I’ve been thinking about evil, and I see from the online social networks that I’m not alone. The latest crimes from Boston, Baghdad, and Tripoli are fresh evidence (as if we needed it!) of the cruelties our species is capable of.
Of course, the perpetrators are nothing like you and me! Right? Biblical realism interrupts such self-assurance with this crisp reminder: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). How do we apply this truth when evil strikes at us? Three Friends have been especially helpful in thinking about this:
Robert Barclay, in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1676/1678), warns us not to give sin and evil more power than it is due. As helpless as we are to overcome evil without God’s help, it’s not because we are depraved to our very core: original sin left us vulnerable to the serpent’s seed of disobedience, but “this seed is not imputed to infants, until by transgression they actually join themselves therewith.” In Christ we gain the power to resist and overcome evil in ourselves, and the power to confront the evil in others with good. This is a great antidote to helplessness!
Joe Gerick, our former yearly meeting superintendent, gave me a very helpful image of how to envision this confrontation with evil: people who act in evil ways are not themselves some kind of evil mutants; they are prisoners of satan. As the body of Christ, we are to continue God’s work of freeing prisoners. I can’t help asking myself: when I react to the latest horrifying incident, do I remember to pray and work for this liberation, for victims and perpetrators alike?
Arthur O. Roberts, one of our yearly meeting’s enduring faithful philosophers, led an unforgettable Sunday school class at Reedwood Friends Church nearly ten years ago, in which he talked about the “social construction of evil.” Evil does exist; the farther we get from our Center (God and godly values), the more vulnerable we are. But there’s a difference between real evil and the way we talk about evil, the way we ascribe evil to others. We are more likely to believe we are seeing evil in those who are different from us than we are in our own neighborhood. In our “universe of thought,” Roberts sees three territories, all joined at the same center like slices of pie: the territories of sense, reason, and intuition. Most of us “feel at home in one [of these territories], comfortable in a second, and foreign in the third.” It’s no surprise that we find evil a lot easier to find in that territory where we feel foreign! Lesson: with Arthur’s help, can I avoid ascribing evil to people or movements simply because I don’t feel at home among them?
Evil exists and happens, but “do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
Contributed by Johan Maurer, Reedwood Friends
Arthur’s ideas can be found in his article, “Good and Evil: An Epistemological Paradigm,” in the book Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives, edited by Jackie Leach Scully and Pink Dandelion. (I contributed another chapter to the same book.)