Along the Way: Just Say Evil

Theodicy—there, I said it. The problem of evil—it’s what the word means. The problem of evil—there certainly is one, actually many problems. The problem of evil—when and how to talk about it as a Christian? That’s the question I hope to address in this post. I apologize in advance for the length of it. It requires some detail.

I begin with a story I read recently.

Two friends were standing in the rubble of their bombed synagogue. An anti-Semitic terrorist had done the deed. One person lamented the “evil” of it. The other one replied, “I hesitate to use the word ‘evil’ because I don’t want to sound judgmental.”

Theodicy. The problem of evil. It’s a problem all right. Knowing how to speak about it is too. In this post I offer focused thoughts, not on theodicy in general, but rather on three specific questions which can help us know when and how it is okay, even necessary, to say, “This is evil.”

First, what is evil? As I have written before, Richard Rohr has been helpful to me with respect to the question. [1] In summary, he wisely exhorts us to remember that evil is a system that becomes an infectious “spirit of the age.” Very importantly he reminds us that people are not evil. We are all made in the image of God. But we can become sick with evil and be willing participants in it. We oppose evil, not people—even though the two are inextricably joined much of the time.

Keeping the distinction is essential. Paul made the same distinction when he wrote, “We aren’t fighting against human enemies, but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12). This is essentially the description of a ‘wicked person’ according to Scripture—someone overtaken by evil (as a virus overtakes our bodies) causing that person to think, speak, and act under its influence.

The ego is where evil launches its attack, entering a person with the promise of power and authority (the final temptation of satan to Jesus), and usually with an accompanying ethnocentrism so that a person speaks and acts as a representative of a group already persuaded it is “of God.”

To challenge evil is to see it for what it is, and to recognize how anyone can fall prey to its spell.

That gives rise to the second question, “How do we call something evil without being judgmental?” Many of us ask this question and feel its tension.

Responding to this question means putting two things on the table. First, Jesus used the word ‘evil,’ (36 references in the gospels), so there must be times when it is appropriate to use it. He also said, “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1), so there must be a way to say “this is evil” without being judgmental.

Jesus’ own words give us the basis for addressing the second question. The Greek word for judgment is krino, a word that means making necessary distinctions. It is also an act that can be true or false. In Matthew 7:1-7, Jesus described false judgment—erroneous distinctions that arise from arrogance that only looks at others and ignores ourselves.

William Mounce describes Jesus’ meaning as the false judgment which arises from self-righteousness and hypocrisy (e.g. the Pharisee’s prayer, “God, I thank you I am not like those other people” in Luke 18:11). [2]

How do we know when this attitude and its ensuing false judgment is occurring? Here are several indicators…

(1) When the love of neighbor is violated. When attitudes and actions extinguish the Golden Rule and uproot the fruit of the Spirit. Evil demeans, discriminates, divides, and deprives.

(2) When justice is not done. When equity, fairness, inclusion, and the common good are not advocated and advanced. [3] Evil oppresses, engages in “othering” and exists by obscurantism.

(3) When the church is complicit. Peter said that God’s judgment begins in the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Evil makes God’s wineskins brittle and leaky so that they must be identified and replaced. Philip Yancey has called this ecclesial evil the “vanishing of grace.” [4] He names this as the evangelical church’s sin to be identified and resisted.

When things like this are occurring, evil must be called out.

And that brings us to the third question, “What is the Christian way for doing this?” With Jesus as our model, we can move forward in resisting evil with confidence we are doing the right thing. I see these qualities in his life that provide us with guidance…

(1) Keep vigil over our heart. This is where we must begin. Jesus did this in the ways he resisted satan’s temptations and in his refusal to internalize people’s praise. We do it by praying Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

(2) Stay real. Jesus said we must pray “deliver us from evil.” There is evil, and we must resist it. This is the paradox of spirituality—we overcome evil with good by addressing it, not avoiding it. Richard Rohr sums it up: “We can only limit and contain evil by naming it fully and correctly.” [4] There are times when silence is not golden and being nice is not Christian. This was Jesus’ prophetic ministry, and if we are faithful to him, there are situations in which it must be ours too.

(3) Act redemptively. This means overcoming evil with good. It includes making new wineskins of love, justice, and ecclesiology (see above) that honor and incarnate the spirit of Jesus, whose cruciform life (laying down his life for his friends) meant standing against the principalities and powers harming God’s “little ones” (anawim). We know we are acting redemptively when we make Jesus’ mission (Luke 4:18-19) our own with an “all means all” mindset and intention (Colossians 3:11).

We are living in a time, both in the society and church when theodicy is eroding the foundations. It is a time when God is calling us to “Just say evil,” so that justice can roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos.5:24).

[1] Richard Rohr, ‘What Do We Do With Evil?’ (CAC Publications, 2019).

[2] William Mounce, ‘Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words’ (Zondervan, 2006), 371.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, ‘Journey to the Common Good’ (Westminster John Knox, 2010).

[4] Philip Yancey, ‘Vanishing Grace’ (Zondervan, 2014).

[5] Rohr, ‘What Do We Do With Evil?” p. 61. He goes into detail about living this paradox in his book cited above, particularly in the chapters “A Way Out and Through” and “How to Survive and Even Thrive.”

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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