The Common Good
May-June 1998

Evil: The Tie That Binds

by Bob Hulteen | May-June 1998

In 1977, the Church of England set out to modernize the Lord’s Prayer.

In 1977, the Church of England set out to modernize the Lord’s Prayer. Each line of praise, petition, and eschatological yearning was altered, save one: "And deliver us from evil." The scholars and liturgists who participated in this process did not believe that phrase needed any updating. Evil, it seems, is with us always.

And evil, as a concept, is pretty popular today. While angels are the rage in pop religious circles, people busy confronting evil structures and fighting the powers are searching for clarity: Why is there so much suffering? How can there be so much pain in a world created by the whisper of an omnipotent and merciful God? Christian social activists, since the social reform movements early in this century (and before, though in different terms), have had an explanation. Evil structures, be they racism, sexism, classism, ethnocentricism, militarism, homophobia, or other discriminatory siblings, control the lives of the just and unjust alike.

Still today, the bulk of analysis within the progressive church, while acknowledging individual flaws, identifies evil as structures that hold back, predetermine, invade and violate, judge, and categorize. Several good books try to demonstrate divine activity in the face of the existence of evil.

Emilie M. Townes’ broad collection of essays A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering (Orbis Books, 1993) uses Alice Walker’s definition of womanist to magnify the common experiences of suffering by African-American women. Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan expands upon her contribution in Troubling in her own work, Exorcising Evil: A Womanist Perspective on the Spirituals (Orbis Books, 1997), using the text and tune of African-American spirituals to frame the transformational opportunities for a suffering people. Careful and concise, Kirk-Duggan contributes greatly to womanist ethical thought.

In Deliver Us From Evil: Resisting Racial and Gender Oppression (Augsburg Fortress, 1996), James Newton Poling points to a Christology of resistance. In the face of evil structures, Poling suggests in this accessible offering, believers must be "wise as serpents" so as not to be seduced by the temptations of self-interest.

Christine M. Smith, in her Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), expands the field of vision by adding "handicappism," "ageism," and "heterosexism" to the more familiar list of sexism, white racism, and classism. Concentrating primarily on homiletic integrity, Smith interweaves the biblical story with the individual experiences of people who encounter the devastation of evil manifest in bigotry and systemic discrimination.

Kathleen M. Sands’ provocative and scholarly Escape From Paradise: Evil and Tragedy in Feminist Theology (Augsburg Fortress, 1994) offers a controversial word—that womanist and feminist provisions for justice are reworked vestiges of the moral dualism they seek to replace. While sensitive to these perspectives, Sands challenges that they are ultimately no further along than traditional ontological arguments that either rationalize ("the passion to render reality as a single intelligible whole") or dualize ("a hunger for a pure unmixed good") the existence of evil. Concentrating on the lived experience of people, Sands offers a sense of the nature of irresolvable suffering as tragic in a world ruled by a just God.

TWO HISTORICAL surveys explore Christian theodicy. Evil: A Historical and Theological Perspective (Augsburg Fortress, 1995), by Hans Schwarz, and Evil and the Cross (InterVarsity Press, 1994), by Henri Blocher, each provides an interesting overview of how Christians have historically dealt with evil’s existence. Schwarz uses social, psychoanalytical, and historical theories interwoven with scriptural reflections to support his Augustinian viewpoint.

Blocher’s accessible book relies less on cultural or psychosocial approaches, but, as with Schwarz, his interest is primarily theoretical, in a way. He opens the book: "While it is evil that tortures human bodies, it is the problem of evil that torments the human mind." In the end Blocher points readers to the cross as the radical response to the existence of evil.

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty

(W.H. Freeman and Company, 1997), by Roy F. Baumeister, tackles this long-standing religious problem from a secular, interdisciplinary point of view. And, in a controversial way, he looks at the problem of evil from the perspectives of both the victim and the perpetrator. This book will help unearth the mindset of those who participate in individual evil acts and discriminant social structures.

Radical Evil

(Verso, 1996), edited by Joan Copjec, adds much to the discussion. Because the problem of evil derailed the Enlightment’s long hegemony over social and political ideologies, people who hold to a rational sense of progress must find ways to deal with it—on all levels. The authors included in this anthology look at international issues and personal insecurities, all within this framework.

An old faithful may still be the best. Walter Wink’s seminal "powers" trilogy (a fourth title, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, is forthcoming from Doubleday) mines an even deeper spiritual vein than the social-structural analysis. Drawing on the work of William Stringfellow, Paul Ricoeur, and others, Wink describes the tangible personality of the evil within structures.

These powers and principalities alone describe the intensity created by the existence of evil. Even though it disturbs our rational mind to allow for evil’s life and power, we cannot deny its existence. We must explain, we must resist, but ultimately we must ask to be delivered.

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