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Theme:
What Do We Do with Evil?

What Do We Do with Evil?

Saturday, October 17, 2020
Summary: Sunday, October 11—Friday, October 16, 2020

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. (Sunday)

For Paul, sin is not primarily individual fault, but the negative matrix out of which both evil and enlightenment arise. (Monday)

Both Thomas Aquinas and C. S. Lewis taught that the triumph of evil depends entirely on disguise. Our egos must see it as some form of goodness and virtue so that we can buy into it. (Tuesday)

Paul’s “powers” and “principalities” 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 idolatrous. (Wednesday)

Jesus’ social program, as far as I can see, is a quiet refusal to participate in almost all external power structures or domination systems. (Thursday)

Universal solidarity is the important lesson, not private salvation. (Friday)

 

Practice: From Place to Ground

As long as we are preoccupied with the sins of “the flesh,” those things we’ve done, said, and gotten wrong over the course of our lives, we will never find the courage to face the larger problems of “the world” and “the devil.” This gentle meditation exercise by mindfulness teacher Rhonda V. Magee invites us to connect with ourselves, our ancestors, our neighbors, and our common humanity. From that place of solidarity, we may be able to imagine our collective salvation and to work towards it. 

Taking a position for a meditation practice, whether seated, standing, or lying down, bring your awareness to the position of the body in this moment. Feel the connection between the body and the ground. Take a few moments to ground yourself intentionally in the here and now. With a few very deep breaths, imagine the flow of the breath extending through the height of your body, from head to toe, and through the width of your body, from side to side.

On an in-breath, begin deepening awareness of who you really are.

Call to mind your connection to your parents, and through them, as best you can, your grandparents, and the great-grandparents whose names you know or do not know. And so on.

What do you know about your own ancestral heritage? What do you not know? . . .

What parts [of this story] have been hidden, denied, buried, or left out?

Breathe in, examining what you know and do not know about these aspects of your place in the social world. . . .

Now consider the actual community in which you live. For now, think of this as one aspect of your “place” in the world. Consider the fact that every person in that community is a member of a broad, rich lineage within human history. And see how those differences pale in comparison to the things the communities’ members share in common.

Take a moment to consider the ways that different histories reflect common experience as human beings.

Think of the peace and cooperation that silently exist in your community, to whatever degree they exist, and the ways in which your life has benefited from thousands of moments of participating in a community that practices “getting along.”

Now breathe in and out, feeling the deeper ground of your existence, and that which you share with us, with the rest of the world. Allow the awareness of your common humanity to infuse your sense of your place in the world in this very moment.

On the next in-breath, call to mind what you know about some one particular aspect of your lineage. And on the next out-breath, release what you know, and sense into the common experience of breathing that all human beings share.

Continue this cycle, breathing and alternately considering aspects of your place in the world and the deeper ground of your human existence, all held by the ocean of awareness.

When you’re ready, gently bring yourself back into simply sitting and breathing. Transition out of the meditation with gentle kindness.

Reference:
Rhonda V. Magee, The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities through Mindfulness (TarcherPerigee: 2019), 59–61.

For Further Study:
Walter Brueggemann, Tenacious Solidarity: Biblical Provocations on Race, Religion, Climate, and the Economy, ed. Davis Hankins (Fortress Press: 2018).

John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now (HarperSanFrancisco: 2007).

Richard Rohr, St. Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), CD, MP3 download.

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

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

Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, 25th anniversary ed. (Fortress Press: 2017, 1992).

Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (Doubleday: 1998).

Image credit: Black Cross, New Mexico (detail), Georgia O’Keefe, 1929, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. www.artic.edu
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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What Do We Do with Evil?

Corporate Evil and Corporate Good
Friday, October 16, 2020

Both Jesus and Paul radically reframe the human situation and invite us to live a vulnerable human life in communal solidarity with both sin and salvation.

  • Neither sin nor salvation could ever be exclusively mine, but both of them are collectively ours!
  • Universal solidarity is the important lesson, not private salvation.
  • We all hold responsibility for all instead of blaming one or the other.
  • Human solidarity is the goal, not “my” moral superiority or perfection.

I know that does not, at first, feel like a strategy for successful living, and it is certainly not one that will ever appeal to the upwardly mobile or the pure idealists. It first feels like capitulation, but that is not Jesus’ or Paul’s intention at all—quite the opposite. Paul believes he has found a new kind of victory and freedom. He himself calls it “folly” or “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:21, 25, 27; 4:10), as it is for most people to this day. He often calls it a “hidden mystery” that only the wise discover. Paul believes there is a hidden, cruciform shape to reality, even revealed in the geometry of the cross (see Ephesians 2:13–22). The world is filled with contradictions, false alternatives, zero-sum games, paradoxes, and unresolvable evils. It is foundationally unjust, yet we must work for justice in order to find our own freedom and create it for others.

