A Special Column from Rev. Josh on our Ministry Theme: Evil
I found this column I wrote from the last time (three years ago) when our theme for the month was ’Evil’. Since it still seems relevant, I offer it to you for your reflection.
Our ministry theme for January is ’Evil’. A number of you have already told me you’re not clear on why we’ve chosen this theme. I’ve had to confess that I lobbied pretty hard to include it this year. Certainly, ‘evil’ is one of those haunting religious words that many liberal religious people find little value in discussing. “It’s something religious conservatives talk about, but not us.” I get that. But ‘evil’ is used commonly in both religious and secular contexts, and it feels important to me that we name what we mean, if and when we use it. So, here are a few of my preliminary thoughts about what evil is and isn’t:
- Evil is not the result of the machinations of some divine entity or fallen angel. There is no so-called “prince of darkness.”
- Natural disasters may cause much suffering, but they are not evil, nor do they originate from the wrath of a divine entity.
- Evil is not in any way inherent in the world, nature, or human beings, though human beings and human institutions certainly have the capacity to act in evil ways.
- In attempting to identify what evil is, I begin with human behavior and ask questions like these: What kinds of behaviors destroy the human spirit? What kinds of behaviors diminish human dignity? What kinds of behaviors prevent human freedom and agency? What kinds of behaviors cause physical and emotional damage among human beings?
- It is possible for good people to participate (wittingly and unwittingly) in the evil of human systems and institutions. For example, if we agree that the current fossil-fuel-based global energy system is destroying the planet, and if we agree that this destruction is a form of evil, then what are we to make of our own participation in this system? And, if we can identify racism operating in various systems and institutions in our country, and if we agree that racism is a form of evil, then what are we to make of our own participation in those systems and institutions?
- I don’t expect agreement (anywhere) on a single definition of evil. I expect a wide variety of views and a large grey area. However, the absence of agreement should not lead to the absence of action. Whether we use the term ‘evil’ or not, there are atrocities that require our faithful response.
Evil is not an easy or pleasant theme to explore. But I do think it behooves us to explore it with intention from time to time. That’s my goal this month—an exploration. I hope you find this exploration meaningful.