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Evil, Christianity, and Public Discourse


[1] It is one of the oldest conundrums of human thought:  What is evil? What are the origins of evil-human, natural, supernatural?  What is the character of evil-sin, suffering, catastrophe, death, oppression, war?  How do we think about and experience evil and how does the Christian tradition shape the way we view evil and respond to it?  Two extremes, it seems to me, tend to mark the terrain within which these questions are addressed in contemporary North American society. 

[2] The first extreme uses the term "evil" excessively as a political and religious tool to legitimate violence and vilify one's enemies.  There is a pervasive and expanding religious and political sensibility that does not shy away from labeling the other "evil," and therefore deserving or even inviting violence or retribution.  In the political sphere this is exemplified by Reagan's "evil empire" to describe the former Soviet Union and Bush's "axis of evil" to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.  Most nation states bent on preserving their body politic from alien viruses seek to pathologize and purge their adversaries.  Faced with a threat to identity and security, the best mode of defense becomes attack.  One thinks of McCarthy's blacklists, the Soviet show trials and gulags, Mao's cultural revolution and Tiananmen Square, and the introduction of internment without trial in Ulster, Auschwitz, Sarajevo and Kosovo.  This list is inexhaustible. 

[3] Again and again the national, ethnic, or religious "we" is defined as good over and against the alien "they" that is defined as evil.  The phrase "you are either with us or against us" is invoked as a battle cry and soldiers are saluted as they fight and die in a struggle touted as good against evil.  The term "evil" has been and continues to be a very useful word in justifying violence and discrediting one's adversaries.     

[4] The second extreme desires to discard the word "evil" altogether because it has been used so often in oppressive ways.  One can argue persuasively that there has been so much violence associated with the term "evil" to justify demonization and attacks against others that we would be better off without the term.  Nazi Germany demonized Jewish people and then slaughtered millions of innocent people.  Osama bin Laden demonized American people and then slaughtered thousands of innocent people on September 11, 2001.  The act of labeling a person or group as evil tends to promote violence by maintaining binary and exclusionary ways of thinking that divides the world into "them" and "us," demons and martyrs.  The word "evil" is so laden with historical abuses, so theologically burdened, and pervasively linked with the very atrocities it describes, that we would do well to remove it from our vocabularies altogether. 

[5] Both of these extremes, I believe, avoid the tough questions of grappling with evil: the former by thoughtlessly applying the term "evil," the later by thoughtlessly discarding it.  On the one hand, "evil" is a useful word for justifying violence, and, on the other hand, it is a dehumanizing term that creates more problems than it solves.  In both cases, a critical assessment of what it might mean to call someone or something "evil," and what might be achieved and/or avoided by such a categorization, remains unexplored.  This essay incorporates important resources from Christian theology to navigate between these two extremes and reminds us that we must also be willing to apply to ourselves whatever criteria we use to define a person or an act as evil.  

The Multiple Shapes and Forms of Evil

[6] Before analyzing Christianity, evil, and public discourse it is important to propose a few distinctions among different forms of evil, distinctions that function to demonstrate the complexity that accompanies any attempt to define evil. 

1. Natural evil occurs in the form of natural disasters that may negatively affect anyone and over which we have limited or no control. Examples include earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and the like. Natural evil also highlights the frailty and vulnerability of the universal human condition that always involves suffering, disease and death. This form of evil is tragic but not sinful because it is not associated with willful human agency.

2. Moral evil refers to voluntary actions undertaken to inflict harm or suffering on others in contravention of accepted moral principles within a society. This form of evil is not viewed as an essential quality of human beings, but is intentional action, the result of the conscious reflection of actors and the free and contingent decision to cause unnecessary suffering or cruelty. These actions are sinful and therefore subject to social judgment and punishment, and to repentance and forgiveness.

3. Radical evil applies to immoral behavior so pervasive in a person or a social system that all moral scruples and constraints have been utterly abandoned. The political, social, economic, and institutional ethos of the Nazi Holocaust or the Soviet Gulag belongs to this form of evil so extreme that it can no longer recognize its own atrocity.

