Friday, September 20, 2013

the problem of good

A Sermon Delivered to Willmar UU Church,

September 15, 2013,

            I’d like to start this morning’s sermon by reciting the names of four young women. I’ll bring them up again later. Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair.

I almost don’t know where to start because this involves a situation about which most of you will have thought about more than I have. As a result, I’m going to make this a shorter sermon than usual so we have more time than usual for community dialogue.

            In the event someone isn’t familiar with the facts of the situation, they are these. The body of 79 year old Lila Warwick was found the evening of Monday, July 29th of this year, at her home on Highway 12. She had failed to pick up her daughter that morning and didn’t show up for volunteer duties at that evening’s Bible study. A Kandiyohi County deputy was asked to check on her welfare and discovered her body in her basement. She had been strangled, stabbed multiple times with a 20-inch sword-like knife, and thrown down her cellar stairs. It’s not reported that I can locate but my guess is she died from loss of blood and blunt trauma. Over the course of two days three teenagers were arrested for her murder. One of the teens is her grandson.

            The teen who is charged with the actual murder, 19 year old Brok Junkermeier, has given testimony that suggests the murder happened this way. Robbing Lila Warwick had been planned for the previous week, but been abandoned. Junkermeier entered Warwick’s home through her garage early Monday morning, about 6:45, where he apparently met up with her. The third teen arrested, 16 year old Devon Jenkins, kept watch outside the garage for witnesses or police. Warwick’s grandson, 17 year old Robbie, who stayed in the car they’d arrived in, had provided the access code or it may have been a key, stories differ, to the garage door. Junkermeier forced Warwick to show him her online bank balance and then to write a check for $1500 before killing her. Then he collected some items from the house—no one has reported what they were; given Junkermeier’s previous convictions for theft and receiving stolen property, we might presume they were easily sold things like electronics and jewelry—and as he was loading them in the back seat Junkermeier told Jenkins and Robbie he had killed Robbie’s grandmother. The three boys apparently went on with their lives as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened; Junkermeier, in fact, was arrested at his part-time job at a local printer.

Both Junkermeier, who seems to be the teen who is talking as most news stories focus on him, and Jenkins claim the idea and planning for the robbery of his grandmother was Robbie Warwick’s, although no one has explained if Lila Warwick’s murder was part of the plan. People who know the three of them say Robbie was the leader of the group. Apparently the impetus for the crime was his conviction that his grandmother had $40,000 in a safe, but that was only wishful thinking. Robbie says he was to receive $300 for having given Junkermeier access.

            While Brok Junkermeier’s and Devon Jenkins’ series of events and how we believe or disbelieve them are subject to interpretation, the facts are not. And the fact that Lila Warwick is dead and that evidence points to her grandson Robbie’s intimate involvement with it is, given what we have heard, incontrovertible we have to ask ourselves why we feel especially repulsed. I don’t think I speak only for myself when I say there is something repugnant, absent extreme circumstances, in the death of a old woman caused, at least somehow, by her grandson. Particularly when we have testimony that his grandmother allowed him to stay with her when he was at an ebb and helping him to get help for his drug issues. Interestingly, the only drug I read about Robbie being involved with was marijuana which is not typically a drug causing massively uncharacteristic behavior so we are forgiven if we assume, as I do, that he was already inclined to do the things he did. His cousin reports Robbie hated his grandmother, perhaps resenting what he saw as meddling or an attempt to control him. At this point, beyond the $300 he was supposed to receive—some news reports say it was $700 which is a good indication how little we still really know about this situation—we don’t know Robbie Warwick’s rationale for providing the victim and the means of access.

            Here’s the question that as people of faith we must ask ourselves: Leaving aside the question of whether someone is also his actions, is Robbie Warwick evil?

            I’m going to give you the answer in advance. The answer is that I don’t know the answer. I doubt anyone knows the answer, not with certainty, although given how much thought a lot of people have given the question over millennia, I’m sure someone will eventually come up with the answer. It’s probably one of those million-monkeys-on-a-million-typewriters sort of thing.

            Just because I don’t think anyone has the answer yet doesn’t mean I can’t go to someone who might have a better clue than me. In this instance it’s the author Terry Eagleton who published an essay on evil in the magazine Tikkun two years ago. You might not be familiar with Eagleton’s name unless you are up on your contemporary MarxistBritish literary critics. He’s one of the last self-identifying Marxist academics, teaching at the National University of Ireland in Galway, and publishing a book in 2010 called simply OnEvil.

            Eagleton begins with the question, Why “is evil so sexy, and so profoundly glamorous? And why does virtue seem so boring?” I might rephrase it to ask, Why is doing evil or allowing evil to happen so appealing? Well, I do have an answer for this question: Evil is appealing because to do or allow evil is easy. Doing the easy thing is not always evil but doing evil is always easy.

            Eagleton calls evil “a kind of lack or defectiveness, a sort of nothingness or negativity, an inability to be truly alive. Evil may look lively, seductive, and flamboyant, but this is just the flashy show it puts on to cover up the hollowness at its heart. It is the paper-thinness of evil, its brittle unreality” that gives it away. I’m reminded of a scene from the second Austin Powers movie when Dr. Evil is confronted by his son, Scott Evil, on the Jerry Springer Show. He’s asked by his son, “Why’d you run out on me?” To which his father replies, “Because you’re not quite evil enough. You’re quasi-evil, you’re semi-evil. You’re the margarine of evil. You’re the Diet Coke of evil.”

            Those “who are evil,” Eagleton continues, “can only manage a kind of sham, inauthentic life, a ghastly parody of genuine life; and they derive this life from their own sufferings and from the sufferings they inflict on others…Only in being in atrocious pain can the evil persuade themselves that they are still alive.” By this light, assuming Robbie Warwick wanted his grandmother to suffer and felt justified only by her suffering and not the $300 or $700 he expected to receive after his friend robbed her, then yes, his actions were evil. Does this mean Robbie Warwick is also evil? I’m not prepared to go there.

