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ABSENCE OF MALICE

A sermon by Reverend Dr. John Young
Unitarian Universalist Minister
UU Church of Jacksonville

Most of us, most of the time have absence of malice. We do not actively intend to do evil to people around us. We do not have real malice for them. We mean them no harm. This allows most of us, most of the time to consider ourselves good people because we are not consciously and actively involved in doing evil.

I have long struggled with the ethical issue of whether one can be good simply by not doing harm. I do not believe that not doing harm is enough to make a person good. People need to do good, intentionally and persistently, before they can really consider themselves to be good people. Ironically, it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, for people to do much good without also doing some harm. If they are conscious of this harm, it naturally lessens their sense of integrity and accomplishment. Most of us plead innocent to the harm we do because we have done much of it unconsciously, without malice, or without the intention to harm.

This ethical issue is related to the theological issues raised in the Biblical book of Job. Is God all-powerful? Is God good? Are human beings inherently good or evil? I do not think that God is all powerful. Nor do I think God is always good. I believe people are born amoral, completely selfish, and that they learn their ethics, morals, and how to be unselfish. I believe something created the universe, and I choose to call that something "God the Creator." I am like many of our American revolutionary founders, a Deist. I think this creator set certain laws and processes in motion, but I do not think that the Creator chooses to intervene with any regularity in human or earthly affairs. This means functionally, that God is neither all-powerful nor is the Creator always good from a human perspective since many of the natural processes do much evil from any human standpoint.

I also have faith that life has meaning, value, and purpose, and in my saner and happier moments, I perceive benevolent tendencies in life and human culture. These tendencies I sometimes also call God, but I usually think of them, to use traditional language, as the Holy Spirit at work in the world. This Godly spirit within each of us, among us in human culture, and surrounding us in nature and the universe, seems to be neither all-powerful nor all-good. It is the ideals which are seldom fully realized, the goals which are often never reached, and the integrities which are almost never completely pure. These are central and vital to whatever the world is all about and to the very definition of what we are spiritually and of what we should be doing.

The Hindus have a hyphenated god concept called the Brahman-atman. The Brahman is the Creator, powerful but nearly invisible. The atman is the God within, within each of us and at work in the world. This is the God I believe in. It is not all-powerful nor all-good from a human perspective, but It is worthy of our quests, although perhaps inaccessible to our selfish requests. It is deserving of worship and praise, and It can be spiritually helpful as guide and companion.

Perhaps the hardest lesson of life to actually accept is the fact that most of the world does not care. It is not against us. It lacks malice for us, but it is also not on our side. Most of the world simply does not care. In fact, quite often almost no one, no other person, institution community, or natural entity cares about an action or feeling important to you or me. So much of our lives are inner dramas which few others even know or care about. The few who know, who are genuinely connected to us, very often simply want us to keep functioning in ways they are accustomed to or depend on. In the abstract, they may wish us happiness; contentment or success; but what is vital to them is that we keep functioning in ways that meet their needs, or, at least, do not upset their accustomed worlds. Many people are quite willing for their significant others to be unhappy, frustrated, or even despairing as long as they keep doing their jobs and do not upset the usual expectations of their intimates.

Human beings, all beings, and as far as we know, everything, is self-centered. Each is primarily interested, concerned, and involved with itself. (Often obsessed with itself would be more accurate.) Being genuinely unselfish is so rare that it is regularly celebrated as exemplary, and vast portions of religion, ethics, and philosophy are directed to try to reinforce unselfish behaviors.

One of the central dilemmas of being human is that, on the one side, we desperately want and need people and groups that are devoted to us, love, nurture, and care for us. On the other side, we want complete freedom to pursue our self-interests without obligation, responsibility, or commitment to other individuals or groups. We want both, but the two are partially incompatible because persuading others to care for us, perhaps even to love, nurture, or to be devoted to us requires continual sacrifice of our narrow self-interest. Also, these others have their own interests, and it simply is not possible for all these interests to coincide all the time.

