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Center for Action and Contemplation
What Do We Do with Evil?
What Do We Do with Evil?

A Negative Matrix

Monday, October 12, 2020

What Do We Do with Evil?

A Negative Matrix
Monday, October 12, 2020

One reason we lost interest in the concept of sin is because we usually heard it being used to judge, shame, exclude, or control others or ourselves. Seldom was the concept of sin used to bring discernment or deeper understanding, much less compassion or forgiveness, to the human situation. My conviction is that sin became a less useful idea for many of us because we needed to move around in a different field to regain our notion of the deadly nature of true evil. If we are honest and perceptive, we surely see that actual evil often seems to “dominate the very air” and is much more the norm than the exception.

I’m convinced the apostle Paul’s teaching about the nature of sin reveals his spiritual genius. For him, sin is not primarily individual fault, but the negative matrix out of which both evil and enlightenment arise. Paul (or the school of Paul) wrote in Ephesians: “You were dead through the crimes and sins that used to make up your way of life, when you were living by the principles of this world, thus obeying the ruler who dominates the very air” (2:1‒2). This compact sentence seems to be pointing to at least three sources of evil, which would eventually be called the flesh, the world, and the devil in early Catholic moral theology:

1) The Flesh: “the crimes and sins that used to make up your way of life” (our personal participation in an already criminal and sinful culture);

2) The World: “living by the principles of this world” (since most cultures are based on false or superficial agreements about value, dignity, and success). By world, Paul is not referring to creation or nature, but rather what we might call the system;

3) The Devil: “the ruler who dominates the very air” (the illusions and deceits which so totally control the field of consciousness that most of us cannot see them; it is the very air we breathe).

Up to now, most Christians have placed almost all of our attention on the level of the “flesh,” policing sexuality and various “unclean” acts rather than addressing the more serious and pervasive forms of corporate injustice and evil. We have had almost no education in or recognition of what Paul meant by “the principles of the world” and even less on what he meant by “the ruler who dominates the very air.” When we imagine the devil as a caricature of a red, horned figure, we are not taking evil seriously. The implications have been massive, blinding, and hugely destructive, both for the individual and for society.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CAC Publishing: 2019), 10‒11, 21, 57.

Image credit: Black Cross, New Mexico (detail), Georgia O’Keefe, 1929, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.
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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