I know there are scarier kids’ movies now than Wizard of Oz. In fact, I bet some of you don’t consider it frightening at all. Maybe you only remember the friendly little Munchkins, or the Good Witch of the North, or the dazzling red slippers. The rainbow and the yellow brick road.
But, for me, the movie had some really scary parts — the kind that keep you up at night — and make you want to crawl into bed with someone else, even your little brother — like, of course, the tornado which lifted Dorothy’s house in the air.
But it wasn’t the tornado itself that scared me — but the image of that mean lady bicycling after Dorothy, the one that threatened to have her beloved dog Toto taken away.
That dreadful, horrible… EVIL… person who would snatch a pet, her face as big as the screen almost, threatening, cackling, coming closer and closer.
Worst still, she becomes the Wicked Witch of the West in the Land of Oz where Dorothy and Toto set down. And it turns out that she holds the key, as it were, to all that Dorothy and her traveling companions — the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Lion — desire. To have a brain, to have a heart, to have courage, to return home to Kansas, they must travel to the West, to the Land of the Winkies.
If the Great and Terrible Oz is to grant them their wishes, they must destroy this very Witch.
None of the traveling companions want to destroy the Wicked Witch, no matter how nasty, mean, evil she is, The Lion, who says he is too cowardly. The Scarecrow, who says he is too much a fool. The Tin Woodsman, who hasn’t the heart, he says, even to harm a Witch.
Dorothy declares that she is sure she doesn’t want to kill anybody, even to see her Aunt Em again.
But they go anyway.
Unlike the road to see the Great Oz, which was marked with yellow bricks, when Dorothy asks the Guardian of the Gates which road leads to the Wicked Witch of the West; he tells her that there is no road because no one ever wishes to go that way.
How, then, will they find this witch?
That will be easy, the man tells her. When she knows that you are in her country, the Land of the Winkies, she will find you and make all of your her slaves.
Perhaps not, the Scarecrow tells him. For they mean to destroy her.
No one has ever tried to do that before, the Guard tells them. Take care, he tells them, because she is wicked and fierce and may not let you destroy her.
Just keep going West, he points, where the sun sets, and there you will find her.
If you remember the original children’s book or the movie, the Wicked Witch spots the band with her telescope and sets her Winged Monkeys on them after her fierce wolves and wild crows and stinging bees fail to kill them. And while the Monkeys could harm the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodsman, they could not harm Dorothy. Because they saw the mark of the Good Witch’s kiss upon her forehead.
We dare not harm this little girl, the Leader of the Winged Monkeys declared. For she is protected by the Power of Good, and that is greater than the Power of Evil.
For me, this story of the struggle of one little girl in a strange land against the most wicked of wicked Witches, who enslaves all who try to destroy her and makes them an instrument of her own wickedness, is as good a way as any of trying to answer the question I was asked about what Unitarian Universalists believe about evil.
Evil. Causing great harm, physical or moral. Wickedness, sin, depravity.
A really wonderful new book just came out called Religion for Dummies. Like all of us, there are some parts of it I agree with, and some parts I don’t, but one of the things that the book talks about is that, while some people seem to live happy lives without giving much thought to life’s really big questions, we don’t really believe most people can actually get through life without occasionally thinking about those things.
One of the big questions, the writers tell us, is what evil is, and perhaps more important and mysterious — because that is what a religious question is — why does evil exist?
As one of our older children asked me the answer to a question he had been thinking about. Why are there drug dealers?
And other bad people.
I know, I think, the people he was talking about, the people who hang around neighborhoods, hang around school yards, with their stuff to sell. I actually never believed they would really come so close to very young kids until I saw it myself on a recent weekend morning.
Sitting on the benches in the bright winter daylight, just waiting for customers on new dirt bikes or scooters.
Young, young customers. The ones who tell their moms and dads that they were late coming home because they took a new way back, or they have to go over to see some “friends” at the ball field.
Some friends, all right. Not much older than them to be sure. Working, I am sure, for someone older and richer and badder than them. But nonetheless doing something that MOST of us would consider to be morally harmful. Selling drugs to children. Putting themselves and others in danger.
Here in this country and all over the world.