Human beings seem to find it easier to believe that if someone or something is not for you, then it is against you. People generally think in terms of one person or group winning and the other person or group losing. We have built this idea into human concepts across the spectrum: from the theological (saved or damned, righteous or unrighteous, chosen or infidel) to the biological (survival of the fittest), from the psychological (sane or insane, adjusted or estranged, happy or despairing) to the economic (success or failure). If we wish to have people care and to be in loving and nurturing relationships with us, how can we need to win against them all of the time? How can we build our caring relationships upon an ideology which centers on winning and losing, an ideology based upon competition?

In our intimate relationships, and certainly our adversarial relationships, we seem most of the time to end up with negative sum or zero sum games. That is, we play our respective roles into situations in which both parties feel they have lost (negative sum), or neither party feels like they have gained much (zero sum). There are also positive games, situations in which all the parties end up feeling like winners. Living lives full of positive sum games is an obviously desirable ideal for which to strive. Working consciously and consistently at creating a world in which positive sum games are the norm is one of my concrete suggestions toward genuine social progress.

How easy it is for uncaring and negative game playing to lead to evil is deftly reflected in the classic movie Absence of Malice. In the movie an enterprising journalist, played by Sally Field, discovers and writes a story about a possible mob connection to a labor union murder. It implicates an importer, who is played by Paul Newman. As the lawyer for the newspaper explains, Sally Field's story will probably harm this man, but from the legal standpoint, the newspaper lacks malice. The newspaper is just trying to discover the truth; it means no harm to the individual, and it cannot be successfully sued for libel. In the course of the movie Newman loses his workers, his business is ruined, and a young female friend’s secret abortion is exposed and she commits suicide, Newman’s life is significantly ruined by Field’s false accusations. Innocent of the accusations, Newman manages with persistence and ingenuity, and by using his affair with Fields, to discover all those who caused his grief. He revenges himself impressively, and legally upon all concerned. Ruined as she is, Field (in line with film world principles) loves Newman for it. However, he is wise enough to disappear into the mists.

Despite the clichés, the movie treats women like human beings. They can be intelligent, hard-working, creative and successful. At the same time, like male characters, they can be wrong and do evil, even in the absence of malice. This is what Sally Field did in this movie, and it is what I think we all do regularly, but usually in less dramatic ways.

Evil needs a context of consent. Hitler was a bad man, but enough Germans consented to the practice of his evil to make it possible. Too many Serbians accepted the atrocities as normal behavior, and now their victims are turning upon them. Usually, the people creating the context of consent are not neutral. They are, in fact, prejudiced against their potential victims but not normally prepared to act against them. This vast majority are often, however, all too willing to stand by while violence, or at least violation, takes place. The average German had prejudices against the Jews. The average Israeli has been taught that Palestinians are inferior, do not constitute a nationality, and are all potential terrorists. Sally Field wants a story, but initially she sees Newman as just another mob figure going free. These are representative of the contexts of consent which make evil possible.

People think they are being fair, but their fairness is often built on ignorance, prejudice, or faulty feelings. Their justice is created in a context that lacks personal experience or is prejudiced by too few personal experiences. Certainly, we need to begin by discovering the truth, by getting accurate and full information, but informed neutrality is not enough. I do not think people can usually be neutral and fair or neutral and just. People are too likely to feel that if they are not for someone, some group, or something, then in some senses they are against them. There is already much too much neutrality in the world. We need to move beyond absence of malice neutrality toward genuine human goodness.

We need always to begin by being responsible for ourselves. Negativism is self-defeating and needs to be minimized. Those who actively violate others need to be effectively constrained. However, curbing evil and being fair only gets us to the zero point between good and evil. To do real justice, we need to care. We need to stop destroying ourselves with guilt. We need to stop separating ourselves from others by making them enemies. We need to discover the worthiness in ourselves and in other people. A key may be to discover what we can identify within ourselves and in our own dreams that also exists in others, both negatively and positively. Recognizing our own complicity in evil, while rejecting evil deeds as appropriate behavior, and seeking to act with compassion and love are important steps toward growing beyond a world caught in violence and the celebration of transgressions.

