The Current Rise of Sin and Evil


At its most basic, evil is harm. To do evil to someone is to hurt, damage, or destroy the person. I find it helpful to keep in mind this basic meaning of evil, first because it clarifies some statements in the Bible, but also because it helps prevent us from understanding evil only at its extreme levels of intensity or even as a supernatural power of which we are the victims. Nice, respectable people hurt each other with words or sometimes with silence. A look of disgust can do lasting damage. Nations inflict great harm upon other, often weaker nations as we did to Iraq after our nation was attacked on September 11, 2001 but not by Iraq. The terrorist attacks on us did great harm, great evil, and so did our “shock and awe” of supposed retaliation upon Iraq.

The doing of harm can deepen into willful hurting, which may deepen further into the desire to hurt people and even delight in their pain. Then evil becomes malice and practiced cruelty. At such levels, the doing of evil ties into the desire for dominance accompanied by contempt for those who can be dominated and toyed with. Here doing harm, hurting and humiliating, becomes a habit, a commitment, and finally a need. So it is that evil swallows up the people who have thought dominance made them strong and cruelty was their right as the strong. Malice corrupts and destroys the one who surrenders to it even as that person inflicts harm upon others. This observation leads to the realization that evil is bigger and more powerful than we are. It grips, not only individuals, but nations and peoples. It dehumanizes those it empowers, driving them to appalling acts and frenzies of rage and hatred. Witness the men we see on videos screaming into the faces of women they perceive as unwanted outsiders to their “real America”; they seem insane with fury, out of control and out of their minds. They think they are confronting an evil when, in reality, evil is consuming them.

Sin may be the most misunderstood term in our moral and religious vocabulary. It is not the opposite of virtue; indeed, virtue and sin work together very well and fit nicely into the same person. Neither is sin disobedience, however much the Genesis story of humanity’s temptation and fall may seem upon superficial reading to support that definition. Sin is not merely the violation of a law, a rule, a commandment, or a vow, although such violations may result from and manifest sin. Consider the biblical commandment not to commit adultery. What does adultery violate – a rule, a marriage vow, the virtue of sexual or marital purity? No, it violates a relationship and so violates the person with whom that relationship was formed. That is what sin is in its deepest and most basic biblical meaning: the denial of relationship.

Now we may see the two concepts coming together. The doing of deliberate harm to other people requires the denial or corruption of our relationship with them. They are not “us.” They are inferior. They hate us. They are inhuman or even subhuman. They are disgusting. They belong to us as property and must be kept down, or they are outsiders who must be driven out or destroyed.

For many Americans, Donald Trump has legitimized their denial of relationship with people they see as not us, not real Americans, but outsiders who don’t belong here among us. He has made sin appear and feel patriotic, empowering, and right. So he has unleashed the resentments of people who hate being told they should welcome immigrants and understand border crossers, sympathize with refugees, seek to understand Muslims, respect women as equals, recognize skin color as irrelevant to respect and neighborliness, and be untroubled by different languages. By denying relationship, sin rejects empathy and compassion, replacing them with suspicion, disgust, and fear. What begins in Genesis as, in effect, “We will be as gods to ourselves and do not need you, God, as our God,” expands into, “You are not my brother, my sister, my neighbor, my equal, my companion in life.” From this spirit of evil flows every contemptuous name we put on groups of people we reject as having any rightful association with us, unless it be as our servants, slaves, or under-paid workers. From this spirit of evil springs every war waged in presumed righteousness, every delight in killing the despised enemy, every refusal to recognize our shared humanity.

So it happens that Jesus of Nazareth sums up all that God wants from us and for us in two inseparable commands found in the Hebrew scriptures: to love our God wholeheartedly with all we are and everything we have, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and he expands the definition of neighbor to include, not only the stranger, but even the enemy. He sets the affirmation of relationship against the denial of relationship which is sin.

