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The Current Rise of Sin and Evil

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At its most basic, evil is harm. To do evil to someone is to hurt, damage, or destroy the person. I find it helpful to keep in mind this basic meaning of evil, first because it clarifies some statements in the Bible, but also because it helps prevent us from understanding evil only at its extreme levels of intensity or even as a supernatural power of which we are the victims. Nice, respectable people hurt each other with words or sometimes with silence. A look of disgust can do lasting damage. Nations inflict great harm upon other, often weaker nations as we did to Iraq after our nation was attacked on September 11, 2001 but not by Iraq. The terrorist attacks on us did great harm, great evil, and so did our “shock and awe” of supposed retaliation upon Iraq.

The doing of harm can deepen into willful hurting, which may deepen further into the desire to hurt people and even delight in their pain. Then evil becomes malice and practiced cruelty. At such levels, the doing of evil ties into the desire for dominance accompanied by contempt for those who can be dominated and toyed with. Here doing harm, hurting and humiliating, becomes a habit, a commitment, and finally a need. So it is that evil swallows up the people who have thought dominance made them strong and cruelty was their right as the strong. Malice corrupts and destroys the one who surrenders to it even as that person inflicts harm upon others. This observation leads to the realization that evil is bigger and more powerful than we are. It grips, not only individuals, but nations and peoples. It dehumanizes those it empowers, driving them to appalling acts and frenzies of rage and hatred. Witness the men we see on videos screaming into the faces of women they perceive as unwanted outsiders to their “real America”; they seem insane with fury, out of control and out of their minds. They think they are confronting an evil when, in reality, evil is consuming them.

Sin may be the most misunderstood term in our moral and religious vocabulary. It is not the opposite of virtue; indeed, virtue and sin work together very well and fit nicely into the same person. Neither is sin disobedience, however much the Genesis story of humanity’s temptation and fall may seem upon superficial reading to support that definition. Sin is not merely the violation of a law, a rule, a commandment, or a vow, although such violations may result from and manifest sin. Consider the biblical commandment not to commit adultery. What does adultery violate – a rule, a marriage vow, the virtue of sexual or marital purity? No, it violates a relationship and so violates the person with whom that relationship was formed. That is what sin is in its deepest and most basic biblical meaning: the denial of relationship.

Now we may see the two concepts coming together. The doing of deliberate harm to other people requires the denial or corruption of our relationship with them. They are not “us.” They are inferior. They hate us. They are inhuman or even subhuman. They are disgusting. They belong to us as property and must be kept down, or they are outsiders who must be driven out or destroyed.

For many Americans, Donald Trump has legitimized their denial of relationship with people they see as not us, not real Americans, but outsiders who don’t belong here among us. He has made sin appear and feel patriotic, empowering, and right. So he has unleashed the resentments of people who hate being told they should welcome immigrants and understand border crossers, sympathize with refugees, seek to understand Muslims, respect women as equals, recognize skin color as irrelevant to respect and neighborliness, and be untroubled by different languages. By denying relationship, sin rejects empathy and compassion, replacing them with suspicion, disgust, and fear. What begins in Genesis as, in effect, “We will be as gods to ourselves and do not need you, God, as our God,” expands into, “You are not my brother, my sister, my neighbor, my equal, my companion in life.” From this spirit of evil flows every contemptuous name we put on groups of people we reject as having any rightful association with us, unless it be as our servants, slaves, or under-paid workers. From this spirit of evil springs every war waged in presumed righteousness, every delight in killing the despised enemy, every refusal to recognize our shared humanity.

So it happens that Jesus of Nazareth sums up all that God wants from us and for us in two inseparable commands found in the Hebrew scriptures: to love our God wholeheartedly with all we are and everything we have, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and he expands the definition of neighbor to include, not only the stranger, but even the enemy. He sets the affirmation of relationship against the denial of relationship which is sin.

