01 July 2010


Ellen and me, 1963
I was already meditating on evil this evening when the news came in about the explosion at a Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan.

(Forty years ago, an evil act took away my sister Ellen, who would have been 55 years old yesterday. Am I self-indulgently magnifying a single tragedy out of proportion? In Chicago, 86 school-age children were murdered the same year, 1970, as my sister. That's just in Chicago.)

I've no doubt that evil exists, but I'm a lot less sure about its definition. For my chapter on evangelical Friends' concepts of good and evil in the book Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives, edited by Jackie Leach Scully and Ben Pink Dandelion, I tried to gather some definitions from Friends writings and a survey I circulated in the spring of 2006.

What did I find? Interestingly, although evangelical Friends may be more willing to address evil using biblical and theological language than liberal Friends, I couldn't find much actual definition of evil. My search confirmed my sense that evangelical Friends have continued the historic Quaker preference for functional theology over metaphysical theology. For example, here's an early viewpoint I cited in my chapter:
Friends' first and most prominent systematic theologian, Robert Barclay, was clear that, although 'all Adam’s posterity ... is fallen, degenerated, and dead; deprived of the sensation or feeling of this inward testimony or seed of God, and is subject unto the power, nature, and seed of the serpent, which he sows in men’s hearts... [n]evertheless, this seed [of the serpent] is not imputed to infants, until by transgression they actually join themselves therewith....'

While Barclay agrees that by effect of Adam's and Eve's disobedience we are born without the unaided ability to know God and reject the serpent's seed, he refuses to join with the categorical assertions of total depravity of his non-Quaker contemporaries. Rather than speculating on the nature and depth of human depravity, Barclay emphasizes the functional and relational nature of evil: we cannot by ourselves break free from the influence of the 'prince of the air' but this is our situation, not our essence--hence the refusal to condemn the infant. Christ came precisely to offer that freedom, provided we do not resist the offer he makes.
Fast forward 300 years:
Walter Williams’s history of Friends, The Rich Heritage of Quakerism, reflects an evangelical interpretation of Quaker history. It discusses the rise of theological tensions that ultimately divided Friends--but those tensions are, according to Williams, concerned with the nature of Christ and the authority of the Bible. He is virtually silent on the subject of sin and evil in Friends doctrinal controversies.
I also pulled in a more recent Quaker writer:
More recently, Richard Foster’s massively successful Celebration of Discipline is another example of evangelical Friends' preference to focus on Christ and discipleship. It is not that Foster is unaware of the reality of evil; in describing true worship, he says,
Worship enables us to hear the call to service clearly so that we respond, 'Here I am! Send me' (Is. 6:8). Authentic worship will impel us to join in the Lamb’s war against demonic powers everywhere, on the personal level, social level, institutional level. Jesus, the Lamb of God, is our commander-in-chief. We receive His orders for service and go in the mighty power of the Lord: [and here Foster quotes from James Nayler...]

... conquering and to conquer, not as the prince of this world ... with whips and prisons, tortures and torments on the bodies of creatures, to kill and destroy men’s lives ... but with the word of truth ... returning love for hatred, wrestling with God against the enmity, with prayers and tears night and day, with fasting, mourning and lamentation, in patience, in faithfulness, in truth, in love unfeigned, in long suffering, and in all the fruits of the spirit, that if by any means [we] may overcome evil with good....
Among the statements I gathered from my survey:
Evil depends on good for its existence. Evil is not one side of a yin-yang balancing act, it is perversion. Evil is derivative. God’s purpose and character and creation are what evil perverts. Even in saying it that way, I've given evil too much credit as an entity unto itself. It is potential for good wrongly exercised. The higher the potential for good, the more evil it is when it is perverted. Satan is the highest created angelic being who has chosen selfishly for evil over good. The evil of his perversion is the most glaring example of how necessary it is to recognize God as God, and how awful it is to pervert that which God intended for good. [Pastor in Evangelical Friends Church Southwest.]

Well, certainly there are environmental influences that influence—society, family, peers, social structures. I think there are unseen spiritual forces at work in those environments that seek to work ill for us in an attempt to rebel against God. I accept the concept of our own twists and internal corruption that can also lead us astray. There is plenty of blame in both categories of both internal ill (our own fallen or rebellious conditions) and the external influences of environment and the devil. Improving environment doesn’t hurt, and may actually liberate people to respond more freely to God, but ultimately there is a personal accountability to respond in obedience to God. [George Fox University professor.]

