Most of us would have to confess that we really do not think that people get up in the morning planning to do evil in the world. Most of us, at least, can admit that it is really only broken people who are even capable of planning to do evil, and that the rest of us are trying to do our best, struggling with the things we are struggling with, most of which is ourselves.
This is not to excuse evil. Just because you think it is right that your people, or your way of life, or your economic system, or your corporation deserves to be in charge of this or that country, this or that people, that doesn’t actually make you right, no matter how hard you believe it. Your opinion is just not that important and it is instructive and humbling, or at least I would hope that it is humbling, to know that in acting out your beliefs, firmly held and honest, someone might interpret your actions as evil.
No matter what you think or believe, no matter how right you think you are.
As a matter of fact, it doesn’t even matter how right or wrong they are either, they are entitled to their own opinion, and so are you.
But we should all come to a place where we understand that actual, intentional evil is rare, even genocidal maniacs as often as not have an internal justification for their actions, they actually think that they are doing the right thing according to the voices in their heads.
They are the ones who we all point to and say, “They are the evil ones. They are the ones doing bad things.” We say that because they are obvious, they stand out because their actions are intentional, they move on purpose and what they do is evil in our sight and we can stand on the good side of the ledger and point and tsk tsk and feel good about ourselves and commit our lives, our fortune, our sacred honor their destruction.
I’ll bet you twenty bucks they think that we are the evil ones.
But like I said, those are the easy, the obvious example for us. We can use them to teach our children what evil looks like, we can use them as examples in arguments and in sermons, I suppose that they serve a useful purpose.
They are not the problem.
They are there, we think that they are evil, but they are also rare. With television and such they are often in our faces, for example we hear about child abductions but only when the child is photogenic or their parents are well connected and we think that those evil people are everywhere, that they are lurking around every corner, desperate to snatch away the object of our affection.
But cases like that are exceedingly rare, rare enough that even measuring them requires advanced math. But we think those evil people are everywhere and so we do not let our children play outside without someone watching them, we shy away from letting them ride their bikes across town the way I did growing up, they way everyone in Anchorage did when I was a kid, no supervision, no hovering parent, and no abductions either.
The broken people who are what we might call truly evil are rare, most of the rest of the evil we see in the world is probably a matter of perspective, people doing what they think is right and ticking us off something awful.
I wonder if we dwell on that evil because we do not want to look at the more pernicious, more pervasive evil in the world. Even more, we certainly do not want to admit the part we play in it, and all of us do it, me included, everyone who has ever lived except Christ is a party to the far more pervasive evil in this world.
It’s the mote in our eye, the thing we do that we would not want to do, (quoting Romans) it is the person looking at us from the mirror, knowing that we have done something wrong.
Sometimes we do it out of fear, we don’t want to lose our jobs so we go along to get along as they say, implementing a policy we object to because fighting the system sounds like too risky a proposition, too threatening to the security we’ve carved out for ourselves.
The German people are not inherently evil, no matter what you’ve heard, but a whole lot of them went along during the Second World War because it was easier than fighting back and risking your life. They knew what was going on was evil, and wrong and a crime against humanity, but fear is a powerful thing, it reaches into the part of our brain that formed first, that tries to keep us alive no matter what.
And so they listened to the inner voice, the part of their brain that answered the call first and they followed that voice.
But it isn’t always fear. Sometimes we go along just because it looks like the path before us will make us happy, will give us success, will be just the thing to make our reputations, our future, our legacy.
I think that the Green Center at Sonoma State is a beautiful, remarkable, actually, piece of work, it is a lovely place to hear music though I find the acoustics a little bright for my tastes. It is also, and was when it was conceived, entirely unnecessary. There was not a lack of performance space in Sonoma County. There was not a clamoring from the public to have a monument built, there was not a huge music program at the university that could make splendid use of a splendid building, there was not, no matter what they tell you, a huge pile of cash awaiting the project, begging for it to be built.
They are having some difficulty filling it.
When I first heard about it, about this Tanglewood West; I wondered, sure, the symphony is going to play there, but it isn’t very versatile, not a blues or rock club by any stretch. It just didn’t make sense to me, building so grand a building for so narrow a purpose. It seemed prideful, wasteful.
I simply cannot be the only person who thought so, but along the way programs were defunded, priorities scrapped all in service to the building of this thing that served so narrow an educational focus as to make one wonder why the university was doing it.
