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.
This is quite a powerful composition. The Talmud story ….celebration. The ending with the abortion example made me think.