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The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: The Spiral of Violence

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Healing Our Violence

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: The Spiral of Violence
Wednesday, October 21, 2015

I have used Dom Helder Camara’s inspired teaching on the “spiral of violence” for many years, overlaying that phrase with traditional Catholic moral teaching, which states that the sources of evil are the world, the flesh, and the devil—in that order. This model simply illustrates the three sources of evil and thus violence: the world (at the bottom of the spiral), the flesh (in the middle), and the devil (at the top). If evil and institutionalized violence go unrecognized at the first level, the second and third are inevitable.

By “world,” I am not referring to Creation, but to “the System.” It’s the way groups, cultures, institutions, and nations organize themselves to be in control. This may be the most hidden, the most disguised, and the most denied level of evil. We cannot see it because we are inside of it and because we cannot see beyond our own self-interest and self-protection. For example, I have been a Catholic all my life and I have yet to hear a sermon on the tenth commandment: “Do not covet your neighbor’s goods.” We live in an entire world of manufactured desire or covetousness. It is a virtue to seek to increase your goods. So it’s almost impossible for an American to see capitalism or consumerism as a problem or a moral issue, because that is the way our world is shaped. It is in our hard wiring. It’s difficult to critique the ground you are standing on.

Thankfully, Pope John Paul II introduced to Catholic theology terms like “structural evil,” “institutionalized sin,” and “corporate evil.” We actually were not free to think this way until the 1960s, which produced hippies, worldwide upheavals, and the Second Vatican Council. Still, only rare prophets like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton dare to critique systems, groups, and institutions themselves. No surprise that Pope Francis quoted both of these American prophets in his address to the U.S. Congress in September.

Organized religion has put most of its concern at the middle level of the spiral—the flesh. The flesh is not primarily what we think of as sexual sin. Rather, it is individual sin, personal mistakes that you and I make. No one is denying that this is a level of evil and sin, and often the most apparent one. But when we only point our finger at the second level of the spiral, blaming individuals and punishing people, we are largely wasting our time. It doesn’t work because we haven’t first recognized that culturally we actually admire this vice. Pick any of the capital sins: greed, ambition, excess, vanity, pride, deception, lust. All are on broad public display, and these “sinners” are in fact the cool people. But then individuals are supposed to confess these as private sins, not that they do anymore.

Up to now, there has been little recognition of the deep connection between culture and corporations—which are accepted because they give us our security and identity and wealth—and the personal evil things that individuals do. We are wasting time trying to make people feel guilty about being greedy when, in fact, legitimated greed is the name of the game. We can’t reward and promote it at one level and then shame it at the next level. We can’t romanticize war, but then rail against the violence in our streets. It will not work. If guns are good in Iraq then guns are good in Idaho.

Cardinal Bernardin (1928-1996), who was like a father figure to me when I lived in Cincinnati, dared to call for a consistent ethic of life or “a seamless garment” morality. He said the Church must be honest and start defending life in all its stages “from womb to tomb.” We must stand against abortion, the destruction of the earth, the evil of war, the death penalty, euthanasia, and all policies that impoverish people. All of these are anti-life. Pope Francis just repeated this lesson almost word for word. We can’t call ourselves authentically pro-life unless we stand against all of these levels of death. Very few people are consistent here.

At the top of the spiral of violence sits “the devil.” The word “devil,” like “demon,” is a personification of a power that is hard to name or describe because it’s so disguised and even idealized as good and necessary. If “the world” is hidden structural violence, then “the devil” is sanctified and legitimated violence—violence that is deemed necessary to control the angry flesh and the world run amuck. The diabolical is by definition “too big to fail” and above criticism, which is precisely what gives anything its demonic power. It is a third level of “necessary good” to control all the disorder and violence at the first and second levels. It is sacralized and above criticism. This might take the form of “the military industrial complex,” as President Eisenhower called it after he left office, the legal system, the penal system, unjust tax codes and voting rights, the highly self-rewarding medical and banking systems, corporations over people, the idolatry of fame, celebrities, and athletes, and even organized religion itself.

Note the first demon in Mark’s Gospel is found in the synagogue (1:23). The only way the devil can get away with being the devil is that he must “disguise himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:15).  Devils always look like “necessary evil” or the lesser of two evils, and thus they are “too big to fail” and too important to expose. We need and admire them all too much. So, as we say, they “get away with murder.”

If we do not recognize the roots of violence at the disguised structural level, we are largely wasting our time simply focusing on merely individual sin (“the flesh”), and we have almost no chance of recognizing our real devils, who are always disguised as angels of light (Lucifer means “Light Bearer”).  The spiral of violence is complete, and much of history has been trapped inside of it, thinking that evil could be eliminated merely by shaming and punishing individuals, who were often just doing what they learned from the system and from the devil.

Gateway to Silence:
Love your enemies.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Spiral of Violence (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: St. Francis embracing the leper, by Lawrence Zink, reprinted from Francis: The Journey and the Dream, copyright © 1988, Murray Bodo, St. Anthony Messenger Press, p. 13. Used with permission.
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