I am by no means equating the Holocaust with the Green Center. But a lot of people went along with an idea they objected to because it was easier, it made them look better, it satisfied some need, it brought them recognition.
The reasons for doing something you know is wrong, or even just think is wrong, are many. None of them are the acts of psychopaths or of the truly disturbed that we might call openly evil, in fact few of them are likely to be called evil in any case, they are so ordinary, so banal in our world these days, we are so used to them.
Which is sad. It is sad because a pile of “just getting alongs” can be enough to make a ridiculous prejudice into a holocaust, can take a legitimate complaint and make it into something that can keep an entire nation stuck in the mud, unable to move.
And even worse, it prevents us from being the people God made us to be.
God didn’t give us the capacity for thoughtful reflection so that we could be swept along by whatever tide came across our paths, so that we could react out of fear or greed or opportunism, blowing this way and that at the behest of our most basic instincts, our most primal desires.
But each of us has, from time to time, surrendered to different wisdom, struck a deal with ourselves to do something we thought was wrong, just to get to a place we thought was right, or at least easy.
In this morning’s Gospel, it is Pilate.
So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” for he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”
Pilate knows that what he does is wrong. Pilate’s wife knows that what he does is wrong and fears the portents of her dreams more than the dangers of her husband’s politics. Yet Pilate persists in doing what he does in order to get by, in order to maintain his position in the community, in the eyes of his bosses, the Roman Empire.
He doesn’t see another way.
That’s the real problem. We don’t see another way, we don’t hear another voice when the time comes to decide which path to take. We have had the voice of fear with us since we were children so that is a strong one and we are used to listening to it. We have the voice of the world with all of its accommodations, its rationales. We may have had them for a shorter time, but the volume is way up on those voices, the persistence of those voices, it is a force to be reckoned with.
The voice of family and tradition and culture, there is a lot of noise in most of our heads and so it is little wonder that occasionally we look to make a decision and find ourselves headed down a path that we know is wrong,. That irks us somehow, like the drawer in your kitchen full of pens that you know came from work, something just doesn’t sit right.
Pilate misses the most important voice of all, and the speaker is standing right in front of him.
There was a story on NPR the other day about a survey in which people said that they went to church at a certain rate, many of them claiming to go every week, when they actually only go sporadically. People described themselves praying far more often than their diaries would indicate. It was observed in a number of other questions as well, this tendency to lie to the survey taker and indeed to ourselves and the conclusion that the researchers came to was that we answer questions in the way we would like to be living more than in the way we are actually living, that we describe ourselves as we wished we could be.
We all have aspirations to be better, an image of ourselves that we hold dear. I think we all wish we could listen a little more to the voice of Jesus, standing right in front of us, and a little less to the voices of culture and fear and history and tradition. I think we would all, if we were to take a survey, would probably lie a little, describing a better us.
Wouldn’t it be simpler to just listen for the voice of Christ, hear His calling and follow where it leads? I don’t mean simpler in the sense that there wouldn’t be struggles, that this would be the primrose path but rather that instead of dreaming of a better us and pretending to be that person, we could just take a moment and try to live into our dream of ourselves, into Christ’s dream of us.
Palm branches were waved and strewn at the feet of the coming King. How many were greeting their king and how may were just going along? How many of those waved here were waved for the same reasons? Through the season of Lent we have striven to find in ourselves the faith, the meaning of Jesus in our lives and perhaps we ought to have been listening for the voice of Christ, the calling that enables us, ennobles us, guides our feet and our eyes and our voices.
Perhaps we ought to remember what Pilate forgot, or never heard because his attention was elsewhere.
Jesus came for him too. Jesus came to save Pilate and Caiaphas and Judas and you and me when we are sitting here ardently listening for His voice and when we are in traffic, ardently listening to the sound of our own schedule and honking the horn as if the person in front of us ought to know how much of a hurry we are in.
Jesus came for you when you were lost in sin, which is most of the time, it is woven into the fabric of our society it seems. Keep the palm frond for a week and from time to time look at it and try and hear the voice of Christ calling to you, banishing your fear, leading you toward eternity.
When you come to Holy Week services, carry the palm, watch how it and the branches strewn here at Jesus feet wither and fade and then finally, in a week’s time, come witness then defeat of time and sin and death, the defeat of the way things are done, the death of just going along. Come and witness the rebirth of hope, the sign for us all that we need not be afraid to listen to His voice, it will never leave us, and it will lead us home.