Affirming relationships that have been denied and sometimes corrupted into antagonisms with long and bitter histories is no simple matter, no quick turnaround, no sweet coming together in sentimental love. Loving our enemies requires reconciliation which is very hard work requiring strenuous emotional effort from both sides and tough dedication to getting it done, despite setbacks and likely treachery from people with vested interests in keeping reconciliation from happening. One to one personal estrangements are hard to turn around because resentments have been accumulated. Hostilities between peoples, where neither side has clean hands and taking revenge has been glorified as honorable, are excruciatingly difficult to overcome. Fears and resentments run deep, and selfishness is ever at work. Treachery is always possible, and a single act of belligerence can undo years of work at building trust. Loving our enemies has nothing to do with warm, fuzzy feelings toward people who would love to hurt us. The work of reconciliation begins with recognizing their humanity as akin to our own, desiring healing rather than revenge, and trying to understand their hurts as well as ours.

Donald Trump did not create the currently rising evil. He unleashed it. Neither has he merely exposed the evil to public view; he has emboldened and empowered it so his campaign could feed it and feed upon it. If we would resist the evil and protect its intended victims, we must oppose it actively but take care not to adopt its methods and try to fight fire with fire. We must not dehumanize the Trump supporters, denying relationship with them. As in our Civil War, they are our neighbors, friends, and family members. Understanding people’s actions is not synonymous with excusing them. The history of prejudice in our nation reveals that many people have built their sense of identity and self-worth upon their presumed superiority by virtue of their whiteness, and some of their resentments are tied to perceived violations of that presumed superiority and their right to preference because of it. They see black people, Latinos, and women as cutting ahead of them in line for the American dream. Such prejudices complicate sympathy for them and stifle understanding of their pain but do not excuse us from the efforts, not only because we all have prejudices of our own, but also because we do indeed, like it or not, belong together to the God who created us to live in mutual respect, with commitment to justice and kindness.

The Talmud includes a story in which the angels of heaven ask God if they may join the Israelites in the Song of the Sea celebrating their deliverance from the Egyptian army that sought to destroy them. The children of Israel have crossed the sea on dry ground, but the waters have returned to drown the pursuing Egyptians. Cause for celebration? No, for God replies, How can you sing when my children are drowning, when the work of my hands lies dead upon the shores?

Denial of relationship with other people amounts to denial of God. Rejection of empathy and refusal of compassion open the door wide for terrible evils (great harm and rampant cruelty) without interference from conscience. Jesus launched a counter movement by insisting we do belong together, we are all related within God’s commitment to relationship with us. He gave himself to reconcile us. This is what we believe and proclaim as Christians. That so many American Christians have given their support to the current rising of sin and evil shows how deeply the rejection of relationship has corrupted the body politic of our land and the faith of American Christianity.

In long-standing hostilities, the standard defense against any suggestion of reconciling with the enemies is a litany of, “But what about . . . ?” answered with a recital of grievances and wrongs done by those enemies. Such litanies re-ignite anger even as they deflect any suggestion of self-examination. Such deflection is the use to which the abortion issue is currently put, not to reduce the number of abortions, but to claim high moral ground for supporting the rise of belligerent nationalism and racism with insistence that unqualified opposition to abortion excuses all other wrongs. As long as opposing sides continue to deflect self-examination with, “But what about (wrongs believed to be done or supported by the other side)?” reconciliation is stifled and self-righteousness prevails. Therein lies the power of sin and the grief of God.

The Shadow Rising


I’m interrupting my series on simplism because I’ve been hearing and reading so much foolishness and downright filth on what passes today for TV news and on Facebook. None of it is new, but it’s still dangerous because it influences us. Nothing evil, by which I mean harmful and corrupting, ever goes away but keeps resurfacing in slightly new forms to trouble the world again. I’m reminded of something Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf says in a chapter of The Lord of the Rings called “The Shadow of the Past”: “Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”

Just this morning, I have read comments asserting that Hitler gave refuge to Jews and didn’t hate them but only opposed Zionism. Another asked why there are even Muslims in the United States to be put into detention camps. Another came from a shopkeeper who apparently thinks people mind that he salutes the flag, says “God bless America” and “Merry Christmas,” and appreciates the service rendered by police officers and firefighters. Doing any of those things he imagines to be “politically incorrect” could be in itself pleasant, affirming of the good, and harmless, but when laced with belligerence turns mean and ugly.