4. Metaphysical evil designates an assenting and approving attitude toward moral and radical evil, as evidence of superior will and power in a particular group of human beings. Thus, forms of evil arising from human agency are given a status as inevitable or a necessary part of God's created order, as in the patriarchal idea that it is men's rightful role and responsibility to rule over women and children. Assumed notions of racial, national, or religious superiority would also fall under this category. Metaphysical evil is often linked with cosmic myths of origin as are found in the book of Genesis, for example.

Such definitions and distinctions supply us with terms and nuances to guide our analysis as we turn to the Christian tradition and its approach to evil and redemption.
Christianity, Evil and Public Discourse

[7] Paul Ricoeur in The Encyclopedia of Religion, summarizing and extending his earlier work, describes four dominant cosmic myths that have addressed the origin of evil: chaos myths, myths of an evil god, myths of the exiled soul, and myths of a lost paradise.1   Myths of origin fall among the meta-narratives that come under suspicion in contemporary thinking, but in Western cultures highly influenced by Christianity the most powerful and persistent myth describing the origin of evil is doubtless the vision of a lost paradise. 

[8] John Milton's epic Paradise Lost gave influential expression to the classic Christian view that evil is an omnipresent threat and central event in human history.  The threat of evil is felt as so powerful that Milton writes in effect within the formal tradition of theodicies that explicitly set out to justify God's ways to humanity, especially in creating or permitting evil.  Milton depicts human history, in contrast to the timeless innocence of Eden, as beginning with the temptation scene and the triumph of evil, when Adam and Eve disobey God and succumb to the wiles of the serpent.  Augustine's The City of God and Dante's The Divine Comedy are examples of other epic portrayals of the classic Christian cosmic story of God's creation of the world, the fall of humanity into sin, the infectious spread of evil, and God's providential guidance of the affairs of history toward the end of salvation. 

[9] Cosmic narratives often seek to explain the origin of evil in terms of the genesis and natural order of the created cosmos (metaphysical evil) but in the Adam and Eve story evil is not said to be older than creation or even coincident with creation.  The first chapters of Genesis make it clear that creation is not evil but good.   Adam and Eve, although created and destined for good, have committed evil and thereby have become corrupted.  It is through the voluntary actions of human beings that evil enters the world (moral evil).  The passage from innocence to sin is narrated as an event that was not a necessary part of the created cosmos (metaphysical) but rather free and contingent (moral).   From this vantage point a significant element of the Adam and Eve story lies in its separation of the origin of evil (human beings) from the origin of being (God)..2

[10] The Adam and Eve story presents an anthropological approach to evil, but it does not concentrate evil entirely in the Adam and Eve figures.  They have an adversary, the serpent.  The figure of the serpent establishes two important qualifications to the anthropological approach to evil.  First, Adam and Eve together do not absolutely originate evil; they discover a propensity for evil in the form of temptation and freely yield to it.  In other words, if evil is something we as humans do, it is also done to us: something we inherit, something already there.    Second, while the serpent is Adam and Eve's adversary, the serpent cannot coerce or compel, but only provide temptation, or the occasion for sin.  The yielding to sin or evil is therefore not necessary or coerced; it is a free, contingent act for which the human agent holds some level of responsibility.  A preexistent flawed and corruptible human freedom appears to be recognized and portrayed symbolically in the serpent figure of Genesis -3.3   It must be stressed that this type of Hebraic interpretation of the Adam and Eve story does not yet involve a myth of the "fall" of human beings from the original perfection of Eden 

[11] Differentiating evil as willful wrongdoing for which human beings are responsible (moral evil) from tragic human suffering and vulnerability (natural evil) or a necessary element of the created cosmos (metaphysical evil) is one of the seminal insights of the Hebraic tradition.4   This differentiation allows us to see evil as the cause of unnecessary human suffering that results, at least in part, from unique individual choices and actions and from distinctive social arrangements.  The Hebraic peoples recognized that acts of individual and social violations (evil) were not just fateful inevitabilities, but called for resistance and transformation.  The problem of evil is, thus, not just a tragic cosmic fate (metaphysical) but also an addressable historical bondage for which human beings are morally accountable.  The Christian approach to evil and sin owes much to these core insights of the Hebraic tradition.  