It is pretty nearly impossible to not recognize the palpable presence of evil spirits at times here, and even more so in Cambodia. It seems to me that the only people who can ask that question are those who have been restricted to normal American life where the spiritual warfare has been more subtle, at least in my lifetime. [Pastor in Evangelical Friends Church Southwest.]

I accept the idea of a personal Satan and the demonic. My cross-cultural experiences have influenced me significantly on that issue, and my recent research in Quaker missiology of the early twentieth century confirms this was a commonly held concept by Quaker pioneers in Africa, Latin America and Asia. [George Fox University professor.]

I think in the tug and pull between evil being the description of the nature of “gravity” in a broken world vs. an intelligent entity with designs upon God’s amazing heart and creations—I am an “and-too” person. I think there may well be an “inner default” in a fallen human nature that makes mis-arrangement a natural choice. I am sure that organizations, culture, nations become mis-arranged and fall from their God-given purpose. I also suspect that there is an intelligence/energy that has a stake in the perpetuation of mis-arrangement. It makes sense to me that as long as God is committed to cosmos of free-will, there are powers/forces that are saying “no thank you” and working against God’s Love and Purposes. [Member of Northwest Yearly Meeting, former pastor.]

As human beings, our traditional response to evil has been to designate an enemy and counter that enemy with righteous violence. As you know, there are a number of defects with this approach:

(1) It may gain a temporary respite, but in the long term it just doesn't work. It is, at best, a holding action, and at worst, far more costly than the evil it was supposed to counter. There will never, short of Revelation, be a war to end all wars--unless it ends our species.

(2) Whatever the metaphysical reality of evil might be, its usage as a label (justifying pre-emptive action or counterattack) is incredibly problematic. Who is wise, innocent, and disinterested enough to define, with universal credibility, another person or group or activity as evil? And to claim no part at all in the creation of the crisis in which this labeling is going on?? This isn't nitpicking, as you can see from Robert McNamara's Vietnam confession in the film The Fog of War.

(3) Christians have even more cause to distrust the label. We know that "...our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians 6:12) and therefore our supposed enemies are prisoners of evil rather than its instigators; yet we've largely remained unwilling to organize on a mass scale in the Lamb's War, too often preferring to let secular authorities define our enemies and wars for us. Or we go to the opposite extreme, especially if we're affluent and sheltered, and deny that evil exists at all.

Concerning that second option: a few days ago, I began rereading Winston Churchill's six-volume history of World War II, beginning with The Gathering StormReading Churchill's accounts of pleading with his government to recognize the danger of German rearmament, I was struck by these sentences:
Virtuous motives, trammelled by inertia and timidity, are no match for armed and resolute wickedness. A sincere love of peace is no excuse for muddling hundreds of millions of humble folk into total war.
I have no quarrel with Churchill on the general point, but Churchill was arguing for military rearmament and the consequent timely dissuasion of Hitler from carrying out the plans foretold in Mein Kampf. We Quakers and other followers of the Prince of Peace cannot be satisfied with this timing: our intervention must be much earlier. We can't pretend not to know that governments and politicians are constantly propagandizing for the "myth of redemptive violence" (Walter Wink); there's where we need to intervene, without inertia, without timidity, evangelizing for that power that takes away the occasion of war, teaching our young people not to let anyone paint targets on flesh and blood, and to the best of our ability, gumming up the works of war, without demonizing the warriors.

On demonizing the warriors, or whomever we might be disagreeing with: Michael Gerson.

A fond and grateful goodbye to peace prophet Elise Boulding.

"Quakers under pressure over shares in BP."

Can you "be the person that God designed you to be"?

While we're on the subject of defining evil: Robert Wright on the "myth of modern jihad." "Seeing the distortion is the first step toward escaping it."

U.S. Supreme Court rules against campus Christian group: Pew Forum. Christianity Today.

"Batcave of censorship-breaking technology."

Northwest Yearly Meeting's Immigration Conference.

Starting tomorrow: What Portland has that Elektrostal doesn't.

Bluesfest preview: Michael Burks....


Micah Bales said...

Thanks for this post, Johan. It got me thinking.


leftistquaker said...

I was once very concerned with the nature of evil, and found that St. Thomas Aquinas had done the most complete metaphysical account.

Basically, for Aquinas, evil goes back to the instant of the creation of Lucifer, as the most powerful angel, who instantaneously rejected serving God. An angel is a purely spiritual being and so evil is not from the flesh or matter as Platonism holds, rather it is when spiritual pride misuses the good that comes from God.

