really have no choice but to wait until the harvest.  Harvest will be more complicated and time consuming, but it won’t matter any more.  Yes, some damage will have been done, but not nearly as much as if you tried to separate the wheat from the tares while the gardens were still growing.  At harvest, it’s time for the wheat to stop growing anyway so the tares can harm it no more.  Then and only then can you sensibly separate the wheat from the tares.
As far as humans go, you can’t just go around extracting those you take to be evil.  Wheat and tares, after all, look a good bit alike as I’ve said.  There will be a great harvest one day, and maybe several lesser harvests along the way, when the tares are removed.  Until then, some wheat will be harmed by the tares, but much more damage would be done if separation is attempted before a harvest.

III.
This very thing was literally an issue during the most recent war in Iraq, Operation Misnomer, making doing one’s job on the battlefield a really complicated situation.  The Americans trying to figure out which Iraqis to shoot were hampered because the enemy soldiers were un-uniformed meaning that the Americans were supposed to shoot into areas where they were pretty sure Iraqi soldiers were intermingling with and dressed like other Iraqis–civilians including children.
Some loathsome Iraqi military leaders decided that children, especially orphans by the way, would make excellent tools of war.  Not understanding what was going on, the kids were strapped with explosives and told to go over and get treats from the nice Americans who would help them find their parents.  If you were wondering if evil were real, wonder no more.
At any rate, in that situation there was no way to pick a soldier out of an Iraqi crowd.  Furthermore, much shooting had to be done by the Americans as well as the Iraqis in that war for simple self-protection.
The fact is, on a one to one basis there were very few Iraqis who had anything personal against even one American, and very few Americans had anything against individual Iraqis.  Not all Iraqis who shot Americans were evil, morally reprehensible people; they were only doing what their superior officers commanded them to do; so there were some good Iraqi people in the mix.   Certainly many an American, not all of them being morally upright and free from evil, brought goodness to the battlefield; most of them were remarkable women and men who shot at Iraqis, with the intent to kill, because that’s what they were commanded to do.
Let’s say that most soldiers on both sides were good people fighting unknowns that their leaders referred to as enemies.  No one could pick out the good ones or the bad ones from either side or on their on side for that mattter; the only option was to kill all you could so the war would be over, and you could get home to your loved ones–as close as Baghdad and as far away as Birmingham.
If you want to see what evil looks like, don’t look at the soldiers on the battlefields.  You can’t separate the wheat from the tares to this day there, but you could have seen fields full of tares with hardly any wheat growing among them by finding and looking at the hidden, protected leaders calling the shots on each side.  There was no devil influencing either side because there is no devil.  Human beings on both sides were responsible for choices that made evil come alive.
This is how evil works:  the effects of Operation Misnomer are still with us–in the hungry people who could have been fed many times over with the money spent on the pointless deadly violence, in the sweaty and horrifying moments of post traumatic stress syndrome for the military personnel who can’t make their brains let go of the fear and mutilation that once were ever before them, in a repugnant example to our children and children’s children of why big time bullying must be kept alive, and in the wards of military hospitals caring for those military personnel whose wounds will never let them leave the technologies that keep them alive, sort of alive anyway.
The book of Revelation is both a sobering as well as an overwhelmingly hopeful book.  It’s a truth in your face kind of document.  The writer is saying that, for the most part, evil will always be around the plague humans who stoke its fires.  Often, in the efforts we take to try to eradicate evil, we win some, but good people get hit and hurt and destroyed along with the evil ones.  Let me say that again since it’s something hard to take in:  combating evil may well take out some of the evil in the world, but tragically it is often the case that good people are hurt and destroyed along with those propagating evil.
So, back to Harry Potter.  I have not been a careful devotee, but have read a bit and watched a few and have kept up with the general flow of things.  There is not an utterly consistent perspective on evil throughout the series.
One view voiced by Quirinus Quirrell says things may appear evil, but there really is no evil.  To quote him, “There is no evil: only power and those too weak to seek it.”
The other view, and I believe the one that gets most of the attention, is that evil is always real and is always connected to an evil force, but that force becomes increasingly visible and personified with each installment of Potter.  I didn’t see that last Potter film, but Stefan Guenther, our Office Administrator and with his wife a Potter devotee, assured me that while on the surface everyone appeared in the last moments of the last film free from evil, there were plenty of possibilities for another eruption of evil at some future point should Ms. Rowling decide that she doesn’t like writing for adults.
In any case, in the Potter series the young people, the primary characters learn that evil, or what appears to be evil, is something they must consistently struggle against.  This view is the one held by the God figure in the Potter episodes, Albus Dumbledore, and I quote:

It is important to fight and fight again and to keep fighting, for only then can evil be kept at bay, though never fully eradicated….Dark times lie ahead of us, and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is
right.

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