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SERMON: On the Elusiveness of Evil

Evil is a very tricky thing to figure out, indeed.

One of the reasons why it is so hard to understand, is because it is always showing up in new ways or masquerading as something other than itself.

Also, it commonly looks so similar to other, essentially benign things that we are often inclined to think that evil is occurring when, in fact, it isn't.

Because of all of this, we humans-in spite of our extraordinary, innate ability to distinguish between "right" and "wrong"-continue to be baffled by the phenomenon of evil.

We will attempt to shed some light on what is the most stubborn sticking-point in our collective effort to unravel the mystery of evil, i.e., the debate over the relationship between suffering and evil.

Indeed, work in general involves a certain amount of pain and suffering- otherwise it would be called play. Yet, no one would argue that work is, by definition, evil.

Specifically, it is because we have failed to sort out the true relationship between suffering and evil (and also the relationship between happiness and good), that we have so much trouble understanding the complex nature of evil.

No one can pretend to understand the nature of evil, or to be able to define the exact relationship between it and suffering, but we do think that we can say a few important things that should inform our inquiry. First, we, as humans, routinely make the mistake of assuming that anything that causes us pain is evil: we think of pain and evil as having a one-to-one relationship; the presence of pain equals the presence of evil, and, inversely, the presence of pleasure equals the presence of good. This is a false assumption.

Indeed, there are certain types of suffering that are constructive, for example the "painful" process of preparing for an exam or a paper at work, or that of admitting to someone that you have made a mistake or the pain of a vaccine shot to protect us from much worse illnesses. Indeed, work in general involves a certain amount of pain and suffering- otherwise it would be called play. Yet, no one would argue that work is, by definition, evil. So, we must admit that certain painful experiences are good, and this begins to open up new possibilities for redefining the nature of evil.

The second factor that our collective attention should be drawn to in trying to sort this all out is the phenomenon of intention. There is a fundamental, moral difference between acts which have a malicious intent, and those that do not. For example, an accidental death (which could be caused by a thunderstorm, a car accident, or an illness) should not be compared to murder. We should not lump together acts of violence, or other harmful acts, that involve discernible malice with those that don't - nor should we assume that malice exists when it is not discernible (i.e., on the part of God or any other un-spoken-for party). In sum, the consciousness behind an act matters as to whether or not it constitutes evil.

If we combine the two tools that we have offered up, we end up with a two-part commandment like this: "Judge the nature of an experience, as evil or as good, not by whether it yields immediate pain or pleasure, but by its long-term implications; and, look particularly for a silver lining in those experiences which are painful, yet involve no manifest malicious intent on the part of any human being, i.e. those that are "accidental" or "acts of God."

Adapted from a sermon by Daniel Paul Nelson as submitted to www.Thecoolgroup.org

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