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.

By giving ourselves to this primary human absurdity, which shows itself in patience, love, and forgiveness toward all things, we find a positive and faith-filled way through “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” This is not by really resolving it or thinking we can ever fully change it, but by recognizing that we are all complicit in this mixed moral universe. This is perhaps the humility that Christians need in their campaigns for social reform. This is “carrying the cross” with Jesus.

Humans often end up doing evil by thinking they can and must eliminate all evil, instead of holding it, suffering it themselves, and learning from it, as Jesus does on the cross. This ironically gives us the active compassion we need to work for social change. My acceptance of a cruciform world mirrors my ability to accept a cruciform me.

God has created a world where there is no technique or magical method for purity or perfection. Forgiving love is the only way out and the only final answer is God’s infinite Love and our ability to endlessly draw upon it.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CAC Publishing: 2019), 79–81, 83, 85.

Image credit: Black Cross, New Mexico (detail), Georgia O’Keefe, 1929, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. www.artic.edu
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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What Do We Do with Evil?

Jesus’ Social Program
Thursday, October 15, 2020

Jesus does not directly attack the religious and institutional sin systems of his time until his final action against the money changers in the temple (see Matthew 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46). Because of this, Jesus’ primary social justice critique and action are often a disappointment to most radicals and social activists. Jesus’ social program, as far as I can see, is a quiet refusal to participate in almost all external power structures or domination systems. His primary action is a very simple lifestyle, which kept him from being constantly co-opted by those very structures, which I (and Paul) would call the “sin system.”

Jesus seems to have avoided the monetary system as much as possible by using “a common purse” (John 12:6; 13:29). His three-year ministry, in effect, offers free healing and healthcare for any who want them. He consistently treats women with a dignity and equality that is almost unknown in an entirely patriarchal culture. At the end of his life, he surrenders to the punitive systems of both empire and religion by letting them judge, torture, and murder him. He is finally a full victim of the systems that he refused to worship.

Jesus knew the destructive power of what Walter Wink wisely called the “domination system.” [2] These systems usually wield power over the poor, the defenseless, and the outsider in every culture. When he does take on the temple system directly (Mark 11:15–18), Jesus is killed within a week. Contrary to history’s interpretation of Jesus’ practice, he did not concentrate on personal, “flesh” sins nearly as much as the sins of “the world” and “the devil,” but few of us were taught to see him that way.

In fact, Jesus is always forgiving individual sinners, which was a problem for the righteous from the beginning (Luke 7:34). In contrast, I do not once see him “forgiving” the sins of systems and empires. Instead, he just makes them show themselves (Mark 5:8) and name themselves (Mark 5:9)—as did Desmond Tutu in South Africa and Martin Luther King, Jr. in America.

Significantly, Jesus says “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” (Matthew 11:21) and “Alas for you [cultures of the] lawyers, scribes, and Pharisees” (most of Matthew 23 and Luke 11:37‒54). He didn’t warn Bill from Bethsaida, Cathy from Chorazin, or Simon the Pharisee, with whom he engages and eats (Luke 7:36–47). He laments over “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” (Luke 13:34‒35) instead of attacking Jerry from Jerusalem. Today we would call that making an “unfair generalization”; but if what I am saying here has any truth to it, maybe it is a much more truthful and fair diagnosis of the problem. It is Bethsaida and Jerusalem that should fear judgment more than Bill and Jerry! It is “Capernaum” that is to be cast into hell (Matthew 11:23), not necessarily Corey from Capernaum. How did we miss that? It is crucial in our understanding of evil as being, first of all, a social agreement.

References:

[1] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Augsburg Fortress: 1992).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CAC Publishing: 2019), 71‒73.

Image credit: Black Cross, New Mexico (detail), Georgia O’Keefe, 1929, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. www.artic.edu
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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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).

References:
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. www.artic.edu
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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What Do We Do with Evil?

An Agreed-upon Delusion
Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The world (or “system” as we use the word now) is a hiding place for unconsciousness or “deadness” in the words of Paul. Both Thomas Aquinas and C. S. Lewis taught that the triumph of evil depends entirely on disguise. [1] [2] Our egos must see it as some form of goodness and virtue so that we can buy into it.

