The Spirits of the Air — Center for Action and Contemplation

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The Spirits of the Air

What Do We Do with Evil?

The Spirits of the Air
Wednesday, October 14, 2020

It was very difficult to become a Christian if you were a Black man on a slave ship, and the slave ship was called ‘The Good Ship Jesus.’ —James Baldwin (1924–1987)

The “flesh” is the second source of evil, deadness, or unconsciousness. It arises from the first, the “world” or system. Paul generally uses “flesh” as a negative term for anything purely individual, passing, partial, and thus untrustworthy, not for the body itself. This shows itself in our private crimes and sins, but personal sin is not the primary cause of malice as much as a result of deeper lies or illusions. Personal sin is committed rather freely because it is derived from and legitimated by underlying, unspoken agreements that certain evils are necessary for the common good.

However, to be honest, this leaves us very conflicted. We call war good and necessary, but murder bad. National or corporate pride is good, but personal vanity is bad. Lying and cover-ups are good to protect the whole (the institutional church, American self-interest, governments), but individuals should not tell lies. This is our foundational moral confusion which shows why we must not put all our focus on changing the world at the individual, “flesh” level.

When Paul talks about the third level or “devil,” he uses words like “powers,” “principalities,” and “thrones” (see Colossians 1:16). These are almost certainly his premodern words for what we would now call corporations, institutions, nation-states, and organizations that demand our full allegiance and thus become, in many ways, idolatrous—not just “too big to fail,” but even too big to be criticized. Suddenly, the medieval notion of devils comes very close to home.

When the systems of “the world” are able to operate as denied and disguised evil, they soon become the “spirits in the air” that do immense damage but are invisible and unaccountable. Therefore, “the devil” is those same corporate evils when they have risen to sanctified, romanticized, and idealized necessities that are saluted, glorified, and celebrated in big paychecks, golden parachutes, parades, songs, rewards for loyalty, flags, marches, medals, and monuments. That’s how disguised “the devil” is! We all join in on bended knee.

We must first convict evil in its organizational form—not in its adherents, who might be quite good and holy—but the glorified organization itself. Then we must consider nation-states, war economies, penal systems, the banking system, the pharmaceutical system, etc. They are all good and necessary, in and of themselves. But when we idolize them and refuse to hold them fully accountable—I am going to dare to say the unsayable—they usually become demonic in some form. We normally cannot see it until it is too late. Anything considered above criticism will soon become demonic. Remember that the first exorcism of a demon in Mark’s Gospel is found not in a brothel or bar but in the synagogue (Mark 1:23–28).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CAC Publishing: 2019), 48‒51.

Epigraph: Baldwin, “White Racism or World Community?,” Address to the World Council of Churches (July 7, 1968), Collected Essays, ed. by Toni Morrison (Library of America: 1998), 750.

Image credit: Black Cross, New Mexico (detail), Georgia O’Keefe, 1929, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The apostle Paul is an utter realist about life on this planet. We must fully recognize and surrender to this foundational reality before we try to think we can repair the world (tikkun olam in Hebrew) with freedom and love. For Paul, his insight is symbolized in the scandalous image of a man on the cross, the Crucified God who fully accepts and transforms this tragic human situation through love. If this is the reality to which even God must submit, then surely we must and can do the same. —Richard Rohr
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