Sin and evil are two terms that Unitarian Universalists, with good reason, don’t like to use anymore.
Original sin, the idea that every person is born ready and willing to rebel against the divine laws of God, was something our forebears reasoned did not exist. The concept gained popularity with Calvinism, and Unitarians intellectually knew that wasn’t true. Universalists knew that God would not create beings doomed to sin, that God is a source of love. When as original sin became less popular, so did belief in evil. There were no literal demons out there, always tempting us to do bad things.
And then we wake up to the news that over fifty people were killed in Las Vegas, and over 500 more were wounded. In a span of seven minutes. By one man.
Many words can describe it – it was wrong, it was a tragedy, it was monstrous, deplorable, awful, hateful, a catastrophe on a scale experienced in war zones, terrorist attacks, and riots.
But is it sin? Is it evil? How do we explain what happened from a religious and spiritual point of view? How are we called to respond?
For me, I find the religious terms still useful. I do not think humanity is generally evil nor are we supernaturally predestined to sin. Evil is the only way to describe what happened.
When stocks in gun companies rise after a mass shooting, profiting off of the death of people, that is evil.
When other countries in the world have implemented laws that virtually eliminated mass shootings but US politicians do not, that is evil.
When over 77% of the US populace does not own a gun, and 90% of the population wants gun control reform and yet it does not happen, that is evil.
Yet, this is a comfortable stance to take, isn’t it? Conveniently, it’s someone else’s fault; politicians, corporations. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about the “Moral Man and Immoral Society” that somehow, evil is always society’s fault, not mine.
If I want to, as Mahatma Gandhi said, be the change I wish to see in the world, I have to see how I have participated in the system of evil that allowed this tragedy to happen.
Do I own stock through my retirement accounts or other investments that is now benefiting from the Las Vegas shooting? I don’t know.
Did I check to see if the people I was voting for had gun control as one of their platform issues? No, not really.
Did I spend hours reading the news about the shootings, but not 15 minutes to call my representatives to say I am for gun control? Yes.
I’m sure I could think of more. How would you answer these questions for yourself?
By constantly focusing on the individual actions of one shooter instead of thinking about what I can do to make systemic change, I absolve myself of responsibility. I take away my own power to make the world a better place. And I perpetuate a system of evil. This doesn’t mean that I, or anyone else, is inherently bad. It means that I believe we can always do better. That there is a beloved community I must help build, if I can see how I’m connected to the good as much as I am connected to the evil. I must be comfortable with the idea that evil exists, and that there is a way for it to be healed.
Being part of a religious community allows for this introspection, a place to hold my hurts, to confess what I’ve done wrong, to figure out how I can do better. We come from a tradition that recognizes the divinity of each person. Each one of us has the power to heal ourselves and our society. Our forebears said that we are all ministers to all peoples. May we live up to this vision. In the wake of tragedy, may your capacity to heal flourish.
(For a deeper reflection of this theme, see http://www.uuworld.org/articles/sin-personal-systemic )