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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

Guilty Bystanders? | August 6, 2023 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton




Evil is faceless

because it can take over any one of our beings.

No one is exempt from the possibility of evil.

The reality of evil calls for alertness.


The opening quote comes from Matthew Fox. He says evil is faceless, yet how can we believe that? On this anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, how can we say that? The face of evil is perhaps no where so apparent than in the results of that bombing and the second bombing in Nagasaki…where it is estimated that over 200,000 people were killed in seconds…where all people exposed to those events have suffered the far-reaching effects of the blasts. There is indeed a face or faces to that evil. But what Fox says is true…we need to be alert, for at any time this force can take over our beings…sometimes we are aware of this and sometimes we are not…sometimes we are the actual perpetrators and sometimes we are what Thomas Merton, and before him James Farmer called guilty bystanders. Indeed no one is exempt from the possibility of evil. Fox continues his examination of evil…


Perhaps evil is inevitable in a universe as powerful and creative and full of eating and being eaten, living and dying as ours is. Perhaps evil is to blessing what terror is to beauty. Perhaps evil is the moral equivalent of terror, the moral counterpoint of beauty. Just as beauty and terror go together, so do goodness and evil, blessing and malice. Perhaps.


I like Fox’s framing of this examination with the word perhaps. There is a sense that we do not know if evil (as we define evil) is inevitable. Yet we do know that eating and being eaten and living and dying is part of our experience. Still, it seems that these are natural processes that enable life to go on. Evil, though perhaps inevitable, is not acceptable…it is not something that we have to accept without trying to do something about it! Indeed, this is for many of us, our life’s purpose…to counteract evil in the world…to soothe the suffering and terror…to right the wrongs of previous generations…and to follow in the footsteps of those, like James Farmer and Thomas Merton tried, in their own ways to cultivate beauty and to fight the terror of their times. And they may have learned from that pain, that darkness, that terror, that evil…Fox continues his consideration of evil…


Pain is a teacher The darkness is a teacher. The shadow is a teacher. Those who awaken our shadows are teachers. Even evil is a teacher.


I think most of this know about this teacher. The physical and emotional pain that we must endure in life can, if we allow it, teach us. If we are able to be alert to its lessons…as Fox said, the reality of evil calls for alertness. We must be awakened to our teachers and not asleep. We must face this evil around us…much like our own Vahid Razavi is doing tonight in his event in remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, entitled Harmony for Humanity: Uniting for Peace on Hiroshima Day. These are the kind of events that will give us the strength…the support…the grounding for our work. We need support…the support of each other and the support of the all-pervading presence that undergirds Life…the Greatest Gift of All.


Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to this support. He even says that God speaks to each of us as he makes us…

then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall:

go to the limits of your longing.


Embody me.


Flare up like a flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.


Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.


Rilke acknowledges that we have our original instructions from the Creator. He says that we are to go to the limits of our longing…and to flare up like a flame so that God can move…that life can take on the shape of justice and of peace. He says to just keep going…give me your hand. Perhaps he is saying that we need to have faith…despite the sometimes unbearable and overwhelming evil, hatred, and suffering…we need to remember our roots…our roots in love. And we need to hold hands…we cannot do this alone…


Thurman writes about this challenging situation…to keep going, despite our doubts…despite the temptation to give up. He grounds his thoughts in faith and in love. He writes …


Faith teaches us that God is love. This is a very difficult affirmation for the human spirit at times, because of the overwhelming amount of human misery and suffering by which our days are surrounded. All over the world, at this very moment, there is agony deeper than any formula of expression, the dumb inarticulate throb of which can only be sensed by a sympathy and understanding infinite and limitless in grasp. Too, so much of human misery is poured out upon the innocent and helpless that life seems to be possessed of a vast, hideous deviltry.


I am often struck by Thurman’s words…how much they seem to be describing our own times. He says that this statement that God is love is a very difficult affirmation in our time. Instead of life being a great gift, he says that life seems to be possessed of a vast, hideous deviltry. Yet, Thurman is grounded…he is rooted in his overwhelming faith and certainty that God…the All-Pervading Presence of the Holy…is love. This is not the anemic, sentimental love of so much in our culture, but the love that Dr. King spoke of…a love that implements the demands of justice. It is indeed our work to gain the power needed in order to correct everything that stands against love. We do this when we let everything happen to us…both beauty and terror…we need to face the terror of the present moment and of past moments where we may have been implicated or were only guilty bystanders. We do this with the strength of our Creator…with the guidance of our original instructions. And if we cannot remember those instructions…if we need help in knowing how to implement them, we need only to look to seers and prophets in history and in our present time…Merton and Farmer, Dr. King and Dr. Thurman, Vahid Razavi and Dr. Dorsey Blake, Matthew Fox and Rainer Maria Rilke and all those countless souls that are not highlighted by history such as, Sojourner Truth, Pauli Murray, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rachel Carson, Hildegard of Bingen and so many more. They will tell us what we need to do. They will tell us our culpability in the evil of the past and the evil we are facing today.


Is now the time to awaken from our slumber? Is now the time to cultivate a sense of alertness to the present moment? Tracy Chapman asks, If not now, then when?





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