Zoom Meeting Sermon March 19 2023

 Topic: Recommended Reading: The Stand

Before we get into today’s sermon, I want to offer a brief explanation as to why most of the books on the recommended reading list are works of fiction.

I believe that the stories we tell one another can contain valuable lessons. I also believe that, because they are hidden inside stories, those lessons will often make their way past our ordinary defenses against unfamiliar ideas. We learn from reading stories, whether we realize it at the time or not, and the stories we read can have an affect on our worldview. They also give us the opportunity to imagine what it may be like to be a different person, which is good for our Compassion and Patience.

As I read and learn, I will add books to the next year’s list of Recommended Reading. Some of them will be fiction, some will be nonfiction. None of them will be required reading, but we will be talking about them and the ideas they inspire. We will talk about some books more than once, including The Stand and, most likely, books from the Dark Tower series.

Today we are going to be talking about the novel The Stand by Stephen King, published 1978, and about the Good Versus Evil dichotomy presented within it.

I consider this novel to be Stephen King’s second-best work, and it has certainly been influential.  To summarize the plot: Most of humanity is wiped out by a man-made plague, and the few who are immune are pitted against one another to determine the future of mankind. On one side, the side of the Light, is Mother Abigail, an incredibly old black woman from Nebraska. On the side of Darkness is Randall Flagg, also known as the Dark Man or the Walkin’ Dude, who makes a brief appearance in Book IV of the Tower series, Wizard and Glass. The survivors of the plague are drawn to one or the other, forming two mini-civilizations on opposing sides of a cosmic chessboard. You can discover for yourself whether or not the heroes of the story triumph over evil by reading it; I will not spoil the ending for you today.

Stories like this one usually have a clear protagonist and a clear villain; we usually know who we are supposed to identify with, and who we are supposed to dislike or even hate. In stories, this is fine. It helps us to define acceptable and unacceptable behavior as a society. However, reality does not work that way. Humans are not one-dimensional creatures. There are very few true “good guys” and even fewer true “bad guys,” and nobody, ever, believed themselves to be the villain in their own story. Not even Adolf Hitler or Albert Fish. Hitler sincerely believed that the Holocaust was a noble undertaking; he regarded himself as a hero. Fish, identified in a recent poll as the worst serial killer of all time, saw nothing wrong with his list of stomach-turning atrocities, which I will not list here for the sake of our breakfast. We will always view them as monsters, and in a way, they were. But they were also human, and no human is truly all good or all evil. For example, Hitler had a dog. To that dog, Adolf Hitler was the best human ever. Think about that for a minute.

Stephen King does a good job of describing those who choose to join the Dark Man as mostly just broken people who d0 not know where else to go. Only a few of them are depicted as inherently immoral. It is revealed that several of them even left Flagg’s city under cover of night because they disagreed with what he was doing. This humanization makes you actually see the characters as individuals who may still be redeemed rather than monsters to be written off, and that is what makes this recommended reading for followers of the Path. The heart of Compassion is being able to see the human within the monster.

Another lesson we learn from The Stand is that ordinary people can be trained by fear to accept injustice and even war crimes if their lives are not materially affected. As an example in the book, the Dark Man implements a policy of crucifying those who break his rules, and the rest of his people learn not to even mention how messed up this is to one another. They are taught to accept an atrocity in exchange for precarious safety from the same treatment. One person among a crowd of thousands that were obliged to bear witness to one such atrocity actually did speak out, only to be immediately and fatally punished by Randall Flagg for voicing dissent. The rest just watched, afraid to so much as breathe wrong and risk attracting Flagg’s venomous attention. When the corrupt gain power, this is often the result. Even without Randall Flagg’s supernatural abilities, political leaders can use the public’s xenophobia or fear of the Other to terrorize them into mindless obedience, and a lot of them do. But this fear can be overcome: Any time somebody tries to convince you that some brown or foreign people are coming to get you, immediately break out your critical thinking skills and start asking questions, because they are most certainly trying to control you.

Very few people are all good or all bad. Some people may knowingly choose to do harm because they are suffering, but those same people also probably feed the dog. Have you ever met someone whom you thought was just an inherently bad person?

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