“God bless America” doesn’t have to be belligerent but can be our particular homeland part of, “God bless the world, all its people, and all its non-human creatures as well.” “Merry Christmas” doesn’t have to be shouted or snarled in people’s faces but can be said as a cheerful well-wish in the same spirit as Tiny Tim’s, “God bless us, everyone.” Saluting the flag can be an act of respect and personal commitment to the common welfare of the nation; it need not be bellicose and arrogant toward other nations and peoples. Appreciating the stressful, often dangerous and sometimes heroic service of police officers and firefighters does not exclude seeking to end the abuses of police power and the racism much too frequent and sometimes deeply ingrained. Indeed, caring about the quality of police work is necessary to respecting its service.

It’s easy to mock political correctness when it gets pushed to silly extremes, although I would caution against too quickly assuming that what sounds strange is therefore silly without trying to understand what the issue might be and where harm might lie. Much, however, of what gets scorned as “PC” is really respectful of people who have been denied respect in our society. People get testy when others don’t laugh at their jokes which were considered funny fifty years ago and are still commonplace as in-group humor in like-minded and like-prejudiced gatherings.

Politically, we are living in a season of self-serving attempts to make frustrated and fearful people dangerously angry, and it’s working. Economic hard times always breed resentment and suspicion of unpopular minorities, and we are still living in an economically hard time for many. Shouting at each other online isn’t helping, and now people are shouting at each other in public places, and the rage is escalating. Mocking each other isn’t helping, either.

The shadow is rising among us. We greatly need to stop looking at each other as enemies. We really are in this thing together, this thing called life. We don’t have to agree with each other, but understanding and respect would go a long way toward bringing us back into the light together.

The Current Evil in Two Words


The basic meaning of evil is to be found, not in fantastic images of the satanic, but in the plainer, more down-to-earth matter of doing harm, whether by aggressive assault or more passive disregard for human life and well-being.  I said “human” because our attention has been focused most often upon the evils people do to each other, and upon reflection, we should add the damage people do to themselves because when evil is understood as harm, self-destruction may be considered evil, also, without necessarily becoming a matter of blame.  Is cruelty inflicted upon earth’s non-speaking creatures not, then, evil?  Indeed it is, whether done as the kind of brutality and neglect visited upon pets that makes for raging headlines and public outcries for punishment or as the routine destruction of animal environs that quietly kills off species.  If, through biblical knowledge or other ways of thought that lead us to a sense of our stewardship responsibility for this planet, we are moved to see ourselves as care-takers for the earth rather than privileged overlords, then harm done to ecosystems as such may rightly be called evil also.

What, then, do I mean by “the current evil”?  I am seeking to identify a source of great harm being done on earth these days, a contemporary evil with powerful and pervasive destructive force doing widespread and increasing damage to life on earth.  As usual, evil so great and powerful must be couched in terms that make it sound reasonable and right, even inevitable in the course of human development.  Such great evil must sound proper if not downright good and virtuous.

The two words are spoken as a command but also as a reasonable and well-recognized goal, a given elevated beyond question.  They are: “maximize profits.”  Not “make a profit” or even a nice profit.  Not even “increase profits,” although that’s a step closer, sometimes.  It’s not hard to imagine, though, a certain desperation even in that phrase when it speaks of a pressing concern, as in, “We must increase our profits soon, or we will not be able to stay in business.”  No, the word that pushes the business necessity of making money over the line is “maximize.”

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Follow-up to Conception by Rape, a Bum Rap for God


I have been asked by a friend of faith whether God is not the one who opens and closes the womb which is biblical language meaning the one who blesses people with children or makes them unable to have children and, also, how that understanding of God as the one who gives and entrusts children to their parents fits into the view expressed in my previous post of God as NOT the author of conception by rape.  My friend offered examples of women in the Bible, one of whom is Hannah, and I take my response from her story.

The Bible is not a book of doctrines.  Neither is it an encyclopedia of divine knowledge – the secrets or facts of the universe and all its workings.  The Bible bears witness to God’s salvific dealings with people within their specific times and places, and it bears its varied witness in terms of the views of life, nature, and the world which were accepted at the time.  God meets people where they are in life and history, in terms they can understand.  So, chapter one of Genesis presents creation theologically as being done by God within the framework of a three-story universe: a flat earth founded upon the nether sea and beneath a body of water supported by the vault (firmament) of the heavens, which God opens to send rain or snow.  I believe this Genesis creation story offers us very important truth about God, the created order, and life including human life which is to be responsive and responsible to God.  I do not believe in a three-story world with a flat earth between two great bodies of water, one below it and the other above it.  The world view of the times provides the framework or setting for the message, but it is not itself the truth of God.