It also requires freedom. God, in classical theology, creates a world that can reject God's will, which is metaphysically astonishing, since God is all-powerful. This is the trinitarian mystery behind the crucifixion, Jesus' execution symbolizes the sacrifice of God when he created free beings.

I am no longer theologically orthodox, far from it, but I still find a great deal of interest in these speculations.

My own view of evil is rooted in psychoanalytic thought, which holds that we are born with a drive for pleasure and survival, which we fulfill at our mother's breast. However, as we grow towards autonomy somewhat against our will, we resist the loss of that original bond, wishing to return to that more passive pleasurable state. Freud labeled this desire to return to a previous infantile state the "death drive" which he theorized laid the basis for our desire for control and ultimately violence.

Thank you for the chance to think aloud about this topic.

Judy Tretheway said...

I think a lot about the prison system, healing and how transformation happens. The line in the first survey comment: "The higher the potential for good, the more evil it is when it is perverted." really struck me.
Truly don't our prisons have potentially the greatest capacity for opening up the greatest potential in the very folks that we have dammed as having no potential, no value, perhaps better said negative value, since we will pay $50,000 a year to keep them out of circulation. This then would make our warehousing, make-their-lives-miserable, take-away-all-purpose-to their-lives approach one of the biggest evils of all given the degree of potential possible.
What are we taught to do when faced with evil? Pray! Pray with conviction, with power. Please join me in praying that all dimensions of our prison system know healing and peace as their purpose, and activate their divine potential, to activate the divine potential in everyone living and working inside the walls.
Glad to see evil getting some press.
Judy Tretheway

Nancy said...

Thank you, Johan, for another thought provoking article. Do you know the works of theologian Gregory Boyd, who has a three volume set on the problem of evil: "God at War," "Satan and the Problem of Evil" and I'm not sure what the new one is titled. His approach is academic, but very readable and worthwhile.

Concerning Judy's comments above on the need for prison reform, I've been in touch this week with a friend doing time in one of Oregon's federal prisons. A former Quaker, my friend has become a Russian Orthodox and is very active in a prison that seems to be doing some things right. Educational opportunities exist, and my friend is actually teaching a music theory class. But prison is prison. I pray for him regularly.


Johan Maurer said...

To all--many thanks for these reflections.

I'm utterly captivated by Churchill these days--somehow, the first time I read this book, as a teenager, I did not notice how seriously he addressed the dilemmas of peace and evil from a national politician's viewpoint. (He even has a kind word to say about Quakers!)

I will look up Gregory Boyd. I appreciated N.T. Wright's book Evil and the Justice of God, which I read while I was working on my chapter for the Scully/Pink Dandelion book.

Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks, Johan. Not long ago, I was thinking about evil and realizing how vague and muddled my own notions are. I wondered if other branches of Quakerism had more to say on the subject than my own liberal/unprogrammed tradition. I appreciate your exploration of that question.

Steven Davison said...

Thank you, Johan. A very provocative essay. I think we probably all struggle with how to define evil and even with the question of whether evil actually exists. I know holocaust survivors, however, for whom this latter question is not just incomprehensible but actually dangerous.

I have been trying for a long time to define evil, prompted by an opening I had when it became clear that the Bush administration was deliberately employing torture: that there is such a thing as ideological evil--deliberately harming others because of a worldview, doing violence in service to a set of ideas. I see this as a kind of 'demonic' possession, a la Walter Wink's work on the Powers, in which your conception of reality seems to require redemptive violence.

I've finally settled on the following definition, myself: Evil is the rush, the energy, the positive reinforcement, the satisfaction a person or a group or community gets from willfully doing harm. I think it can have a kind of existence or life of its own, as the momentum or inertia behind the rush, and as the lust behind the need for such satisfaction, as the habit of satisfying that need, and especially, as the addiction to the rush, as the compelling memory of how that power felt.

The most compelling study of how this works I've seen is the novella by Stephen King titled "Apt Pupil," in which a teenager recognizes one of the people on his paper route from photos in the Life magazine series on the concentration camps published in the 1950s (remember them?) found in a friend's garage (which is exactly where I remember coming upon them, years after they were on the windowsill in our class room. He asks the old man to tell him stories about what it was like as payment for not turning him in. This reawakens the old camp guard's sleeping lust for pain and death and it infects the boy, who becomes a serial shooter.