Evil is a real presence in our world that can be very abstract to define, fluid and ever-changing in its manifestations, but devastating (and deadly) in the its concrete consequences.

In the past I had become fond of paraphrasing Augustine that evil does not exist – it is not something but the absence of something. It seemed self-evident. Darkness is not a thing, it is the absence of thing. Where there is not light, there will inevitably be darkness. Over the past 12 years I have become aware of the inadequacy of that line of reasoning. It is not only theologically unclear but it is seemingly (maybe intentionally) elusive.

It is not enough to say something is the ‘natural’ consequence of the absence of something. Why is that capacity toward evil within nature in the first place? Is that a defect built into the human machine? Is that a bug in the system that the designer missed or is a feature of the system built in by its creator? Perhaps it was introduced by outside influence like a subversive hacker or a jealous competitor?

We used to be able to blame the demonic forces and their satanic overlords – angelic beings from an unseen and spiritual realm. In the Age of Enlightenment, however, the world became largely disenchanted and not only can we no longer outsource the blame for the evil that is in the world but we have come face to face in the 20th century with humanity’s capacity for evil and destruction. The horrors of WWII brought to light profound capacity for devastation in the forms of concentration camps, gulags, gas chambers, and atomic bombs.1

I openly admit that this constructive proposal is a form of radical theology that moves on from the inherited tradition of past understandings because they are not only but inaccurate but actually insufficient for helping us to deal with what we are up against.

We must, in our contemporary society, address (at least) 3 areas of our understanding of sin:

  • Personal
  • Social – Cooperate
  • Systemic – Structural

Then I would want to add (or include) a fourth:

• Spiritual – Cosmic

Evil is very real and incredibly consequential. I think this is what the Apostle Paul was attempting to address when he said in 2 Corinthians 10:

3 Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; 4 for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments 5 and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

He was trying talk about the differing and multi-layered manifestation of the same causal issue. In another letter he configures by saying, “12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12) He is pointing to layered (in the academic world we would call it laminated) nature of the various manifestations in these distinct but mutually informing and empowering realms of influence: personal, corporate/systemic, and spiritual or cosmic. I think that it is vitally important to hold onto all three of those in our present day. We must contend with these various layers simultaneously and in combination :

  • Personal morality and responsibility
  • Cooperate participation in larger structures
  • Systemic mechanism of power and control
  • Larger abstract forces of our inter-related systems

The reason that we must deal with this laminated reality is that we are all (as individuals) participants in activities and groups that are complicit in ‘the way things are’. The injustices and disparities that plague our society and our globe are then outsourced (or up-sourced) to systemic mechanisms of government, business, economy, etc. Those entities are then ‘fueled’ by the permissions, desires, attitudes, anger, and failings of this greater web of meaning and connection- especially as it breaks down into isolation, resentment, despair, alienation, and even hatred.2

An illuminating framework for understanding evil in our world today has come to me from my academic work in Critical Race Theory (CRT). Racism is such a blatant and egregious offense to the dignity and humanity of another group or individual. Therefore it provides me an obvious and tangible example of evil to focus on in order to understand the elusive and sometimes abstract concept of evil in more tangible and concrete ways.

The most helpful analogy (or word picture) that I have found comes from Troy Duster in his essay ‘The Morphing Properties of Whiteness’ in the book The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. Duster uses the analogy of vapor, water, and ice to talk about the abstract, the fluid, and the concrete (consequential) nature of race in our culture. I love this ‘elemental’ imagery and find that it is supremely helpful in both framing these issues for myself and in facilitating discussions of these issues with others.

Ideas about race (and for this essay, ‘evil’) can be very abstract and even elusive. It can be tough to define and even more difficult to point at exactly. It can also be very fluid – it changes over time, it looks different ways in different locations, and in manifests in liquid experiences that pour into our life but may seem difficult to hold onto. Then there are moments when the vapor or the liquid solidify into rock-hard manifestations that have real world consequences that impact our concrete lived realities.

This framework is helpful for addressing the evil of race but also evil more generally. Evil is real. It is multilayered. It can be abstract and difficult to define. It is fluid is its expressions and manifestations. It solidifies in real-world consequences and conflict. Evil (and racism) is a byproduct of the overlapping interactions between our personal decisions, cooperate life and participation together in groups and cultures, the systems and structures that form the mechanisms of our global economy and society, and the ‘spirit of the age’ that fuels the underside of our national, transnational, and global systems of governance, business, security, and economy.

We can still talk about the devil, or Satan, or ‘the enemy’ as long as we understand that this is a personification of evil forces – or what I call a theo-poetic of evil. It is a basket term that helps us group and carry all of the manifestations of the hurtful and harmful effects of this larger system. The only problem is when we overly-concretize these symbols into an actual character – an evil overlord of sorts.

Someone might object by saying, “Jesus seemed to believe in the demonic realm.” But I would submit that I am not convince that Jesus believed in demons. He was able to set people free from their suffering and bring them into liberation/salvation and restore them to community but entering into their world (the way that they thought) and expose their real malady. Like an adult talking to a 4 year old he played their language game in order to maneuver the game pieces in a way that brought victory.

Look at the way Jesus taught in parables. Take Luke 16 for instance. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man Jesus is not giving us a map of the afterlife he is using that as a stage to talk about god’s involvement in the drama of human life now. Jesus is telling us what God values in this life. Jesus is not giving us a tour of how things really are on the other side or endorsing some ontological reality. He is taking on his listener’s assumptions in order to undermine their assumptions and call them to repentance.

1 Many works have influenced my thinking on this issues. From Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison about ‘the world come of age’ to the Death of God theologies of the past 60 years. The most influential however has been an edited work by Sheila Greeve Davaney entitled “Theology at the End of Modernity”.

2 It must be said that this web of influence and meaning can also be used for good – but that is not the subject of this essay.