The Evil in this World: Is Evil Here to Stay? Yes.
Editor’s Note: FāVS has launched a new series on The Evil in this World. We see it every day in the murder and mayhem that trouble our lives. The world’s great religions have an explanation for this and different ways to describe the battle between good and evil. Those who do not subscribe to a religious tradition have their own perceptions of evil and good. How does your belief system describe both forces and how does it help you cope with the notion that evil exists in this world? Has your faith ever been shaken by the evil around you?
Commentary by Jody Cramsie
Evil is an ineradicable part of the human condition. It is part of who we are. It is one of the inevitable consequences of human freewill. Evil is here to stay.
However, there also exists an inexhaustible Source of Good/Love. This all-encompassing Spirit/Force/Energy is what Paul Tillich calls the “Ground of Being” in his book, “The Dynamics of Faith,” and what Marcus Borg has referred to as “Ultimate Reality” in his book “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.” Paul, in Acts 17:28 describes this as him in whom “we live, and move, have our being …” Or as Borg elaborated, this Ultimate Reality is in, with and under everything, a permanent Presence. This is what I call God.
So what does this God have to do with evil in our midst? This God is not responsible for evil; only humans are responsible. This God cannot fix evil; only humans have the power and obligation to try and fix the conditions for evil that we create.
What are the conditions for evil? Evil in all of its manifestations is introduced by the “false eternals of human pride …” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr in his book “The Nature and Destiny of Man (Vol. II).” This human pride shows up in human existence as selfishness and undue self-concern; grasping; greed; anger, violence; lust for power; and a view of life as zero-sum.
According to Niebuhr, in another of his books, “Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics,” the collective egoism of groups “achieves a more vivid expression and a more cumulative effect when they are united in a common impulse …” The “entrenched predatory self-interest,” when aligned with others of like-thinking, works to create systems of injustice and imbalances of power that take the forms of imperialism, economic inequality, class domination, exploitation of weakness and other mechanisms of social, political and cultural injustice.
So what are we to do about it? And does the impersonal and non-interventionist God I described have any role to play?
According to Martin Luther King, Jr., in a paper he wrote as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary, “The Christian answer to the problem of evil is ultimately contained in what [the Christian] does with evil…” Similarly, a demand for action is a foundational Christian claim, both by Old Testament prophets and the New Testament Jesus.
Note that neither of these positions expresses a belief in a solution delivered by an interventionist God. For me, an interventionist God with the power to confront and conquer evil andyet does not, is a cause for existential despair. However, the God I envisioned above, an encompassing Force for Good/Love working throughout history, accessible to humans who wish to do so, does not lead to despair, but hope.
This hope is found in our human freedom, the unknowability and uncertainty of the future and my belief in the Ultimate Source of Good/Love that permeates every part of the Universe. It is in this “muscular hope” for radical transformation and the corresponding decrease in the measure and influence of evil where my faith rests.
This keeps me from falling into despair and defeatism, despite the daily setbacks and long-term struggles. It is from history’s accomplishments and victories, which Rebecca Solnit writes about in her book “Hope in the Dark,” that I find some solace. There is a power and force in the world for change and justice and compassion.
Borg suggests that one of the tests for determining if the changes are truly in keeping with justice and compassion is to measure the impacts of the systemic changes in human lives: Is the result that human lives are flourishing or suffering?
None of this addresses the individual acts of cruelty and evil that hit us hard every day. The seemingly endless manner of hate and bigotry and violence can (and should!) bring even the most hopeful person to tears and anger. Although the influence of systemic injustice cannot be denied, I am in no way excusing or justifying these individual acts of evil by suggesting these people are nothing but the products or victims of society’s systemic injustice. No. As King wrote, it is the misuse of freedom that is behind moral evil. These people must be held accountable for their behavior.
Yet, it is just the frequency and heinousness and smallness of these individual acts of evil that make it so easy for us to focus on them and overlook the gargantuan evil in the domination systems of our day – systems whose equally gargantuan power and reach and impact make them seem so impervious to any of our efforts at change. A whiff of hopelessness attends our work and can easily lead us to give up. We must not.
Our work for a world with structural and social justice is unending. As Borg said, we must work for the ideal, knowing it is impossible to achieve it. In 2 Timothy 4, Paul encourages his followers to “be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering … watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work … I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
Join FāVS for a Coffee Talk discussion on “The Evil in the World” at 10:30 a.m., Jan. 14, at the downtown Spokane Public Library.
Jody Cramsie has a background in history, theology, ethics and law. In her free time she enjoys music, reading and hosting dinner parties for family and friends. She lives in Spokane but prefers to be on the Olympic Peninsula or in the south of France. She currently serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board of Trustees.