Affirming relationships that have been denied and sometimes corrupted into antagonisms with long and bitter histories is no simple matter, no quick turnaround, no sweet coming together in sentimental love. Loving our enemies requires reconciliation which is very hard work requiring strenuous emotional effort from both sides and tough dedication to getting it done, despite setbacks and likely treachery from people with vested interests in keeping reconciliation from happening. One to one personal estrangements are hard to turn around because resentments have been accumulated. Hostilities between peoples, where neither side has clean hands and taking revenge has been glorified as honorable, are excruciatingly difficult to overcome. Fears and resentments run deep, and selfishness is ever at work. Treachery is always possible, and a single act of belligerence can undo years of work at building trust. Loving our enemies has nothing to do with warm, fuzzy feelings toward people who would love to hurt us. The work of reconciliation begins with recognizing their humanity as akin to our own, desiring healing rather than revenge, and trying to understand their hurts as well as ours.

Donald Trump did not create the currently rising evil. He unleashed it. Neither has he merely exposed the evil to public view; he has emboldened and empowered it so his campaign could feed it and feed upon it. If we would resist the evil and protect its intended victims, we must oppose it actively but take care not to adopt its methods and try to fight fire with fire. We must not dehumanize the Trump supporters, denying relationship with them. As in our Civil War, they are our neighbors, friends, and family members. Understanding people’s actions is not synonymous with excusing them. The history of prejudice in our nation reveals that many people have built their sense of identity and self-worth upon their presumed superiority by virtue of their whiteness, and some of their resentments are tied to perceived violations of that presumed superiority and their right to preference because of it. They see black people, Latinos, and women as cutting ahead of them in line for the American dream. Such prejudices complicate sympathy for them and stifle understanding of their pain but do not excuse us from the efforts, not only because we all have prejudices of our own, but also because we do indeed, like it or not, belong together to the God who created us to live in mutual respect, with commitment to justice and kindness.

The Talmud includes a story in which the angels of heaven ask God if they may join the Israelites in the Song of the Sea celebrating their deliverance from the Egyptian army that sought to destroy them. The children of Israel have crossed the sea on dry ground, but the waters have returned to drown the pursuing Egyptians. Cause for celebration? No, for God replies, How can you sing when my children are drowning, when the work of my hands lies dead upon the shores?

Denial of relationship with other people amounts to denial of God. Rejection of empathy and refusal of compassion open the door wide for terrible evils (great harm and rampant cruelty) without interference from conscience. Jesus launched a counter movement by insisting we do belong together, we are all related within God’s commitment to relationship with us. He gave himself to reconcile us. This is what we believe and proclaim as Christians. That so many American Christians have given their support to the current rising of sin and evil shows how deeply the rejection of relationship has corrupted the body politic of our land and the faith of American Christianity.

In long-standing hostilities, the standard defense against any suggestion of reconciling with the enemies is a litany of, “But what about . . . ?” answered with a recital of grievances and wrongs done by those enemies. Such litanies re-ignite anger even as they deflect any suggestion of self-examination. Such deflection is the use to which the abortion issue is currently put, not to reduce the number of abortions, but to claim high moral ground for supporting the rise of belligerent nationalism and racism with insistence that unqualified opposition to abortion excuses all other wrongs. As long as opposing sides continue to deflect self-examination with, “But what about (wrongs believed to be done or supported by the other side)?” reconciliation is stifled and self-righteousness prevails. Therein lies the power of sin and the grief of God.

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Confederate Monuments, a Counterpoint to My Previous Post

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See the picture. One of the ways I walk in my neighborhood goes by a fenced property, and on the fence is a sign, “Beware of Dog.”

That sign provides information, useful information I think as the dog looks to me sturdier than the fence, but also warns and intimidates. The sign not only reminds me that the property is not mine to enter but also serves to threaten me with harm if I foolishly choose to enter anyway. When I have walked by on the sidewalk, the rottweiler to which the sign refers has jumped against the fence and barked at me until I have passed. Neither my walking in the street nor speaking softly to the dog made any difference. Since I could not sooth the dog, I took its picture, and now I walk on the other side of the street or go a different way. Would the rottweiler really bite me? I don’t know, but neither do I intend to find out, which is the whole idea of the sign.

