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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Real and True Enemy

What is "Evil"?

In Christianity alone you will find numerous definitions. For some it is "Satan" or "sin." For others it is defined by its contrast with Good as "what is not God's will" or "what goes against the natural order". Other traditions use other language but I think we're really all talking about the same thing, even if we disagree on which things fall under such a category.

The Latin, diabolicus, from which we get the English"diabolical," is probably one of the best words to use for Evil because it originally meant "to be thrown into two." This fits perfectly within the Christian tradition, as seen in Scripture when we're told the sinner is one who "walks a double path" (Sirach 2:12). I experience a mini-enlightenment when I hear that definition just like I do when I'm reminded that sin in Greek is simply "missing the mark."

A lot of churches don't talk about evil or the Devil these days. And some Christian communities like the one I grew up in talk about them too much. But the worst manner in which to talk about evil is when we apply it to people, something our egos and shadow selves seem to have an insatiable desire to do. Even Christ was accused of being evil and performing miracles by the power of Satan - casting out demons through demons. Anyone who is "other" or against our own ideas of how and who we should be usually gets branded as "evil." Call to mind Indians, papists, Jews, communists, feminists, Muslims, and George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" countries and you'll see it's a pattern in our nation's history. The irony here, though, is that we often try to do exactly what Jesus was accused of doing: we try to cure ourselves and others through "demons", which takes the form of a desire for power, control, security, purity, and "fixing" others. We think if we can achieve one of these things, the world will finally be set aright. That mentality is an illusion and what God calls a "false idol."

So are there any real enemies?

There are three classical enemies of man in Christianity. These are 1) the World, 2) the Flesh or Self, and 3) the Devil. In my very humble opinion, these are wonderfully named! But I've read and experienced enough to suspect they are not well understood.

The second enemy, "the Self," is really the only one I ever grew up knowing and the only one Christianity in America seems to explore at length. If you bring up sin with a Christian they're either going to start thinking of their own personal self-sins or the self-sins of others. Mention the 7 Capital Sins of antiquity - Avarice, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Pride, Sloth, and Wrath - and you can't help but think of how the self is envious, gluttonous, lustful, and so on.

Rarely do we apply sin to our governments or movements or societies, which we would name, the World. And rarer still do we call sinful the supreme systems and power structures that all countries buy into, the things that supremely rule the world's sin. These things we should call the Devil. They are the underlying systems that include us (and necessarily exclude others) and that we need to feel superior.

We are missing something very important when we fail to call our idols of nationalism, "the free market", war, and unjust power structures by their proper name: sin. Pope Leo XIII brought these to light in his encyclical Rerum Novarum and Pope St. John Paul II gave us the language of "structural sin" and "societal sin." That we can sin collectively through the systems and structures we support is a belief not often found outside of pastors blaming natural disasters on homosexuals.

If you lust, God doesn't strike you with unemployment. If you lie, God doesn't remove your sense of sight. The actual punishment is self-inflicted: you become more lustful, more deceitful. And the same is true with our structural sin. The problem is that these structures persist and are reinforced. They become moreThe sooner we learn that we have culpability in these societal sins, the sooner we'll have social justice, equality, and an end to poverty, three things Christ expressly admonished his followers to seek.

Okay, so systems can be evil. But can't people be evil too?

No, I don't think so. People are never the enemy. Jesus said to love your enemies and this shows us not only a way of being that is good and true but also what is real.

People are not evil. People are the image of God! How can we call an image of God evil? If we believe in redemption and God's love for all, then that includes the worst people you could think of. I think the most we can do is call others "diabolical" - people who have been thrown into two. And even then, haven't we all?

We like to personify realities, and that's really the problem. In the history of western art we've seen personifications of traits, the 7 Virtues for example - Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, Faith, Hope, and Love. There's a reason these are so often painted as beautiful women. Not only does it reflect what is desirable in a male-dominated society but it's also how we get a handle on them. (Isn't it interesting how often these are names for women and how seldom they are given to men?)

And we do the same with "evil". We personify evil as people groups like minorities and lower classes, or as individuals like Hitler, Stalin, or Osama bin Laden. Dante was a master of this personification but he wasn't the first. It's not that these individuals are great or even good and therefore don't deserve the "evil" label. Saying they are created in the image of God has no bearing on their personal development. But if you believe that all people are created in God's image, do you really think they deserve to be mentally separated from the rest of us? Do they deserve a category that is less than human, that is somehow other?

The hateful deserve our pity, the ignorant our compassion. We are called to love those we think of as enemies. But wouldn't it be beautiful if we could go a step further? Can't we recognize that we don't have any human enemies? "Other People" are not included on our list of 3! Yes, we have sin and sinful individuals. But we need to recognize that personal sin is only 1/3 of what we need to oppose. We need to oppose the World in its unjust structure and societies. And we need to oppose the Devil when he appears to be a supreme "good" that of course runs the world and cannot be altered (capitalism, war, human selfishness). If we can start, as a Christian community, to see the other 2/3 of evil, we might actually experience the Reign of God here and now.

Related Posts:
Timeless Violence
"Revival," "Alive," & "Dead"


  1. I agree that calling people "evil" is always a mistake, and it bothers me too when we personify tyrannical world leaders as "pure evil" or somehow inhuman.

    I think the way you define "world" as a form of evil is risky, though. You can't assume a kind of divine authority against capitalism (or communism, or whatever). This may feel progressive because it's countercultural, but don't be fooled—this is the same argument that fundamentalists use to call Democrats or so-called Obamacare "evil." It's the same argument that Christian conservatives use to identify and admonish the "homosexual agenda."

    It's one thing to say that you disagree with certain policies or systems of power... it's another thing to say that they are inherently destructive by using an argument predicated on spiritual forces.

  2. That's a really good point. I'm unsure but perhaps I was leaning that way. What I hope I was doing was merely saying that systems necessarily leave people out and have flaws. When they do we must be ready to say, "that's not a 'good' and that exclusion is not of God."

    I went too far in saying systems are evil because that's an absolutist claim (thanks). My revision would be that when we hold up certain systems - like capitalism - as inherently true and as too practical and all-pervasive for us to imagine a world without them, *then* that is a form of evil. Plenty of Christians believe capitalism and property rights are written into God's law of creation. They'd sooner skip a Sunday service than be told they *have* to give money to the poor via a government welfare program. In this example, property and wealth have become an idol. And idols are always evil. But as you pointed out, it's how we regard this fake god that is evil, and not the stone or wood material that is the building block for the image.