In-Sight: “Religious Evil”

Evil never advances better than when it “gets religion.” When it claims to “have the blessing of God” upon it, evil can justify whatever it says and does. Evil is never more insidious and dangerous than when it operates through a politician/priest collusion.

Israel was farthest away from God during the times when monarchs and ministers conspired to create a top-to-bottom system of oppression (e.g. Jeremiah 6:13-15). In Jesus’ day, evil religion was personified in the Pilate/Herod partnership that desecrated both synagogue and society, turning the Temple itself into a “den of thieves.”

After the close of the biblical era, history continued to document the advance of evil through political/religious deception. [1] The one-word summary for this is imperialism. [2] Today, we describe the advance of religious evil in the word nationalism. [3] Across two millennia, religious evil has produced what Dorothy Day called “the dirty rotten system.”

Religious evil is running roughshod in our country, in ways which can be observed since the founding of our nation. Religious evil has become increasingly toxic the past forty to fifty years. [4] It has raised its ugly head the past four years [5], and it was on full display at the CPAC event in Orlando this past weekend, with a less publicized but more extreme AFPAC event held in Orlando at the same time.

Religious evil has advanced to the extent that conservatives are naming it dangerous. In the March 1st edition of ‘The Bulwark,’ conservative leader William Kristol wrote, ““we are at the edge of crisis, having repulsed one attempted authoritarian power grab and bracing for another.” [6] He names it: an authoritarian power grab, and as always it is an insurrection claiming to have God on its side.

Religious evil creates two immediate mindsets that are powerful. First, the mindset of authority (which William Kristol noted above). Claiming to be “of God” religious evil operates with a king-of-the-hill hubris, behaving like “the chosen ones” (see footnote #2) sent on a mission by God to “save America” (in the current nationalist manifestation). And second, religious evil plays the victim when opposed. “We are being persecuted,” they allege, when the fact is they dwell in elitist social privilege. Taken together, religious evil marches on via its spirit of power and persecution, with a militaristic spirit that says, “We must fight to the death for God.”

Diagnosing religious evil is not enough, resisting it must be our unrelenting aim. The Bible summarized it as overcoming with good (Romans 12:21), and in the midst of religious evil, God raised up prophets in both the Old and New Testaments to envision and enact religious good called the kingdom of God.

The already/not-yet nature of the establishment of God’s reign on the earth means each generation must accept the invitation to be agents of restoration and renewal, until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ (Revelatiin 11:15). We do this following the example of the prophets, Jesus being paramount among them. What does this look like?

First, it means leading with love. Love is the cardinal doctrine of every religion. It is the essence of the Gospel, and the fruit of the Spirit. In the presence of evil, it is tough love. [7] It is the kind of love that almost surely get us kicked out of some “clubs,” but it is a love which sets us free (Galatians 5:1) as we bid farewell to legalism and enter into life-giving relationships rooted in grace. [8]

Second, it means practicing nonviolence. There is too much here to name. Suffice it to say that we must educate/train ourselves in the life of peace and good. [9] We must personify nonviolent living and participate in movements which express it. We do this through direct involvement locally (“the kingdom of God is near”) and by supporting causes that extend beyond our locale.

Third, it means breaking the silence. We declare, “thus says the Lord,” engaging in the prophetic task of calling out evil, evoking godly sorrow, and calling forth a movement of good rooted in the vision of “the peaceable kingdom” [10] summarized biblically in the word shalom.

Fourth, it means dismantling hierarchies. In the Old Testament, the prophets did this through their advocacy of justice (equality, fairness, inclusion), and by teaching that we show compassion to the ‘anawim’ the “little ones” who were oppressed by the potentates and damaged by the demagogues. Jesus enacted the same by saying that it is as we care for “the least of these” that we live the way God intends for us to live (Matthew 25:40).

The early church deepened and widened this vision by eliminating distinctions of race and religion (Jew-Gentile), economics (slave-free), and gender (male-female), and then throwing the doors of the common good wide open by declaring “you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). [11] The ultimate flattening of hierarchies is found in Paul’s assertion, “Christ is in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Fifth, it means defeating evil rulers and authorities. In the context of Christianity this means first and foremost incarnating character and conduct that exceeds that of the hypocrites (Matthew 5:20). It moves on to include the use of reasoned debate to demonstrate the excellence of godliness. And then, it manifests itself in political action to remove leaders from office (at the federal, state, and local levels) who have fallen prey to religious evil and are using their positions to advance it.

These five engagements with religious evil do not exhaust the ways and means of resisting it. But they do show that our opposition must be comprehensive and continuous. Jesus called it “keeping watch” against evil (Mark 14:38), exercising vigil and maintaining resolve as we live into the promised future when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). The need to defeat religious evil is great, the time to do it is now, and the grace to do it has been given to us by God.

[1] Major examples include the Constantianian cooption of Christianity, the Holy Roman Empire, Manifest Destiny, and the Church’s support of Nazism. Each of these evils existed due to a political/religious alliance.

[2] Steven Howe’s book, ‘Empire’ provides a good overview of imperialism in history. Walter Brueggemann looks at the religious expressions in his article, “Ethics: the Codes of Chosenness” on the Lving Church website, 9/11/20.

[3] Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, ‘Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.’

[4] Kathleen Stewart, ‘The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.’

[5] Elizabeth Jennison, ‘The Long Road to White Christians’ Trumpism’ on the Religion and Politics website, 12/8/20.

[6] Heather Cox Richardson quoted Kristol in her eletter, 3/2/21.

[7] Martin Luther King’s book, ‘Strength to Love’ interfaces faith and society, showing the transforming nature of love. E. Stanley Jones’ book, ‘Christian Maturity’ is an extensive exploration of the life of love.

[8] I have written about this freedom in my latest book, ‘Life in Christ,’ using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as the biblical base.

[9] Begin by reading John Dear’s book, ‘The Nonviolent Life’ and then connect with the Pace e Bene movement for further inspiration and instruction.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, ‘Reality, Grief, and Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.’

[11] Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 were a repudiation of evil religion which had taken the form of a morning prayer in which males thanked God that they were not Gentiles, slaves, or women.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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