03/31/2014 07:33 pm ET Updated May 31, 2014

The Nature of Evil

One of the oldest surviving stories in human history is about the birth of murder. In Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures, the story of two brothers, Cain and Abel, teaches us about the mythic first atrocity: brother killing brother. Both brothers are loved by God. Cain is a farmer, and Abel is a shepherd. Both offer a sacrifice to God from the fruit of their labors. The story tells us that God is pleased with Abel's offering of meat, and that God holds no regard for Cain's offering of grain. Shortly thereafter, consumed by envy, Cain murders his brother in the fields where Cain toils. When God catches up with Cain and asks him what happened to Abel, Cain responds, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

"Am I my brother's keeper?" To the scripturally minded these words would resonate through the eons as the quintessential backdoor confession of guilt, claiming ignorance and deflecting responsibility. "Why should I know or care? That other person is his own man and no problem of my own." It's an ancient story of murder, but it's also an early story detailing the roots of evil. We divest ourselves of our personal responsibility for those around us, especially when we know they are in trouble, whether we're to blame or not. Implied in the story is the fact that we are our brother's keeper, or at least we're called upon to account for the well-being of those around us.

We often get lost in in the doctrine of original sin. This is a concept that would come much later in time in Christianity. But from early on, the text itself tells us that evil, sin, is found when we fail to honor our essential interdependence, when we throw compassion away. It's found both in acts of harm that are obvious to our sense of morality and in acts of neglect. Sometimes through complicity and sometimes through apathy, we come to witness evil.

But "evil" does not describe everything bad that we do. Humans make mistakes. Sometimes we're jerks. Sometimes we're short of temper. Sometimes we're flippant or rude. Sometimes we forget to recycle the can of soup. Sometimes we don't tip our waiters. "Evil" is a word I prefer to reserve for the bigger crimes against life. The smaller things are the smaller sins or errors of our ways. Moving forward, though, I'm going to stick with using the word "sin" to describe the smaller human errors, the smaller intentional errors. Calling a bad deed an "error" or a "mistake" is sometimes appropriate, but sometimes it sounds like we're talking about a math problem and not a human crisis. Separated from the notion of original sin and heavenly judgment, neither of which I believe in as a Universalist, the concept of sin is still relevant. Sometimes we wrong life, in small and big ways -- intentionally or not -- through our actions or through our lack of actions, and that's sinful.

The greater atrocities that humans perennially perpetuate are grounded in the abject loss of any human sense of interdependence. Evil separates you from me. It teaches us that we are alone in this world, and that it's OK to act from that sense of separateness. On the small scale, being an island to oneself leads to greed, hate, fear or envy. Each props up the ego, strengthening the ego's identity through isolation or groupthink. Taken to the extreme, these sins lead to horror. It's a sobering reason to check ourselves when we succumb to the smaller vices, lest they rule us.

In liberal religious circles, we have a propensity toward accepting human goodness in the face of the reality of evil. As Universalists, we've moved away from original sin, so we try to throw out all that relates to it rather than look the difficult parts in their face. One can refuse to believe in an essence to evil while still recognizing the practice and experience of evil. Hatred that ruins lives, fear that endangers lives: They're not mistakes. They're not errors. They're a perversion of life.

From a practical pastoral perspective, though, we diminish the roots of evil every day when we offer one simple act: being present to one another; being present in our messiness, our highs, our lows, our joys and our sorrows; being human with one another. This won't remove the great evils of the day, but it will contribute to reducing the evils of another day -- in ourselves, in the people around us. Every act of personal hatred, fear or envy begins with someone who can't face the world as it is. Either they're building up their own sense of self by diminishing another or they're craving some solace or satisfaction that they falsely believe can only be achieved with the loss of another. But with every act of greed or envy, the satisfaction of the thing rapidly disappears once the thing is obtained.

The spiritual discipline of presence teaches us that our souls are not built upon the acquisition of stuff or on dehumanizing others. Our souls are grounded in the profound reality of being alive, being a witness to life and being part of something whose vastness exceeds our imagination. Presence calls us back to our depth, our breadth and our essence. Its opposite leads us to a road of pain and misery, a road that often drags others along the way. I can't imagine a form of evil that doesn't involve ceasing to be present to another's humanity. Presence may be our most important virtue for this reason. It's found through openness, and it teaches reverence. All three qualities nurture and respect life.