If evil depends on a “good” disguise, cultural virtue and religion are the very best covers of all. The leaders of both religion and empire colluded in the killing of Jesus (Matthew 27:1–2). In Luke’s Gospel, Herod and Pilate just passed him back and forth and affirmed whatever the other one said (Luke 23:12). Christians were forewarned that the highest levels of power can and probably will be co-opted by evil.

Is there a culture in this world that does not operate out of this recipe for delusion? This is what Paul means when he names “the world,” or what I call “the system,” as one of the sources of evil. 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. If we cannot see this, it might reveal the depth of the disguise of institutionalized evil.

Consider the religious rationale for the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which justified the conquest of the Americas and the African slave-trade. Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah write:

The doctrine [of Discovery] emerged from a series of fifteenth-century papal bulls, which are official decrees by the pope that carry the full weight of his ecclesial office. . . . On May 4, 1493, the year after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter Caetera . . . and offered a spiritual validation for European conquest, “that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread. . . .” It gave theological permission for the European body and mind to view themselves as superior to the non-European bodies and minds. The doctrine created . . . an identity for African bodies as inferior and only worthy of subjugation; it also relegated the identity of the original inhabitants of the land “discovered” to become outsiders, now unwelcome in their own land. [3]

Evil finds its almost perfect camouflage in the silent agreements of the group when it appears personally advantageous. Such unconscious “deadness,” will continue to show itself in every age, I believe. This is why I can’t throw the word “sin” out entirely. If we do not see the true shape of evil or recognize how we are fully complicit in it, it will fully control us, while not looking the least like sin. Would “agreed-upon delusion” be a better description? We cannot recognize it or overcome it as isolated individuals, mostly because it is held together by the group consensus.

References:
[1] 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 (Sophia Institute Press: 1990), 152.

[2] Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1942) offers numerous examples of the ways evil presents itself as desirable.

[3] Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (InterVarsity Press: 2019), 15, 19, 21.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CAC Publishing: 2019), 43‒47.

Image credit: Black Cross, New Mexico (detail), Georgia O’Keefe, 1929, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. www.artic.edu
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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What Do We Do with Evil?

A Negative Matrix
Monday, October 12, 2020

One reason we lost interest in the concept of sin is because we usually heard it being used to judge, shame, exclude, or control others or ourselves. Seldom was the concept of sin used to bring discernment or deeper understanding, much less compassion or forgiveness, to the human situation. My conviction is that sin became a less useful idea for many of us because we needed to move around in a different field to regain our notion of the deadly nature of true evil. If we are honest and perceptive, we surely see that actual evil often seems to “dominate the very air” and is much more the norm than the exception.

I’m convinced the apostle Paul’s teaching about the nature of sin reveals his spiritual genius. For him, sin is not primarily individual fault, but the negative matrix out of which both evil and enlightenment arise. Paul (or the school of Paul) wrote in Ephesians: “You were dead through the crimes and sins that used to make up your way of life, when you were living by the principles of this world, thus obeying the ruler who dominates the very air” (2:1‒2). This compact sentence seems to be pointing to at least three sources of evil, which would eventually be called the flesh, the world, and the devil in early Catholic moral theology:

1) The Flesh: “the crimes and sins that used to make up your way of life” (our personal participation in an already criminal and sinful culture);

2) The World: “living by the principles of this world” (since most cultures are based on false or superficial agreements about value, dignity, and success). By world, Paul is not referring to creation or nature, but rather what we might call the system;

3) The Devil: “the ruler who dominates the very air” (the illusions and deceits which so totally control the field of consciousness that most of us cannot see them; it is the very air we breathe).

Up to now, most Christians have placed almost all of our attention on the level of the “flesh,” policing sexuality and various “unclean” acts rather than addressing the more serious and pervasive forms of corporate injustice and evil. We have had almost no education in or recognition of what Paul meant by “the principles of the world” and even less on what he meant by “the ruler who dominates the very air.” When we imagine the devil as a caricature of a red, horned figure, we are not taking evil seriously. The implications have been massive, blinding, and hugely destructive, both for the individual and for society.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CAC Publishing: 2019), 10‒11, 21, 57.

Image credit: Black Cross, New Mexico (detail), Georgia O’Keefe, 1929, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. www.artic.edu
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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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.”

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CAC Publishing: 2019), 8‒13.

Image credit: Black Cross, New Mexico (detail), Georgia O’Keefe, 1929, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. www.artic.edu
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
Read Full Entry
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