[12] A principle architect of the classic Christian understanding of evil is Augustine of Hippo.  A full analysis of Augustine's theological and anthropological view of evil is beyond the scope of this essay.  However, it should be stated clearly that for Augustine creation is good, and hence human beings are created good and desire to fulfill the genuine good for which God created them. It follows therefore that evil has no ontological status.  Evil is not a being or substance, but must rather be understood as the corruption of being, the privation of good.  

[13] The idea that God created all things for a purpose that is good forms the basis for Augustine's understanding of natural law.  The basic tenets of Augustine's natural law doctrine can be summarized as follows:  1) God created all things out of nothing; 2) God created all things for certain natural purposes that are good; 3) So long as all things, including human beings, fulfill the natural purposes that God created them to fulfill they are good.   Evil in human beings, therefore, arises from the will's free choice to depart or turn from the natural purposes God created us to fulfill.

[14] For Augustine, Adam and Eve's turning away from God is an historical event and constitutes the first sin or the "fall" from original perfection.  Evil originates from a misuse of created good, namely, a defection of human freedom from divine order.  After the fall, humankind is no longer oriented toward the genuine good or the divinely established order of creation, but rather has become disordered by sin.  For Augustine, the disordering of human nature by sin means that there is now a universally binding bias toward evil that precedes and shapes all human choices (original sin).  Thus, Augustine's classical theology interprets the fall as a punishment for human sin, a universal human bondage spread through human propagation. 

[15] Augustine's influence on the history of Christian theology and practice is immense and his understanding of Adam and Eve's fall from original perfection continues to shape contemporary discourse regarding evil, particularly as it relates to gender roles.  Indeed, feminist biblical scholar and theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether has described Augustine's theology as the prototype for patriarchal anthropology.5   Augustine's classic interpretation of the fall goes something like this:  Because Eve gave the fruit to Adam, she is viewed as the one who caused the downfall of humanity, and he as the one who merely "went along" out of his affection for her.  Adam was then placed as ruler over her (Genesis 3:16), and since "then" history has accorded her the status of the "weaker sex," and described her as "easily deceived" (1 Timothy 2:13-14).  According to Augustine's interpretation, all human beings are corrupted after the fall, but somehow women are more disordered than men. 

[16] Augustine's theological and societal understanding of the fall also maintains the view that woman possesses the image of God secondarily.  Eve's work, therefore, was to aid the man in procreation.  In essence, the natural purpose for which God created women was to bear children.  For Augustine, Eve's secondary creation was an explanation of a Divine natural order of hierarchical domination and subordination of all women (metaphysical evil).  Unfortunately, Augustine, as one of the most important theologians of Christianity, continues to shape and influence society with his views of women as subordinate in creation to men.  Augustine's classic interpretation of the fall and the accompanying notion of women's greater propensity towards corruption and evil continues to shape contemporary debate regarding issues of family headship, clergy ordination, parenting, and other important issues regarding gender roles. 

[17] Augustine's doctrine of natural law and its accompanying notions of corruption and evil also influence our modern understanding of human sexuality.  Augustine espoused the view that the major, if not the only valid, purpose of sexuality is reproduction.  Sexual activities not open to reproductive potential such as sodomy and gay and lesbian sexuality are discouraged or condemned as unnatural, detrimental to spiritual development, and therefore are pronounced evil.  Due to their sexual orientation, gay and lesbian individuals in contemporary society are sometimes disowned by their families, fired from their jobs, evicted from apartments, beaten and killed on the streets, and insulted by public legal, political, and religious authorities.  Some of this continues to be grounded in an understanding that homoerotic sex is unnatural and therefore ungodly.  This is in spite of the fact that most people in contemporary society have expanded their understanding of the purpose of human sexuality to include issues of bonding, intimacy, mutuality, pleasure and joy.  Reproduction is, in fact, far less frequently the purpose and outcome of sexual activity.  Even so, Augustine's linkage of sex with reproductive potential continues to maintain considerable influence in public discourse regarding evil sexuality.  

