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An Agreed-upon Delusion

What Do We Do with Evil?

An Agreed-upon Delusion
Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The world (or “system” as we use the word now) is a hiding place for unconsciousness or “deadness” in the words of Paul. Both Thomas Aquinas and C. S. Lewis taught that the triumph of evil depends entirely on disguise. [1] [2] Our egos must see it as some form of goodness and virtue so that we can buy into it.

If evil depends on a “good” disguise, cultural virtue and religion are the very best covers of all. The leaders of both religion and empire colluded in the killing of Jesus (Matthew 27:1–2). In Luke’s Gospel, Herod and Pilate just passed him back and forth and affirmed whatever the other one said (Luke 23:12). Christians were forewarned that the highest levels of power can and probably will be co-opted by evil.

Is there a culture in this world that does not operate out of this recipe for delusion? This is what Paul means when he names “the world,” or what I call “the system,” as one of the sources of evil. What Paul already recognized, at least intuitively, is that it is almost impossible for any social grouping to be corporately or consistently selfless. It has to maintain and promote itself first at virtually any cost—sacrificing even its own stated ethics and morality. If we cannot see this, it might reveal the depth of the disguise of institutionalized evil.

Consider the religious rationale for the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which justified the conquest of the Americas and the African slave-trade. Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah write:

The doctrine [of Discovery] emerged from a series of fifteenth-century papal bulls, which are official decrees by the pope that carry the full weight of his ecclesial office. . . . On May 4, 1493, the year after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter Caetera . . . and offered a spiritual validation for European conquest, “that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread. . . .” It gave theological permission for the European body and mind to view themselves as superior to the non-European bodies and minds. The doctrine created . . . an identity for African bodies as inferior and only worthy of subjugation; it also relegated the identity of the original inhabitants of the land “discovered” to become outsiders, now unwelcome in their own land. [3]

Evil finds its almost perfect camouflage in the silent agreements of the group when it appears personally advantageous. Such unconscious “deadness,” will continue to show itself in every age, I believe. This is why I can’t throw the word “sin” out entirely. If we do not see the true shape of evil or recognize how we are fully complicit in it, it will fully control us, while not looking the least like sin. Would “agreed-upon delusion” be a better description? We cannot recognize it or overcome it as isolated individuals, mostly because it is held together by the group consensus.

References:
[1] Aquinas describes the devil’s deception through evil “that has a semblance of good” in his meditation on the Lord’s Prayer. See The Three Greatest Prayers: Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles’ Creed, based on trans. by Laurence Shapcote (Sophia Institute Press: 1990), 152.

[2] Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1942) offers numerous examples of the ways evil presents itself as desirable.

[3] Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (InterVarsity Press: 2019), 15, 19, 21.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CAC Publishing: 2019), 43‒47.

Image credit: Black Cross, New Mexico (detail), Georgia O’Keefe, 1929, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. www.artic.edu
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The apostle Paul is an utter realist about life on this planet. We must fully recognize and surrender to this foundational reality before we try to think we can repair the world (tikkun olam in Hebrew) with freedom and love. For Paul, his insight is symbolized in the scandalous image of a man on the cross, the Crucified God who fully accepts and transforms this tragic human situation through love. If this is the reality to which even God must submit, then surely we must and can do the same. —Richard Rohr
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