Moving Beyond Evil: Wisdom from Howard Thurman

For two weeks or so—interrupted by several meditations on generosity—we have been meditating on Evil.  That is an important meditation for Evil is possible wherever humans gather. Evil is often in the air like a wind that brings chaos with it.

It takes self-criticism and criticism of one’s institutions including government and media, religion and the legal world, agriculture and art, to begin to stand up to Evil.

Self-Reflection of woman in mirror. Photo by Brad Lloyd on Unsplash

Indeed, Evil is smart and loves to attach itself to power places and to do so subtly as long as possible, hiding from plain sight.  Evil happens.  And it can happen anew with each generation if we are not vigilant.

The lessons to learn from Hitler and his cult are many.  His followers were completely subservient to him.  Whatever he said or did or wanted to do was fine with him—he gave the marching orders and his followers cravenly followed.  Cowardice reigned—courage went out the door.  Fear took over souls and society alike.  Resentment reigned.

Violent riot police retaliate against protestors. Photo by Spenser on Unsplash

Hitler’s followers were not just everyday citizens responding to promises of a better life but government officials, judicial pooh bahs, university professors, fellow politicians, media experts, business men and industrialists who abandoned all conscience to participate in his cult. 

One person described such a movement as a cult of persons “hopelessly addicted to power.”  Yes, power was everything so it took precedence over everything else.  Truly an idolatrous goings on.  Power was god and Hitler cultists worshipped at the feet of the fuhrer who could do no wrong.

Young Adult eco-justice activists protesting on behalf of the planet.Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash.

One fights evil with all that one has at one’s disposal.  This includes moral outrage and the energy that accompanies such outrage—the energy to resist and to gather allies and to strategize and to interfere with lies and resentments that are being preached. 

We do not want to spend too much time in the room with evil.  We do not want to give it all the headlines.  Evil is itself narcissistic and wants the spotlight so we want to resist giving it all it wants.

Scanned: November 17, 2005 Howard Thurman Dean Thurman @ Marsh Chapel March 6, 1959 Historical. Photo originally posted to Boston University’s School of Theology, Howard Thurman Papers Project.

We want to meditate on—and execute—ways out of evil.  We have done this frequently in our Meditations by sharing stories about people and movements who have demonstrated the courage and vision to bring good into the world. Among those people and movements are the mystics.  Consider Howard Thurman, for example, who was so instrumental as a visionary behind the civil right movement.  Among his profound questions is the following:

Precisely what does it mean to experience oneself as a human being? In the first place, it means that the individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organized kinship that binds him ethnically or racially or nationally.

See Matthew Fox, “Hitler as a Religious Figure,” in Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, pp.389-398.

See Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, p. 210.

Banner Image: Scene from Selma movie, re-enacting the March on Washington. Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

Hitler’s movement is often called a cult.  Do you recognize in our world today movements that are also cult-like and made up of people “hopelessly addicted to power”?

Howard Thurman’s question is a big one and puts struggle into a larger context: What does it mean to experience oneself as a human being?  What is a human being?

Recommended Reading

Fox makes the point that religion has so often oversold the concept of “sin” that it has left us without language or power to combat evil. Through comparing the Eastern tradition of the 7 chakras to the Western tradition of the 7 capital sins, Fox allows us to think creatively about our capacity for personal and institutional evil and what we can do about them.

The 365 writings in Christian Mystics represent a wide-ranging sampling of these readings for modern-day seekers of all faiths — or no faith. The visionaries quoted range from Julian of Norwich to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Thomas Merton to Dorothee Soelle and Thomas Berry.

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5 thoughts on “Moving Beyond Evil: Wisdom from Howard Thurman”

  1. Avatar

    These meditations on Hitler have been difficult to read. I am thinking deeply and even having dreams connected with them. What you are doing is critically important and courageous. Thank you.

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Lynn,
      I understand. This is a difficult subject, especially if you allow yourself to really take it in and ponder what Matt is saying. I admire your courage to stick with it despite it seeping into your dreams. I have had a bit of trouble myself…..wanting to avoid looking at it and then writing about it. But that is how we build up our wisdom and strength. If we don’t look Evil straight in the eye, it can catch us unaware and we will be ill prepared to respond to it.

