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The Spiral of Violence
The Spiral of Violence

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Monday, May 2, 2022

For Father Richard, the cycle of violence mirrors the cycle of evil:

Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara (1909–1999) was a brilliant nonviolent activist who offered a model for understanding how structural injustice leads to greater violence. He wrote: “If violence is met by violence, the world will fall into a spiral of violence” (emphasis mine). [1] I overlay Dom Hélder’s teaching with traditional Catholic moral teaching which saw the three primary sources of evil as the world, the flesh, and the devil—in that order. When evil and institutionalized violence (“structural sin”) go unrecognized at the first level, the second and third levels of violence and evil are inevitable. If we don’t nip evil in the bud at the level where it is legitimated and disguised, we will have little power to fight it at the individual level.

By “world” we don’t mean creation or nature, but “the system”: how groups, cultures, institutions, and nations organize to protect themselves and maintain their power. This is the most hidden and denied level of evil and violence. We cannot see it because we’re all inside of it, and it is in our ego’s self-interest to protect this corporate deception.

Historically, organized religion has put most of its concern at the middle level of the spiral of violence, or what we called “the flesh.” Flesh in this context is individual sin, the personal mistakes that we make. Individual evil is certainly real, but the very word “flesh” has made us preoccupied with sexual sins, which Jesus rarely mentioned. When we punish or shame individuals for their sins, we are usually treating symptoms rather than the root problem or cause: the illusion of separation from God and others.

At the top of the spiral of violence sits “the devil.” This personification of evil is hard to describe because it’s so well disguised and even idealized. If “the world” is hidden structural violence, primarily through oppression and injustice, then “the devil” is sanctified, romanticized, and legitimated violence—violence deemed culturally necessary to control the other two levels: the angry flesh and the world run amuck. Any institution thought of as “too big to fail” or somehow above criticism has a strong possibility of diabolical misuse. Think of the military industrial complex, the penal system, the worldwide banking system, multinational corporations subject to no law, tax codes benefiting the wealthy, the healthcare and pharmaceutical establishments, the worldwide war economy led by my own country, or even organized religion. We need and admire these institutions all too much. Paul called this level of violence “powers, principalities, thrones, and dominions” (Ephesians 6:12).

If we do not recognize the roots of violence at the first structural level (“the world”), we will waste time focusing exclusively on the second and individual level (“the flesh”), and we will seldom see those real evils which disguise themselves as angels of light (“the devil”). Remember, Lucifer means “Light Bearer.”

As Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) taught, Evil only succeeds by disguising itself as good. [2]

[1] Hélder Câmara, Spiral of Violence (London: Sheed and Ward, 1971), 55.

[2] 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 (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1990), 152.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Spiral of Violence: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2005). Available as CD and MP3 download.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Frank J. Aleksandrowicz, Clark Avenue and Clark Avenue Bridge (detail), 1973, photograph, Ohio, public domain, National Archives. Chaokun Wang, 轮胎 tyre (detail), 2021, photograph, Pingyao, creative commons. John Messina, Drainage of Marsh Leaves (detail), 1970, photograph, Louisiana, public domain. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: War, bitterness, consumed and discarded goods. Why are we sustaining the spiral of violence? Do we not see that we are part of the creation we are destroying?

Story from Our Community:

My practice has been contemplative devotion for 30 years. I left the Anglican Church to follow Vedic teachings and Bhakti meditation. I discovered Richard Rohr and was led back to Jesus with a new understanding of The Cosmic Christ. Today I am holding my arms and my heart open to the enormity of the violence in Ukraine, as well as fear for the whole world. Jesus, help me to deeply know that we are all one, especially in the deep vulnerability of today.
—Heather J.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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