[18] From a historical perspective, it is interesting to note that unlike Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity, evil and sin never obtained a technical and detailed creedal expression in early Christianity.  A Christian understanding of evil emerged not from a positive formulation but from Augustine's repudiation of both Pelagianism and Manicheanism in the Patristic period.  Against the Manicheans, Augustine maintains that God's creation of the world does not include an ongoing necessary and antagonistic struggle between dualistic cosmic forces of good and evil (metaphysical).  Augustine rejects Manichean cosmic dualism that leads to the dualism of soul and body on the anthropological level, and to the ultimate dualism of God and a second principle or substance opposed to God.   Augustine replaces the Manichean cosmic dualism with a theological monotheism.  There is only one source to all created things (not two) and that one source is God.   Human evil stems not from oppositional dualistic spiritual forces in a perpetual state of conflict but from the imperfection and corruptibility of human freedom after the fall. 

[19] The Manichean division of the cosmos into antagonistic forces of good and evil and Augustine's monotheistic rejection of that claim continues to be heard in contemporary public discourse.  Indeed, the Bush administration's reliance on a pure dichotomy between the forces of good and the forces of evil to describe the ongoing war on terrorism utilizes classic language of Manichean spiritual cosmic dualism.  In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September eleventh 2001, President Bush told the world the following:  "This is a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil."  He also labeled whole nations "evildoers," calling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "axis of evil." Attorney General Ashcroft has said: "It is a battle between good and evil, and…we know that God is not neutral between the two."6    Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein have made similar Manichean statements concerning the United States. 

[20] The language cited above suggests an uncompromising struggle against a demonic enemy one has no choice but to destroy.   When one is in a cosmic battle between good and evil one's position is backed by moral certainty and, some suggest, by the will of God.  Cosmic war imagery provides a religious context to legitimate violence and to transform the killing of enemies into something both positive and necessary.  When one is acting with moral necessity against a demonic enemy there is little need to be compromised by society's laws and limitations.  The distinction between good and evil, therefore, allows the Bush administration to ignore longstanding international alliances with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations Security Council.  In addition, traditional American constraints on military power can be ignored in favor of preemptive war. 

[21] From a theological perspective, an ongoing necessary and antagonistic struggle between dualistic cosmic forces of good and evil is inconsistent with a strict monotheism that encompasses everything ultimately within the sphere of God, as Augustine argues against the Manicheans.   Christian monotheism does not recognize an absolute source of evil.   Christian monotheism argues that all (not some) human beings are created by God and therefore granted a fundamental worth, dignity, and value irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion.  Manichean dualism functions to distort this fundamental monotheistic claim by dividing human beings into martyrs and demons, pure and impure, good and evil.   Such an understanding tends to view spiritual warfare as an ongoing cosmic fate and perpetuates the idea that the battle against terrorism is part of a larger war that is unending in scope and duration. 

[22] During the Patristic Period, following the thought of Augustine, the ancient church condemned both the Manichean heresy for its theological pessimism regarding evil and the Pelagian heresy for its anthropological optimism concerning evil.  The Pelagians viewed each person as being in the same position relative to sin and evil as Adam and Eve prior to the fall.  Adam and Eve corrupt only themselves, not their offspring.  They set a bad example, which is imitated and thus socially transmitted.  But such transmission implies nothing more than a socially acquired bad habit.  In short, there is no universality or necessity of evil and human freedom remains unaffected by original sin.  It is possible to avoid sin and, in fact, some exemplary individuals have done so.  Against the Pelagians, Augustine maintains that evil is not merely contingent in the sense that it might be avoided altogether, but rather a corruption of human nature.  Hence, although evil is not synonymous with essential human nature, it nevertheless appears as a kind of  "second nature" which is manifest in inordinate desire, a positive orientation toward evil.  After the fall, human nature and human freedom are predisposed and inclined toward evil, according to Augustine.     