While I am not retracting my previous post about the Confederate monuments that have become focal points for controversy throughout our nation and do continue regard them as more about intimidation than history, I am taking a step to one side so I can look from a slightly different perspective. Maybe, with the help of a friend from our days as classmates in seminary, I am attempting a half-step away from my whiteness. Or maybe it’s just a reality check. Or both.

I said and say again that the monuments represent white dominion. What I need to remind myself, however, is that they are not the reality of white dominion but merely its representations. Without societal forces behind them, the statues would be just statues. Removing them is, I contend, the right thing to do, but doing so will not remove the realities they represent to living people, white and black. Neither is the needed change only about individual minds and hearts, important as such inner change is. Behind the statues are many layers of real systemic injustice that continue in our society.

My friend and former classmate Jon is black, and I am white. Jon’s skin, of course, is not truly black and mine, though pale, not truly white, but so we are labeled in society. One day as we were talking about race-related events of that time (around 1970), Jon told me something so obvious as to not need saying, except that it did need saying. I am paraphrasing as I don’t recall his actual words. He said something like, “Dick, you don’t have to think about race or skin color very often. You can go days or even weeks without paying any attention to your race or even having it come to mind. But whenever I have forgotten about race even briefly in public, out there with white folk, I have paid for it.”

I suspect most black people on most days walk by those Confederate monuments without really noticing them, until maybe they experience some sharp reminder of the white dominion those monuments represent and suddenly see them again. Certainly, just removing the monuments won’t improve their lives much, any more than removing the “Beware” sign would remove the dog.

I am not suggesting those intimidating monuments to the continuing force of the Confederacy don’t matter. I am saying the monuments themselves don’t matter enough for their removal to be enough of a change. Do hearts and minds need to be changed? Yes, which is why countering hatred and violence with opposing hatred and violence will not help. But the devils of racism and injustice are not only in the minds and hearts of individuals but also in the very structures and systems of society – of economics, business, real estate, finance, religion, and education. Racism is systemic, built into our systems, and so it continues to work its evil even without anyone’s deliberate thought or intention.

We must oppose the rampant hatred and destructive false pride of white supremacy. We must rescue black, Jewish, and immigrant children from its violence, and we must save white children from its seductive power to destroy them by playing upon their own fear, pride, and need to belong. We must also preserve our history, but the real history which includes the many ways in which slavery was indeed replaced with systemic racism. Otherwise, I can easily imagine that a black person might just caution us, “Leave the monuments alone. Unless you’re ready to make real changes in the way life works for people, in the way things are arranged to work for some people and against others, don’t just take down monuments and walk away patting yourselves on the backs as though you had just done something great for which I should thank you. I won’t thank you because, unless you do more to tame the dog of racism in our systems, I’m the one that dog you’ve angered is going to bite.”

That previous post: here

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Images of the Confederacy in Public Squares

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In his commentary on Genesis, the renowned biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad writes in partial explanation of the declaration that humanity is created in the “image and likeness of God”:

Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man is placed upon earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem. He is really only God’s representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God’s claim to dominion over the earth. (58)

The statue of the king is erected to remind friend and foe alike who rules the land and under whose dominion its people live. The image is placed to bestow pride upon those who believe they share in the king’s greatness and thrive under his authority. The image is placed also to instill fear in any who rebel against the king’s system or challenge his rule.

