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Evil and the importance of religion

Reverend George Sumner

Reverend George Sumner

Reverend George Sumner, principal and Helliwell professor of world mission at Wycliffe College, was the guest speaker at the Upper School assembly on Jan. 20 and spoke to students about evil and the importance of religion.

Here’s Sumner’s speech:

“It is a pleasure to be with you this morning and I thank the principal, a man who cares about questions of character and virtue, for the kind invitation. Eight years ago I received a similar invitation to speak at The Bishop Strachan School, but my daughter nixed it. She said, ‘Dad, it’s not so much that I am embarrassed by you, but that’s a tough audience. I’m protecting you.’ But Sam Hodgkins-Sumner has decided to let it roll.

“Exactly 100 years ago, a group of UCC students sat in assembly, probably in this very room. They were poorer than you in terms of diversity, but otherwise quite like you: smart, elite, self-confident. But eight months later, their motherland was at war. Ten months later, many had joined the army.  Twenty-four months later, a number were dead, their names now found on the honour rolls in your lobby. Their love of country and courage were praiseworthy virtues. But for the life of me, I cannot figure out what ‘the Great War’ was about. The combatants shared a culture and, for the most part, a religion. There was nothing at stake. The war was about pride and greed and a whole lot of stupidity. I do not think your history teachers will contradict me. And for that, a significant part of a whole generation, young men like you, were slaughtered. As a result, western culture was cracked in two, with lots more horrors ahead in the later years of the last century, some of which your ancestors felt or fled. Listen to how the poet of the trenches Wilfred Owen spoke of it:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs …
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest (13)
To children ardent (14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. (15)

“‘It is a sweet and honorable thing to die for your country.’

“But here is the thing: the leaders of nations like the British Dominion thought they were highly civilized, progressive, evolved, not only economically but morally. And yet where all that led them was, in a word, evil.

“In  your studies, you have heard about the terrible things that people do to each other; the violence in the Congo, the genocide a generation ago in Cambodia. Maybe we think things like that happen out there somewhere, by some other kind of people. But no, the Great War happened because of the greed, pride and stupidity of the nation of which we were a part.

“Let me give you a second example. I went to an all-boys boarding school in the United States, very much like this one, called Andover. Twenty years ago (long after my time) in a hall like this one, a group very much like you sat in assembly: young, self-confident, feisty. Many of them wanted to be captains of finance, to be successes and stoke the economy in the go-go ’90s. I do not think these are bad impulses. After university, and maybe an MBA, they headed to Wall Street. They wanted to work hard and do well. But 15 years later, right before the great crash, some of them were doing things they would be ashamed of. They were draining the pensions of older working people into worthless investments. They were bundling toxic mortgages, selling them to uninformed investors, and then betting against their own clients. Were these bad apples in the barrel? Not particularly. Nor did they set out to be that one day. A little greed, a little rationalization, a toxic business culture where you say to yourself ‘everyone else is doing it.’ Those Wall Street hotshots read the same books, played the same sports as you all do. But what they fell into was, in a word, evil.

“My happy news for you this morning is that the world is a cracked and broken place. Evil is real.  You have read about it, heard of it in your own history, or at some moment in your life you’ve caught a glimpse of it, maybe somewhere in your extended family. And that evil has to do not just with some other kind of people far over there. That is the first thing to come to terms with. It is a topic that will, I hope, come up, with or without the word, in your university studies. It is a mysterious thing, evil, how nice and honourable people end up doing bad things. And at some point in your education, and your life, you will see  a second truth: that same crack runs through you and me. I have not commanded anyone into a senseless war, nor fleeced an old person. But I am not made of stuff any different than they were. I have done things motivated by pride and resentment. As the famous cartoon said years ago, ‘We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.’ I am not sure you can see all of what I am saying yet, but you will. That side of yourself is a mystery, too, one that you are already exploring in theatre or English or ToK class, with or without the word ‘evil’ attached.

“So I was actually asked to talk this morning about why religions matter and deserve our respect.   Some of you come from religious backgrounds and some don’t. Those who do come from a range of different religions. Fair enough. But all of you live in a world of profound mystery, whose questions ask for answers that often cannot be measured. Where did it all come from? Does it have a point? Why is life so fragile and beautiful? How does such good and evil come from the human heart? These are all mysteries. The religions each have their own answers to these big questions.  You can avoid these questions, but if you do they are liable to sneak up and bite you. The religions have profound and subtle answers to these questions. You may not buy any of these answers, but they are not to be dismissed, especially since contemporary culture’s answer is pretty simple-minded.

“One of these basic questions is evil and somehow or other, like it or not, you will give an answer to it. Maybe your answer will be “Eat, drink and be merry, for life is nasty and tomorrow we die.’ It is a long-standing answer. There are other famous answers which don’t involve religions at all. Ask your ToK teacher about stoicism. They had a philosophy of man-up. Look at the evil of the world, realize how little you can do. Go the brink of Mordor. And then serve without counting the cost. It is noble, but hard, and it has a high burnout rate. The world is cracked and the crack runs through us, and each religion has a deep and profound reason why. Islam has a magnificent vision of the supreme will of Allah, the all-just and merciful, over all things. Buddhism finds in evil and suffering attachment and illusion. We could spend a decade on each of these profound answers. Judaism worships God, who felt in his heart his own people’s suffering. My own faith, Christianity, believes that in Jesus that same God entered his world, suffered the pain of its evil, died in its trench, to repair the world. This is a weird and beautiful answer, and I have bet my life on its being true.  What will your answer to this mystery be, as you bear in mind that avoiding the question is an answer too? Pack that one into your trunk, you seniors, as you head off this fall.

“I could have spoken of the others mysteries: beauty, order, hope, love. To my mind these are also portals to God. And they would have made a cheerier talk. You teachers, whatever your subject, you are also teaching these topics. Along the way, enjoy what a smart, feisty, complicated lot your students are. And may God bless each of you students in your education now and out ahead.”