What Do We Do with Evil?
The Nature of Evil
Sunday, October 11, 2020
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 if they are difficult and unpleasant to think about. Our planet’s life-sustaining systems are disintegrating. Authoritarianism is emerging all over the world. Since the pandemic began, the physical and mental health of millions has been deteriorating. Evil is clearly at work in our world, 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. I will unpack the meaning of these three sources of evil this week.
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. Thus 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 (CAC Publishing: 2019), 8‒13.