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The events of September 11 and since have brought to our minds in a rather consuming way the age-old question of evil. As we look into the face of such terror and senseless devastation, evil seems all around us, tangible and uncontrollable. Is it some force that lurks out there, a “dark lord” threatening to undo us, as it is often portrayed? Or is it found within? In the past weeks I have had numerous conversations with others, individuals and groups, about the nature of evil. Answers are elusive, as they have always been where this topic is concerned. And yet certain thoughts and questions continue to return.
Since the beginning of recorded time, we humans have struggled with the concept of evil. What is its source? Why does God allow it? How do we overcome it? How do we live with it? The Genesis story tells us that the first humans were coaxed into wanting to know the difference between good and evil. “The serpent beguiled me and I ate,” says Eve. It is an interesting and baffling proposition, since God had already, we are told, pronounced all creation “Good”, indeed “Very Good”. It is also interesting to note, I think, that evil is not found in anything the humans see when their eyes are opened. They see the same good creation they have always seen, although their thinking about it does begin to change. The first recorded evil in the scriptures, however, is not something that happens to humans, but is the action of one human against another. It is an act of retribution for a perceived injustice. Cain murders his brother Abel, because he believes he has been wronged.
As I think of the great acts of evil throughout history, in fact, it seems to me that they have very often occurred, not as a part of some great scheme to do evil, but as an attempt to name and do battle against it. The crucifixion of the “blasphemous and evil” Jesus; the torture and execution of “evil heretics”; the burning of “evil” witches; the extermination of the “evil, inferior” Jews; terrorism against the “evil” American empire; these are just a few that immediately come to mind. And yes, along these lines, one has to ask about the recent desire, stated by some of us, to bomb an “evil” Islamic state back to the stone age.
Evil all too often comes, it seems to me, not because people fall under the spell of some demon, or even because we decide we want to do something bad. Much evil is done because we perceive others to be evil. And in the name of what we believe to be goodvery often in the name of Godwe decide to act against them. That leads to the following question: Is evil real and tangible and all around us, or is it our expression of the lie of unfaith which resides within, refusing to see the true reality, which is the ultimate goodness of God and of God’s creation?
I find Jesus’ words very informative and helpful when he says that it is not what goes into a person that can defile, but what comes from within. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 15:19)
Instead of pronouncing others evil or looking outward for some “dark lord”, perhaps we need to look within ourselvesat our own blindness to the goodness of all that God has made; at our own lack of faith in a God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, not to condemn but to save it; at our own failure to trust him who has made all creation new, and who being lifted up has drawn all to himself. Perhaps we need to look at our own violence and hatred which comes from a failure to love as we have been loved. Perhaps we need to look at our own delusion that good and evil are something for us, rather than God, to judge or manage.
Yes, there is great evil in the world. No, it is not easily overcome; not because it is some supernatural power which has us in its grip, but because we continue to allow it to live in our hearts. And, having given it room, we will not likely be rid of it in this age. In fact, Jesus, in that marvelous parable of the wheat and tares, warns us against even trying to uproot the noxious plants; not because it is impossible, but because evil is in the very act of uprooting.
That need not lead us to a kind of quietism, however. Nor do we simply have to wait for some pie in the sky when Jesus comes again. We can trust and act on the knowledge that God has the whole world in God’s hands right nowas firmly as at the beginning of creation and as firmly as at the end of time. We can live lives of kindness, love and forgiveness, even if it seems counter intuitive as a response to the enormities that sometimes confront us. Many may find this view naive and unhelpful, but I do not believe Jesus does. Indeed, he tells us that it is the only way, because it is the way God in him has chosen to deal with the whole world. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu so beautifully reminds us, and not just in theory, but from the depth of agonizing experience, “there is no future without forgiveness.”
Beginning with ourselves and turning to all creation, let
us see what is good rather than evil. Instead of fearing the “dark lord,” let us open our eyes to see him who is Light from Light: the true
light which enlightens everyone, the light no darkness has ever overcome.
The Revd R Edgar Wallace is rector of St Matthias in Minocqua, Wisconsin, in the Diocese of Fond du Lac.