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.
We must first convict religion in its organizational form—not in its adherents, who might be quite good and holy—but the glorified organization itself. When we idolize institutions and refuse to hold them fully accountable—I am going to dare to say the unsayable—they usually become demonic in some form.
Perhaps we are not accustomed to thinking of the Pentagon, or the Chrysler Corporation as having a spirituality, but they do. What people in the world of the Bible experienced as and called “principalities and powers” was in fact the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day.
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.
Humans often end up doing evil by thinking we can and must eliminate all evil, instead of holding it, suffering it ourselves, and learning from it, as Jesus does on the cross. This ironically gives us the active compassion we need to work for social change.
Sin, evil, and disorder included and forgiven is the Divine Order! The absolute centrality of forgiveness in Jesus’ teaching should make this obvious. Forgiveness does not nullify or eliminate offensive actions. It acknowledges and radically names and exposes that sin, evil, and fault did indeed happen—and then lets go of it!
Gathering Wood for the Divine Fire
Rev. Alexia Salvatierra has worked for years nurturing social justice movements that challenge the systemic evils of our time. Here she recalls a Scripture reflection that civil rights leader James M. Lawson (b. 1928) often told to emphasize the importance of the small actions we can take:
Reverend James M. Lawson … used to share with the new interns and staff his interpretation of 1 Kings 18:20–39. In the passage, Elijah is competing with the false prophets. They each build an altar of wood and pray for divine fire to come down. The fire comes down for Elijah but not for the false prophets. The wisdom that Jim would draw from the story was that Elijah’s success came from three elements—the fire, the prayer, and the wood. The fire is analogous to what happens in a movement when suddenly the number of people engaged multiplies and floods of human beings break down previously impenetrable barriers. The element of prayer is always critical. But the fire could not come down if there were no wood for it to burn. The building of the wooden altar is the slow, daily process of movement building, the endless conversations and meetings, the actions that seem to have no impact, the multiple defeats of initiatives and proposals. No human being can control when the fire comes down, but we can and must pile up the wood.
Alexia Salvatierra and Brandon Wrencher, Buried Seeds: Learning from the Vibrant Resilience of Marginalized Christian Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022), 191.
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.