In terms of the source of evil (harm) that happens to people in life, the Hebrew Scriptures show some development in faith thinking over the time of the various biblical books, but for most of the history of ancient Israel, the people accepted both good (benefit) and evil (harm) from the hand of the LORD God.  They acknowledged no power of evil in opposition to God.  When the figure of “the Satan” appears in the later-written book of Job, he is a member of the heavenly council of God and is better understood as the accuser who argues against human righteousness than as the Medieval world’s lord of the underworld, his Satanic Majesty.

In First Samuel we read of the young woman Hannah who would become the mother of the prophet and judge Samuel.  Hannah’s husband has two wives.

4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.  (1Samuel 1:4-6 NRSV) [Italics mine]

On one level, “because the LORD had closed her womb” is an ancient way of saying she was unable to conceive, but on a deeper level, it is faith’s way of saying God had not given her children.  Like her people, she understands children to be given by God and entrusted to their parents’ love and care so they can be brought up to adulthood in the knowledge of God.

I think that to this day a woman of faith might well ask God, “Why have you not given me a child when we want one so much?”  Certainly couples who suffer repeated miscarriages are tempted to wonder why God is punishing them or, if not punishing, withholding the blessing they desire.  But this way of people of faith in taking their distresses and disappointments directly to the God they trust and look to for life does not equate to a principle that all miscarriages are acts of God or all conceptions acts of God.

It simply is not true, Jesus teaches us, that everything which happens is in accordance with the will of God.  Lepers did not contract leprosy because God wanted to punish them for some sin they had committed.  Sickness was not God’s doing.  Poverty was not God’s will for certain people.  Neither success nor failure in business enterprises was determined by God.  Jesus cut through the smug judgmentalism of the healthy, wealthy, and fortunate by which they declared themselves favored by God and others not so.

Being Presbyterian and knowing only too well that at times my faith tradition has turned its doctrines of God’s will, election, and predestination into what has amounted to Christianized fatalism, I find it imperative to insist that not all that happens in this world happens in accordance with the will and design of God.  God does not work evil.  God will work redemption in our lives.  That is, God will take the harm done by sin, by chance, by nature, or by other people’s malice or carelessness and turn it to good for those who persist in seeking God’s redemption, but that redemption does not make God the author of the evil that happened.  We must not make God the doer of evil.  It’s not fair to God or people.

Today, in our scientific mind set, we recognize natural processes as natural, including that of conception.  We say it’s just nature: if this is done, that might happen.  God has set the created order in place, and it follows its own rules.  Do I believe God sometimes intervenes for human benefit, to rescue us from harm?  Yes, I certainly do.  But evils continue as long as we live under the conditions of this present world, and as Paul puts it, the created order continues to groan under those conditions which hurt and destroy life.

Rape is a terrible evil, and I have to regard conception by rape as a further terrible evil resulting from the first violation.  A woman’s body has been invaded and violated, and the invader left his foul, unwanted seed in her, and by the natural process she has conceived.  Let that which is invasive and foul be removed, if possible before she knows whether it caused conception.  It has no right to be there, within her body.  Its presence is wrong.

But what if the woman herself chooses to redeem the evil of the conception by accepting it as if from God rather than from the man who invaded her body and did such foul evil to her?  She certainly has that right, if she so chooses, but to so choose she must be allowed a choice to make.  And surely if she so chooses and a child is born, the rapist should not be acknowledged legally or in any other way as the child’s father, thereby continuing to connect him to her and her child.  But I think the default position of society should be that she be enabled to cleanse herself of the invasion.  Otherwise, the law has sided with the rapist.

Hannah conceives and gives birth to a son.  Thanks be to God!  For such was her prayer, and God heard and respected her prayer.  Even the most scientifically minded people of faith still pray for the children they desire and thank God when those children are born.  Receiving their child as given to them by God, they recognize also that God has committed the child to their loving care to be raised as God’s own child entrusted to them.  But we do not need laws that afflict the victims of rape on the false grounds of naming God as party to the rape and, indeed, the real cause of it.  That’s a bum rap.