[23] The Pelagian orientation towards the possibility of human purity or human perfection regarding sin and Augustine's rejection of that possibility continues to be a part of contemporary discourse today.    Indeed, the Bush administration's insinuation that the motivations grounding the United States in the ongoing war on terrorism are somehow pure and without blemish are Pelagian in tone.  Such self-righteous rhetoric reeks of unwarranted pride.  Most Christian theology, following Augustine, clearly acknowledges that the capacity for corruption and evil resides in all human beings and is not somehow absent in particular individuals or nations.  Both good and evil arises from the direction of an individual's or group's will.  To say that one person or group is absolutely good and another person or group is absolutely evil obscures the fallibility present in all human beings.  Augustine rightly rejects Pelagianism because it is an affront to Christian humility and it distorts the corruptibility of all human freedom. 

[24] The twofold negation of Manicheanism and Pelagianism highlights two central features in the typically Christian orientation to evil.  These classical features approach evil as a distorted theocentrism resulting in idolatry and evil as corruption of being. 
[25] Radical theocentrism is a central feature in the classical Christian view of evil.7   Moral and radical evil arise from a skewed passion for the eternal, in other words, idolatry or placing one's ultimate concern in something other than God.8   Idolatry involves the estrangement and alienation of humanity from God, and it results therefore in the self-imposed bondage of humankind to false gods created by inordinate attachments to selfish desires.   Theocentrism recognizes that there is something about the idolatrous desire to reduce the sacred to particular things at hand in the world (a nation or money, for instance) that contributes to the cultivation of cruelty, hard-heartedness, oppression, and war.  If that is the case, the dynamics of moral and radical evil can be broken only by worshipful obedience to a God who transcends all particular national and ethnic boundaries, a God who unites, rather than dividing, "the total community of being."9   A theocentric way of viewing the world understands that God's love is directed toward all of creation and is never reducible to any particular self-interest or group-interest.

[26] When a theocentric orientation to the world is applied to the war on terrorism we can clearly see that all sides in the conflict are using idolatrous language.  President Bush, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden have all implied that God favors and blesses them and those who are on their side of the conflict.  By implication, this suggests that God's will is against their enemies.  This is in spite of the fact that both Christian and Islamic theologians have always argued that human beings, in their finitude and frailty, cannot know the mind or will of God.  Indeed, to associate the will of God with the will of a warring nation turns God into an instrument of the state.  From a theological perspective, it is clear that when religious or political leaders transfer the sense of the sacred from God to a particular nation or group they are engaging in idolatry.  Such idolatry can and does lead to the perpetuation of unnecessary moral and radical evil parading under the banner of God's will.  Theocentrism suggests that human action is fraught with idolatry if it intends the good for oneself or one's group against the background of destruction and death for others who are considered to be somehow beyond the reach of the sacred.   

[27] The second feature of the classic Christian perspective, following Augustine, portrays evil as a reality present in human experience-not synonymous with essential human nature as created by God but a corruption of it.  Descriptively, evil, as corruption of being, presents several constitutive features.   First, evil results from a turning away from God, a refusal to believe in the goodness of God's created order.  Second, the refusal to recognize one's dependence on God fosters a perverse self-centeredness or pride.   Third, independence and pride corrupt the self's mode of being in the world from a life lived in communion with and dependence on God to an inordinate desire for finite goods or idolatry.  These three modes of corruption constitute the elemental features of human evil which in turn is manifest in several different modalities of evil (e.g., the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust).10   Such sins are not associated with specific acts or violations of rules so much as they are dispositional tendencies or habits that serve the fundamental corruption of humankind from its proper good and order.  In this understanding, evil is not just something we struggle against (Manichean dualism) but also something we undergo, something that erodes us from within.  Evil as corruption of being, therefore, acknowledges the depth and flaw of all human freedom, while avoiding the extremes of Manichean cosmic dualism and Pelagian perfectionism. 