Such is the function of the statues placed throughout the American South in the 1920’s or during the “civil rights era” as images of such champions of the Confederacy as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. They proclaim to white people and black people alike who it is that continues to hold ideological and practical dominion over the city or state and its peoples, under whose sway they live and work. Robert E. Lee was a complex man, but it is not his complexity or his place in history that is proclaimed by the statue; it is, rather, the dominion of the Confederacy’s insistence upon the superiority of so-called white people and the inferiority of so-called black people. The statues declare whose land the South is presumed to be – not Lee’s or Davis’s, but the Old South’s. To the white they say, “You are more, no matter your station in life, your place in society, your education, or your successes and failures.” To the black they say, “You are less, no matter your station in life, your place in society, your education, or your successes and failures.”

If Robert E. Lee was indeed as great a man as some claim, then is such use of his image not an abuse of his likeness and his name? I have no desire to debate Lee’s character because it is irrelevant to the function of the statues which represent, not his greatness, but white dominion’s persistence and the expansion of it white supremacists desire.

Should the Confederacy be forgotten or hidden from people? No, like other realities of history, it should be remembered, studied, and questioned. Neither South nor North should be idealized or utterly demonized. We need to learn from what we have done and what has been done to us, from the good (and good for whom) and the bad (and bad for whom), and from the complexities of people and choices. I contend, however, that such was neither the motivation for the statues nor their effect, and I notice that those marching with guns and shields to protest their removal were not history scholars. The issue is dominion not knowledge or wisdom.

Note: I argue as do some modern biblical scholars, theologians, and other ministers that humanity serves as God’s image in creation, not by exploiting the earth’s resources and slaughtering its creatures, but by caring for them and representing for the whole human race God’s compassion and redemptive justice. The biblical metaphor of image and likeness is one of responsibility and stewardship not of privilege and sanction for greed or cruelty.

Web Site Crisis? No More

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Google threw me a curve ball. For years, I have used Picasa (which Google had acquired) to put my photo albums onto the Web so I could share them with friends and family. When I wanted to put photos onto my own Web site or the Bridgeton church’s, I did so by linking to the album on Picasa.

Our son Jonathan is a graphic designer who taught himself Web design, and when he made me a new personal Web site, he designed and built it in Word Press. At my request, he found a plug-in that displayed photo albums on my site by linking to Picasa.

Two changes have rendered that arrangement unworkable. Google has called halt to Picasa (effective in May) and migrated all Picasa albums to Google Photo. The designer and owner of the plug-in has suspended support for it, which means it will not be updated to link to Google Photo. Boom. There goes the Photography page on my Web site as well as the display of photos on my home page.

Now I more fully appreciate the work Jon did in his design and construction of my site. I was on my own for solving the problem, but the means were in place, and I did not have to do any computer coding. All I had to do was search a list for a new Word Press plug-in that promised what I wanted (and received good reviews), download and install it, then set it up on my site. That last step was a fairly big one, but I did it in one afternoon and evening.

All the photos for my albums (now called galleries) reside on my Web site, and so I am free from the vagaries of Google or any other provider of online photo storage in the cloud. I can add photos or new galleries as I wish. The plug-in, Photo Gallery, displays them as sets of thumbnails the user can search, enlarge, or run as a slide show of that Gallery.

“I did not have to do any computer coding.” Right there is the key Jon had searched for – the key to unlock Web site maintaining and updating for personal users and small businesses that neither have Web pros on the payroll nor can afford to hire contractors each time the service is needed. Did I need to “know computers,” as people say? Yes, but I did not have to know CSS, PHP, Java Script, or even HTML. Is that alphabet gibberish to you? There’s my point.

Curious about the results? Click here to see them.

My New Web Site

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My new WordPress site was designed by our son, Jonathan Sindall, who is also a graphic designer and illustrator. When Jon added Web design to his freelance capabilities, he encountered a problem frustrating small business owners and managers: updating.

A static site, one that is rarely or never updated, is merely an online brochure offering potential customers no reason to return for another look. Businesses change.

Businesses change.

They offer new products or services while discontinuing the old ones. They run specials. They rearrange their shops or showrooms to entice returning shoppers to stay and look around again. Otherwise, people poke their heads in the door, see just what they saw on their previous visit, and move on. Been there, seen that.

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