      Just remember what Matthew said: Make sure your immerse yourself in a sense of the Sacred before engaging Evil too deeply. In this way Evil will be the catalyst for a deeper embodiment of the Sacred for you!
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  2. Avatar

    I couldn’t read the meditations about the Evil of Adolph Hitler and WWII. I was a child then and grew up through WWII and all its propaganda of us children/Americans/Allies, etc. plus the propaganda about the Orientals and Japanese, etc. It was a thorough job of propagandizing American youth at early ages from birth on….So I couldn’t read more of what I already knew about that was true, and NOT NECESSARILY IN THE PAST. The similarities between Hitler and Donald Trump as U.S. President scare me to pieces in the evil intentions that exist in both people. What scares me most about Trump is that my own children who are very successful professional adults now, who have all worked their ways through college educations and have families of their own that have elevated me to Great-Grand Status in my own family support Donald Trump (the children who declare their political bents — I don’t know that ALL do so), and are convinced he’s “getting it right.” His destroying of every good thing about America the Beautiful as I was taught to appreciate our ideals, to my way of thinking, is EVIL. And nothing I can offer will begin to convince them otherwise. They are becoming wealthy on Trump’s vision of “rightness” to fix the world! So I can’t read any more about Hitler or the goodness of Donald Trump. Neither can I pray for either of them. My own spirituality is NOT YET that mature, even though I have had a face-to-face meeting with my “Lord” years ago that changed my whole life! I am dodging that Evil bullet and having to turn it loose to Christ to resolve (which He has already done, I know). But I cannot do it myself, so I don’t read about the horrors of EVIL and the HELL of Hitler and Trump. I actively resist supporting them each time I’m able to fight them, but it’s rarely through discussion or money. I have no money to give in support of resisting politically. But I have a big mouth that often gets me into trouble or offends others when I express myself openly and honestly. They don’t like it, and usually don’t respond when I “add my two cents” to what I consider evil actions or behavior.
    That’s it from me today. Thanks for not zeroing in on Hitler today. I just can’t read those posts. My stomach can’t take it.
    Bless you, and Peace.

    1. Avatar

      All we can do is keep speaking out and praying. Thank you for your witness, Barbara. My young granddaughter voted for Trump and will no doubt vote again for him. We do not discuss as she is a privileged young woman and does not see it at all, with little compassion for others whom she does not consider “worthy”, like poor people in general. It grieves me, and she gets it from her father, not from her mother my daughter. I just love her and hope that she will wake up some day. I appreciate Matthew Fox for his courage also in speaking truth to power. I have become completely dis–illusioned with this country and can now see the evil that has been there all along and has been brought to fruition in this administration, in my opinion. There were people before and during WWII who thought the Nazis were fine. I was born during that war and have gradually had my eyes opened. And there is also a strain of goodness here, which I hold on to and which gives me some hope.

      1. Gail Sofia Ransom

        Dear Barbara and Sue,
        Thank you for your honesty and the courage to share your pain about your family members caught up in Trump’s web of greed. It is so difficult to find common ground with people who hold political opinions so fiercely and oppositional to yours. Recent tudies have shown that the place in our brain where ideologies and political opinions are lodged is very close to where our ego is based. So, changing one’s politics means changing a sense of who we are, who our friends are and how we live our lives. Ouch!! No wonder we don’t want to listen to each other.

        In this meditation, Matt encourages us to open ourselves to our polarized political situation through mysticism, by meditating on how we are all connected, all beloved, all live in the sacred cosmic community; to give that reality more berth is to embody the Sacred and bring it bear in the struggle. Perhaps this practice will strengthen us enough to listen to our loved ones tell us where they are right now, without trying to change their minds. Not easy.

        Here’s my story, thankfully it doesn’t involve family members. Once at a rest stop on a road trip, I encountered a couple who were enthusiastic Trump supporters – although not at all mean spirited. He wanted to connect with me about bringing back the old steel mills and industrialization to my home town of Pittsburgh PA. I was taken aback. He and I had just had some fun making music at one of the rustic picnic tables. We had laughed, sang, and connected. His wife then told me how difficult it was for him to provide for his family now, to be the man he wanted to be for them. They had to piece together odd jobs just to make ends meet. My heart sank. They had heard Trump’s speeches and he had stirred their hope for a return to a wholesome life.

        I tried to say that the old steel mills have been developed into water parks, condominiums, and a mall, that medicine and education were our industries now, and that the old manufacturing was just not coming back. But my words evaporated in the air between us. I had connected with him through music and her through her grace and compassion, and now we stood knee deep in meaning with our car keys in our hands. Silence and some understanding hovered between us.

        It was a profound encounter for me, one I call upon whenever I see Trump abusing hope like theirs at one of his self-aggrandizing rallies, or when I drive through central Pennsylvania and sense the ego fragility in the air. They have a place in my heart now. We have some common ground.

        Common ground is mystical territory and well worth our seeking. Even the smallest bit of sod can become the place where we can build a road forward. Even daring to care about all this is mystical work. God’s heart living in our hearts. God’s hope riding on our actions.
        Gail Sofia Ransom
        For the Daily Meditation Team

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