When I mentioned I was doing a series on the Wizard of Oz, I got a very common reaction from people—that movie scared me to death. Whether it was the Wizard, who really scared me, or the Wicked Witch of the West, or the Flying Monkeys, this movie has apparently scared generations of watchers. It has been, in all likelihood, the first scary movie most people ever see.
What makes it scary? That is a hard question to answer. Today scary movies are full of gore. But not so with the Wizard of Oz. Not a drop of blood is spilled in the movie. Ok, so the Scarecrow has his innards tossed all around by the Flying Monkey, but that is straw. No, I think what makes it scary, especially for young people, is that a likable young girl comes face to face with evil. As children we like to think our lives are safe and secure. In an ideal world our parents can protect us from the hazards of the world—witches and flying monkeys and monsters under the bed. When we are scared we run to our parents beds and snuggle up with them, and we are safe from all the beasties and boogeymen of the world.
Of course we know what is not true for all children. Some encounter abuse, some from their parents. Some end up homeless. Some are torn from the parents arms, by social workers or border agents. Some don’t get enough food. In some countries kids are snatched away by roving paramilitary soldiers, who train them to kill at an early age.
Most of us have this idea of a safe and secure world, and if that is upended, we feel our wholes lives are upended.
There were a few scenes that were deleted from the Wizard of Oz, most notably a scene with Dorothy in the Witch’s castle. She has been threatened with death, and is left alone by the witch to wait for her impending doom. That part was in the movie, but they shoot a scene where Dorothy once again sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but this time is scared, small, quivering voice. I have not seen that particular scene, but I heard the song, and it was heart wrenching. They cut it from the movie because test audiences found it far too disturbing. It was too powerful, too emotional, too sorrowful.
I think it reminded people too much of how cruel and wicked the world can be, nobody wanted to go to movie to see that. The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939. Our country was still in the Great Depression, where hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes or farms. The unemployment rate peaked at 25%. In Europe, Germany was on the march, and in Asia, Japan had invaded China and Korea.
Nobody wanted to go to a movie to be reminded of how dangerous the world could be. And no wonder. Evil is a topic we are quick to avoid.
But, you don’t get two pages in the Bible before you run into a snake in the garden—Evil.
Why does the serpent tempt Eve? There is nothing in it for him, except perhaps the perverse joy of seeing someone else fall. Unlike Satan in Job, this slimy creature does not have a side bet with God about the general condition of humanity. He does not profit from his actions; no time off for good behavior. In fact it leads to a curse upon him. As far as the story goes, he does it for fun, for spits and giggles.
And that is evil.
If I were to steal bread to feed my family I am not an evil person. I am just desperate. But if steal for the fun of stealing, that is evil. Evil serves no constructive purpose. We like to think there is always a good reason for something, even something that appears irrational, even for behavior we call evil. “He did that bad thing because…” But a large part of what makes evil evil is that it serves no overarching purpose. We want to find deep psychological reasons for evil behavior, but often there is none.
On Sunday night, October 1, 2017 a man stood at his window on the 32nd floor of his hotel, and opened fire on concert goers who were attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. He killed 58 people and injured 851. To date investigators have yet to determine a motive. He was not mentally ill, this was not a hate crime, and as far as anyone knows, he was not out to seek notoriety. (I am not writing his name because I don’t want him to have the notoriety.)
This was a truly evil act. It is especially disturbing because he seemed to have no motive. Maybe he just wanted to see people die, or maybe he was bored. A school shooter in San Diego, when asked why she opened fire on elementary school children, killing two and injuring eight, simply said, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” Later, when asked again, she said, “There was no reason for it, and it was just a lot of fun. It was just like shooting ducks in a pond.”
But sometimes evil occurs when we desire the wrong things in the wrong ways. The Witch desired the ruby slippers and she was willing to kill for them. We never find out exactly what kind of power they had, only that they must have been mighty powerful, otherwise the Wicked Witch would not have wanted them so badly. Power is a great corrupter of peoples. Most of our are familiar with Lord Acton’s statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In the Gospel lesson, Herod, fearing he might lose power, had all the boys two and younger killed in Bethlehem, to make sure a king would not arise there. That is not an unusual historical event.
There is evil in the world, O people. We don’t want to admit it, for if we do, that makes this a scary world, but there is evil in this world. Only the evil here does not have green skin, and does not dress in black and ride a broom. They do not always look like snakes. Evil people do not wear t-shirts advertising their depravity. Some wear business suits. Some wear uniforms. Some wear Khakis and Docksiders. Some even wear the robes of a minister or priest.
Last week a grand jury document named 300 Catholic priests who had abused more than a thousand children. The Mail Tribune reported on the trial of youth minister who secretly taped young girls taking showers and dressing—while he was leading youth retreats with them!
Evil can reside in bureaucracies, that systemically wear people down, and keep them away from the very services they promise. Evil can reside in good things, like love of country, or love for another person. It is a good thing to love your country, but not if you kill those who do not fit into your definition of a good citizen—not if you want to kill the Jews in your land, or the Hutus, or any other citizen group. Not if you want a false notion of purity. Not if you want to oppress people because of their race, religion or nationality.
Evil is not always apparent. But anytime people are systemically oppressed, anytime the natural way of doing things creates winners and losers, anytime people are ground down and denied the basics of life—that is an evil system. And an evil system can make good people do evil things.
The Nestle company sells many things, including infant formula. Nothing wrong with that—except they market their formula to mothers in third world countries, places where there is no safe drinking water. When I was in Haiti, I saw those advertisements, and the formula in a village that had no safe water to drink. The mothers who feed the formula to their kids, in the hope of giving them something really healthy, are actually giving their babies dysentery. The National Bureau of Economic Research, a pro-business think tank, has determined that in 1981 66,000 babies died from dysentery due to infant formula.