            Eagleton further explains that “virtue is really all about enjoying yourself, living fully,” that people who do “evil…cannot bear the fact that they are incomplete—which is to say, cannot bear the fact that they are human,” that they “are pathological purists for whom [the] intolerably messy and indeterminate” aspects of life are anathema, and “are precisely those [people] who don’t enjoy an orgy.”

            We’ll let that last line stand without comment. Eagleton’s point is that “a genuine human community…can only be [constituted] on the basis of our shared failure, frailty, and mortality. This is a community of repentance and forgiveness, and it represents everything that is the opposite of the American Dream.” You may have thought I was kidding about that Marxist crack. If Eagleton is right, “that to be stripped of our culture and civilization, of all that makes for difference and specificity, is…to cease to be human altogether,” then it’s in the recognition of our own ability to be both evil and virtuous, as the Lutherans say, to be simultaneously sinner and saint, that our humanity lies. I don’t know if Robbie Warwick recognizes or regrets the evil he has done but he is profoundly human in having allowed it to bubble to the surface.

My friend RobMacDougall, a United Church of Christ minister in Menomonie, Wisconsin, was once asked how he can be certain there is a god in the face of all the evil that happens around us daily. He responded that the proof was in all the people who weren’t murdered or raped or hurt. While I’m not sure I agree with his conclusion I can’t fault his thesis. The fact remains there are a lot of people who aren’t killed or hurt. While it’s true there are many who do, there many, many more who do not wake up hungry or in pain, whose lives are essentially pleasant to them, whose grandchildren do not plan to rob them. Anglican Bishop NT Wright has written that the problem for humanity is not, Why is there evil? but, Why is there good?

            Evil, as I said, is easy. It should be our default setting. But human behavior, that massive cauldron of possibilities, does not support this. Most people do not act out of self-interest, enlightened or not. Most people act in other people’s interest even if they don’t think of it that way. Consider the simple act of flushing a public toilet that we’ve just used. We get nothing of value out of it, we’ve already used it, and there’s no reason we should feel confident leaving our mess for the next person to clean up. Similarly, yoga guru KrishnaDas has pointed out with amazement that many people show up daily at centers and churches where they try to get themselves straight with the universe. What’s amazing, he says, is that we seek anything outside ourselves. Why aren’t we all sitting at home getting drunk and eating cheeseburgers?

            Think on this. This is Sunday morning. Why aren’t we nursing hangovers and watching the game alone? Why are we in church where we gather with others to sing and talk and, we hope, learn a little more about ourselves? How can that possibly benefit us more than a Jameson single malt and a Big Mac?

            The answer may lie in this story. In yesterday’s mail I received an envelope with a thin slip of paper in it. It’s a thank-you note from a gentleman I’ve never met in Bigfork, MN, not far from Bemidji.

            I take walks during my lunch break at the bookstore where I work part time and the store is in a mall.  About a week ago I noticed a slip of paper on the floor. I picked it up and it turned out to be a check for $50.

            The check had been drawn on an account at a bank in Bigfork and when I got home that night I put it in an envelope with a note telling how I’d come to find it. I didn’t include my name since I didn’t expect to hear anything back, but I put my return address on the envelope so if the address was wrong it wouldn’t get lost. Picture this, two people communicating not by name but by addresses—to me this gentleman was 55096 Gale Lake Road and to him I am 2509 County Road N—as if we were playing a game of putting pins on a map. His note to me reads, “Thank you for finding a check I wrote to my grandson and sending it back to me. You are a very good person and they are hard to find. Thanks again, Jim Lissick.”

            He has a name for me now. We are two strangers who exist for one another only because of a good deed, and I don’t think I’m immodest making a claim to that deed. It wasn’t a heroic act. I simply bent down and picked it up and then sent it away. When I saw the envelope in my mail I had to think hard to place where I had heard of Bigfork, MN. It proves my argument, that evil is both easy and rare, that its acts stand out in our collective memory while our virtuous acts are so commonplace we forget about them.

            Picking up that check and returning it didn’t benefit me in any way, unless you count some vague warm fuzzy sensation of internal feel-good. It certainly wasn’t in my self-interest—my self-interest lay in cashing that $50 check. I think Jim Lissick and I are both aware that was a possibility and it says something about me, but about other people too, that that didn’t happen. Balladeer Bruce Springsteen sings, “You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t riseabove.” It’s in knowing which actions we can’t live with ourselves having done that the good happens.

            Finally, is Robbie Warwick or Devon Jackson or especially Brok Junkermeier evil for what they’ve done? I don’t think so. Their actions were evil and so was their inaction—behaving as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, acting as if their lives, now that Lila Warwick’s had ended, would simply go on—but unlike Terry Eagleton I’m not ready to lump people and their acts together. Surely, if we can opt for church over cheeseburgers, then turning their lives around is possible for these boys. It’s in the nature of being human to seek something outside ourselves—god, beloved community, the universe, call it what you will—and I don’t doubt that impetus will manifest itself in these boys too. Meanwhile, paraphrasing Springsteen, we must rise to the level of actions whose doing we can live with.

            And those girls’ names I mentioned at the start. They are the 4 little girlsfamously killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church inBirmingham 50 years ago today. When we are down, when we are certain evil has won and will always win and we’re left fighting the good fight whose end is always in doubt, we need to remember that, in this country, that event is a watershed. It was an evil act whose repetition would call down such a rebuke from people we cannot even imagine it. We must remember that when it comes to evil acts there are lines beyond which no one is willing to cross.


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