Contemporary Transformation of Evil and Suffering

[28] The contemporary perspective considers that evil is less a theological problem and more a secular problem with optimistic and pessimistic variations.  It is of particular theological interest, however, that the types of views concerning evil against which classic Christian thought struggled-the pessimistic Manichean view and the optimistic Pelagian view-have tended to displace the classic Christian view of evil.  Hence the ancient debate goes on, and theological response is necessary in order to join in the debate and seek constructive alternatives. 

[29] The optimistic secular perspective tends to view evil as a problem of human institutional and social arrangements and therefore amenable to intelligent human action and management.  The natural and social sciences and technology are regarded as the instruments by means of which humans can eliminate or at least mitigate evil as a social problem.  President Bush has cast the ongoing war on terrorism in Manichean terms, but he has also insinuated that through precision strikes, superior military technology, and the accompanying spread of democratic social and political systems the United States can somehow "rid the world of evil."11  These kinds of statements view evil as a problem that will sooner or later yield to an appropriate social or technological solution.  So runs the myth of historical and technological progress. 

[30] The twentieth century, however, has seen widespread pessimistic disenchantment with the myth of historical progress.  Two world wars, the Holocaust, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation are grim reminders that despite technological progress evil has not disappeared from the contemporary scene. Nor is it likely to do so.  Major intellectual movements such as Freudian thought and existential philosophy have rediscovered the tragic side of human life and culture.  In these views natural and moral evil are perceived to be coincident with the human condition.  There is no solution to the problem of evil; evil simply defies all explanations and solutions.  Moreover, the global problems of overpopulation, environmental pollution, and resource depletion have led some to argue that the very science and technology on which modern industrial societies so heavily depend presents the ultimate threat to the human prospect.  Instead of being instruments of progress, science and technology-the central creations of progressive and enlightened Western culture-may turn out to be the instruments of human self-destruction. 

[31] Indeed, the twentieth century has witnessed catastrophes (from war to genocide) so immense as to demand and, on occasion, to receive serious discussion, such as Hannah Arendt's influential treatment of Adolph Eichmann and the banality of Nazi evil.12   Arendt's view of Eichmann is especially helpful in suggesting that evil has not disappeared but rather taken on distinctive new forms.  She detects a modernist transformation of evil in the Nazi employment of such invisibly omnipresent inventions as the assembly line, mass transit, and the bureaucratic routine.  Arendt maintains that the Nazi systems of social control radicalize evil precisely by making unnecessary human suffering so mundane.  Nazism creates a disposition of human detachment so complete that people become oblivious to the horrid and preventable suffering occurring in their very midst  (radical evil).  A built-in position of detachment turns suffering into a private, individual state of solitary isolation.  People suffer but they suffer alone.   And to acknowledge evil at all people must first be able to acknowledge and respond to human suffering.

[32] Evil has long been understood by theologians and by popular audiences as the cause of unnecessary human suffering.13   Arendt transforms this perspective by viewing unnecessary suffering itself as evil.  Whatever else evil may involve, evil always involves first and foremost preventable human suffering.  The noted evolutionary psychologist Timothy Anders echoes this understanding when articulates, "The ultimate source of all evil is the biological capacity for suffering…"14  Here we see the traditional relation between evil and suffering turned inside out:  evil is no longer the source of suffering, but rather suffering is the source of evil.