And this year, our country is lobbying to make it easier for these companies to sell infant formula.
That, in a word, is evil.
We can pretend evil does not exist, that there is just good and bad, winners and losers, that good people would not allow these things, but that is evil’s greatest weapon—getting us to believe that evil does not exist.
Not all bad things are evil however.
A serial killer is evil. A hurricane is not. Genocide is evil. Earthquakes are not. Racism is evil. Cancer is not. My daughter used to complain that mosquitoes were evil, but I had to explain to her they were just a part of nature. “They are a bad part,” she said, and she was right, from her perspective.
There is a difference between humans acting badly and nature acting up. A hurricane is a convergence of weather patterns that create a huge storm. An earthquake is the result of tectonic plates sliding against one another. Cancer is abnormal growth of cells in the body. There is no intention behind a hurricane, an earthquake, cancer or any number of medical or natural disasters. From our perspective these are bad things, but only because they mess up our lives. From a moral standpoint they are not evil. A hurricane is not the act of the Wicked Witch of the West. It is just nature doing what nature does.
This is where the flying monkeys come in. They are bad, but not evil. They are monkeys. There are times in our lives when we encounter flying monkeys. They set on the scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, and tear the scarecrow into pieces. When the Tin Man finds the Scarecrow, the scarecrow says, “My arm are over there, my chest is over there, and my legs are over there,” to which the Tin Man says, ‘Well, that’s just you all over.” (That’s my favorite line in the movie.)
We encounter flying monkeys on a regular basis. Most are minor—the automated phone system that sends you into an endless loop of “Choose number one if,” and what you need is not listed. (OK, maybe that one is evil!) Your refrigerator breaks down just when you finished paying off the car repair bill. The rain storm that hits just when you were planning a picnic.Your cable goes out, just before the big game. The smoke that has descended on our city the last few months.
Some are major—cancer. Getting laid off at work. Losing your home. Death of a loved one.
These things try us. When we encounter them, we learn more of what kind of people we are. We learn what we are made of. And we learn to rely on God.
I wish I could say that life was no more complicated or scary than a children’s book, or entertaining movie. But reality proves me wrong, again and again.
The flying monkeys of life are a part of the terrain. When we encounter them, we can do several things.
We can fold. We can give in. We can quit. That’s not the option I recommend.
We can draw on our inner resources to get through them. That’s great, if you still have the strength. However sometimes the monkeys gang up on us. It’s not one thing, it is a hundred, and we might be able to deal with one, but what we face is overwhelming.
We can draw on the good gift we have in each other. We value self-reliance. We look up to people who overcame difficulties, by sheer inner strength. But sometimes we need help. There are times when we cannot, and should not, go it alone. That is why we have each other. That is why we need each other.
And we can come before God.(Oh no, is it that bad that we have to drag God into this?) Yes, we do. That is where we should start. Next week we will learn that not all flying monkeys are really flying monkeys. Some of them are different. But they are only different to the extent we give our lives to God, and let ourselves be strengthened, molded and guided by God.
Finally that brings us to the Munchkins. I have focused on the bad things that happen to us. I want to end on a different note.
When I was in college, I was in a fraternity—Baseball Kappa. It started as a joke, but got bigger and bigger. We did all sorts of funny things around campus. There was a huge bell tower in the quad, and one year we raffled it off. The winner got a certified deed, and a t-shirt that said, “I own the Belk Tower.” They were doing a lot of building on the campus, and they had to drain the small pond near one of the buildings, so we formed a Dixie Cup brigade to fill the lake. We had fifty people, stretched out from the dorms to the pond, passing water in Dixie Cups.
A friend of mine told me that morning she was walking to class to take a test she had not studied for. She felt really down, but saw the Brigade. “It made my day,” she said. “I still flunked the test, but I felt a lot better about it.”
When I was in high school I took a friend of mine to a formal birthday dinner—at McDonalds. I wore a suit, she wore a prom dress, and a friend of mine play maitre d and waiter. He went in, set the table with china, silver, and crystal we had borrowed from his mother, and a linen table clothe. He stood by the door waiting until we came in, led us to our table, took our orders, and when it was ready, opened the burgers, placed them on our plates, and poured our drinks into the crystal glasses. He asked if there was anything else we wanted, and I said, “Ahh, Ferguson (his name was not Ferguson, but sounded good), it is the young lady’s birthday. Could you please sing to her?” And he did. The whole restaurant gathered around to watch. Two guys were sure we were all on candid camera, and were pointing to where they thought the cameras were hidden. I am sure they talked about that night for years afterward.
When Dorothy lands in Oz, she meets some interesting and entertaining people—the munchkins. They are adorable! Imagine if you are having a bad day, and suddenly you are surrounded by little people singing about the Lullaby League, der Lollipop Guild, and declaring the witch was not merely dead, but most sincerely dead. It is the most delightful part of the movie. If only we had munchkins in our life!
But we do.
Sure, there are flying monkeys. There is all manner of ways things can go wrong. But there is also the miracle of random acts of kindness and delight. In story we heard from Ruth, Ruth and her mother in law were essentially refugees—and instead of being met with hostility, Boaz takes pity on them, and offers them kindness. They were vulnerable women, and he protected them, he fed them, and he eventually married Ruth. That little act of kindness changed Israel’s history. For Ruth had a son, Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. From one act of kindness arose a king.
We probably will not be king-makers with our acts of kindness, but who knows. In any case, we can be kind. We can bring delight to people. We can smile at the downtrodden person taking our order at the restaurant. We can be pleasant to the person on the phone who only hears complaints.
In a world full of evil witches, and flying monkeys, it’s still not that hard to be kind.