People and groups do evil, but they are not evil. We need to change evil acts to useful ones and transform evil situations to healthy ones. A basic step in accomplishing this transformation is striving persistently for good means to our good ends. Permitting evil for good causes is still a game for winners and losers. Often it is a negative sum game where everyone loses both the game and their integrity and principles. Positive sum games can become a cultural norm. Everyone "winning" makes a real difference.

However, it feels as though sometimes that most of us have a hard time even mustering sufficient caring and social responsibility for our few intimates. How are we going to manage to really care for everyone and everything? I see us and people like us torturing ourselves by watching television news, by reading well-written reports, and by listening to passionate sermons on the manifold sufferings of the world It seems that our very ability to care is about to be drowned by overkill. We are becoming numb.

Begin at home. Consider yourself a worthy but unfinished project. Push yourself and get past thinking that the absence of malice is goodness, that neutrality is fair, and that standing idle is justice. We need to care. We can only fulfill our own dreams through other people, and we all need to trade some of our selfish whims for some of other people, and work out, through reciprocity, the answers that none of us started with. We need to do this in community.

Our congregation is important because it is a community of choice which wishes to reflect the world we live in with all its richness and variety. We join together here in this congregation with people who are strangers and who have become our intimates. If we truly build these small representative worlds of choice, we change the world. Our children will know people of different races and backgrounds, not as television images, but as full human beings, unique but not unequal. Here we reach out to ideas and traditions which none of us may have grown up with, and we learn about them, seek their value, and shed our prejudices against them. Here we join together to be activists in justice, not righteous judges. We join to do good, but in the knowledge that we are no more chosen than all others, and that our own goodness is not pure, nor are our goals without self-interest.

If you find yourself being overwhelmed by televised catastrophes from around the world, turn off the tube, but do not close your eyes. Begin at home. Are you doing the good you can do? That is your responsibility, not to save the world, not to be God, but to do what you can do and thereby save and be yourself. Can you learn to love your enemies? Are you really being as loving as you can be with your intimates; your spouse, children, friends, relatives, colleagues and neighbors, or are you making them into enemies in too in many situations? Begin with your intimates: love them, honor them, be truly just with them; and maybe if you are, they will be just with you. Love cannot be demanded, and it is far from inevitable. We all tend to be selfish, and it is often difficult to get beyond our own dreams. Yet, if we want actually to find ourselves, we need to grow beyond these narrow shadows of our own selfish dreams. In doing so, we may discover that we have finally done justice to ourselves, and our absence of malice neutrality will have been slowly replaced by actually living lives sustained by love and compassion.

Evil is not cool. The unpardonable sin is separating intelligence from the heart, allowing human pride to excuse us from responsibility for our actions or from partnership in the human drama. Natural evil cannot be eliminated, but it should be ameliorated. Moral evil needs to be understood and constrained. The 20th century tendency to transform sin and evil into exciting rebellion and splendid wickedness have provided a context of consent for the radical evils of social totalitarian terrors, bureaucratic and corporate neutralities, and individual violent outrage. Absence of malice neutrality and the implicit virtues of transgression have eaten away at the foundations of culture: compassion, love, responsibility, and the social duties of forgiveness, service, and nurture. These foundations protest and reject the attitudes of metaphysical evil, those attitudes which tend to nurture diabolical behavior in the individual and prejudice and violation in tribal social groups.

We, as Unitarian Universalists, can nurture an alternative community. Accepting the grace and beauty of life but also protesting its tragedies and outrages, whether they are natural, human, or cultural. We can help to create a world based upon individual social responsibility and choice, positive sum games and interactions in society, and communities of choice and nurture, truth and compassion, justice and love. We are all capable of evil, and we all tend toward the selfish neutralities of absence of malice, and we can all do good and nurture a better world.

 

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