Richard Rohr clarifies how evil, sin, and salvation are collective realities:
Over the years, it has become increasingly clear to me that we are confused about the nature of evil. We don’t seem to understand what evil is, how it operates, or what we can do personally or collectively to reduce its power over us and its impact on our world. We really must face these questions, even though they are difficult and unpleasant to think about. Our planet’s life-sustaining systems are disintegrating. Authoritarianism is emerging all over the world. Evil is clearly at work, but what can we do about it?
I do not pretend to have the answers to such a big question, but what I can offer is the wisdom of the Christian tradition. For the first thousand years of Catholic Christianity, it was assumed that there were three sources of evil: the world, the flesh, and the devil. [DM Team: This week we focus on the first of these sources, the world or “system.” To read Richard’s thoughts on the flesh and the devil, see here.]
Over centuries, we became very used to equating evil with individual “sins” and we lost a sense of its collective nature. The word “sin” often serves as a label applied to various cultural taboos and expectations, frequently having to do with purity codes. That seems very different from the real evils destroying the world! Of course, moral development and impulse control are important individual disciplines, but the conflation of personal sin with the source of evil is a terrible misunderstanding which has led to tragic consequences. Perhaps so many of us stopped using the word “sin” because we located it inside of our own small, cultural categories, with little awareness of the true subtlety, depth, and importance of the much more devious concept.
When small, easily forgivable transgressions are labeled “sins” and equated with evil, we trivialize the very real notion of evil and divert our attention from the real thing. Before it becomes personal and shameable, evil is often culturally agreed upon, admired, and deemed necessary. The apostle Paul already had the prescient genius to recognize this, and I believe he taught that both sin and salvation are, first of all, corporate and social realities. In fact, this recognition could and should be acknowledged as one of his major contributions to history. I believe it still will be.
We largely missed that essential point, and thus found ourselves in the tight grip of monstrous social evils in Christian nations, all the way down to the modern era. Therefore, we also lost out on the benefit of a corporate notion of salvation that far exceeded anyone’s individual worthiness or unworthiness.
We are all guilty with one another’s sin and not just our own.
We are all good with one another’s goodness and not just our own.
My life is not just about “me.”
Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (Albuquerque, NM: CAC Publishing, 2019), 8‒12, 13.
Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Exercise in Grief and Lamentation credits from left to right: Jessie Jones, Jennifer Tompos, Jenna Keiper. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image.
On retreat, the CAC staff used watercolors to connect to our collective grief. This is one of the watercolor paintings that came from that exercise.
Story from Our Community:
Reading about shame … has put me in touch with the deep shame I’ve carried my whole life. Growing up in poverty, with alcoholic and mentally ill parents, I had no guide or path to help me get rid of the deep shame I felt, [along with] the belief that I was such a sinner that I’d wind up in hell. God is good – REALLY good, because he guided me to CAC and the daily meditations! They are providing me with the path and guidance that is slowly healing me from my shame and helping me see how much I am loved and cared for by God. I will be forever grateful to Fr. Richard and the CAC team. —Mary W.