Indeed, there is a movie out right now called, ironically, City of God, about a slum, a barrio in Brazil, where children, boys and girls, join gangs at a very early age. First they act as lookouts for the older drug dealers, then they deliver the drugs, and if they rise through the ranks, they become Lords. They rule the mean streets and alleys of their broken-down neighborhoods. By shooting and stabbing each other.
Because the alternative, as they see it, is basically nothing — playing in the dirty creeks, in the rubble, in the muddy streets. Staying poor and stuck. Maybe worse than death.
Is what they do evil? Are they evil? Where is the evil?
These are questions that they may not yet even be asking themselves, these terribly young people, these eight-year-old, ten-year-old children. But it makes me wonder every time I hear about or witness such sad, such alarming, events, I wonder. I ask myself why such things happen. And what, then, can be done?
If we agree that evil is something we actually do that causes harm to another living being or group of living beings, then why does it happen?
Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, who call themselves the God Squad and who wrote the new book I told you about, came up with a list of possible explanations for evil. Listen for which ones you might agree with:
- Evil is a mistake made by basically good and decent people
- It is a natural response of our deeply sinful basic natures
- The result of the devil’s seductions of basically weak people
- An illusion
- A mistake in our past life
- Proof there is no God.
While ours is a free faith, I would say that if you believe that evil is the result of the devil’s seductions of basically weak people, or even that it is a natural response to our deeply sinful basic natures, you might feel more comfortable and supported in another religious community, because in the history and at the heart of our several-hundred-year tradition is the belief that we are not born sinful or evil. If anything, we have erred on the side of believing that there is no real evil or, certainly, as my young questioner called them, really bad people. There was, in other words, no original sin, no permanent stain that every human being is born with, that must be cleansed in order for them to be good at all. To be right with God. To be saved.
There is no outer devil, no demon to struggle against, to be in battle with.
We would tend to land on the side of, as our first Unitarian Universalist principle affirms, the inherent worth and dignity of each person. I think, in we used to be a more cheerful, more privileged, and protective lot and tended to believe that there really is no evil, really aren’t people who, if not bad, do mostly bad things.
But it’s hard to hold on to that belief anymore. So we have had to look at what we believed and test it some.
So, now we more often say that we are born with worth and dignity, born with goodness, and circumstances get in the way. Sometimes from the very beginning.
Childhood experiences. Where we live. What we see around us. What choices are offered us. The world we live in — the world of our family, our community, our country, our world.
If you ask me what I believe, I would answer that we are born with the grace, as it were, of goodness and the potential for living that out. And as human beings faced with both circumstances not of our own making and choices of our own making we live imperfectly, very imperfectly. Our life’s journey is one of navigating the circumstances — and, yes, even changing them — and making choices for ourselves and for our larger world community that let the light, the power of goodness, live in and through us.
Call it naive, call it vastly wishful thinking. But that’s what I must put my faith in, and I think that is one of the most important premises of this living faith tradition.
It isn’t an easy faith and it isn’t an easy journey. Just like Dorothy in the story of Oz, who had finally to travel on a road with no directions. Captured and held prisoner in a land of enslaved creatures.
In the story of Dorothy in the Land of Oz, Dorothy is held captive for some time. While the witch cannot harm her directly — because she has the mark of the Good Witch on her and the power of her slippers — she cannot escape and she cannot help her dog or her traveling companions, who have been gravely wounded.
When the witch finally snatches one of her slippers, the little girl becomes so angry that she picks up a bucket of water and throws it on the witch.
The wicked woman gives a loud cry of fear, and then the Witch begins to shrink and fall away.
“Did you not know that water would be the end of me?” she wails.
Why water? And what does that look like in these times?
In this story, as in many other myths and stories and scripture about things that matter most, water may be a symbol for cleansing, for redeeming. For goodness and nurturance.
In this story, in so many old stories, this is what offsets, even destroys evil. Not fire with fire. But water that drowns the fire. That cleans, that nurtures.
At the end, neither the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, or the Lion get what they wanted from the very human Oz. He reminds them that they were always there — the brains, the heart, the courage. They just had to be tested by experience.
And it was and is these very qualities — our minds, our hearts, our moral courage — that can make us whole in the very real story of our own lives.
That can overcome the evil without and the evil within.
And perhaps can even save the world.