[33] French-Jewish philosopher and theologian Emmanuel Levinas provides an especially thought-provoking analysis of this reversal in his essay "Useless Suffering."  Levinas writes from a late twentieth-century stance in which our awareness of massive cruelty and suffering exceeds any possible justification the language of traditional theology might provide.  "This is the century," he reminds us, "that in thirty years has known two world wars, the totalitarians of right and left, Hitlerism and Stalinism, Hiroshima, the Gulag, and the genocides of Auschwitz and Cambodia."15   The millions of victims crushed in all this torture and destruction cannot for Levinas be explained away by mythical or theological explanations of evil as originating in relation to God's creation or will.  Levinas calls for a radical rethinking of evil by starkly asserting:  "All evil refers to suffering."16

[34] For Levinas, suffering takes on the quality of evil when destructive pain combines with solitary isolation and crushing impersonal social force.  Levinas finds the archetype of such suffering in the Holocaust of Jews under Hitler:  "the paradigm of gratuitous human suffering, where evil appears in its diabolical horror."17   Within this context of utter evil redefined as an extreme and absurd suffering, however, Levinas finds the hope for a saving transformation.  The source of this transformation lies in what he calls "the inter-human order," or the ethical position of human beings (prior to all practical politics or implied social contracts) as inescapably interconnected.  Suffering can only take on meaning and purpose through the inter-human summons it makes upon us as witnesses: suffering solicits us, invoking the obligation that individuals have always recognized to help vulnerable people who are in need.  One's self becomes oneself-as-another and one's other becomes another-as-oneself.  The importance of Levinas here lies not only in his association of evil with suffering but also in his demonstration that contemporary suffering is never wholly private and solitary; rather, suffering always contains important public and social-or inter-human-dimensions. 

[35] A major change that typifies contemporary versions of suffering and of evil can be identified, in part, with the concept of social suffering. "Social suffering," as Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, and Margaret Lock contend, "results from what political, economic, and institutional power does to people and, reciprocally, from how these forms of power themselves influence responses to social problems."18    Suffering, when viewed in this contemporary perspective, is never strictly private, inward, and individual.  It is transpersonal, and shaped by the public, social domain of narrative and cultural discourse, or, as Levinas says, the inter-human.  Its sources lie not in some unknowable cosmic fate-like the operations of a mysterious fall from paradise-but rather in social structures, cultural practices, and human relations.  Social suffering allows us to understand that evil, no matter how deeply imbued with ineradicable traces of mystery, at least in part is the outcome of specific inter-human actions and distinctive social arrangements. 

[36] A Christian theological framework for the analysis of social suffering and evil in the contemporary age is found in the work of Gustavo Gutierrez.19   Gutierrez, known as the founder of liberation theology, is a Catholic priest who works in the slums of Lima, Peru.  For Gutierrez, the suffering of the innocent and impoverished masses who inhabit the slums of Lima does not raise traditional questions about God's will.  He is not concerned with mythical explanations of evil as originating in a lost paradise.  For Gutierrez, we will understand the suffering in the slums of Lima only by acknowledging the historical oppression of the poor by powerful landowners who often receive the support and blessing of the Catholic Church.  Gutierrez's point is that evil and human suffering occurs in the realm of a particular socio-cultural context, where concrete actions of wealthy landowners and the church hierarchies can alter human suffering.   A contemporary vision that understands suffering as inter-human and historical (not solitary and private) matter for Gutierrez precisely because it contains an implicit imperative for mobilizing personal and social resistance to evil.  Here again, however, people must be able to acknowledge the human suffering that occurs in the midst of taken-for-granted systems of social control and routine religious and cultural narratives.

[37] In the contemporary context then, human suffering is not simply a raw datum that we can identify and measure, but a social status that we extend or withhold.  We extend or withhold it depending largely on whether the sufferer falls within our prevailing religious and cultural narratives of moral community.  For example, when Iraqi people (some of whom certainly are innocent civilians) die or are maimed in a firestorm of laser-guided missiles, the "precision strikes" play on American television as one more proof of superior United States technology.  (Saddam Hussein seemed to find Iraqi civilians equally disposable.)  We do not acknowledge the destruction of people outside our moral community as suffering, but detach ourselves from their pain through the use of convenient impersonal phrases like "collateral damage."  This is the human position of suffering, not fixed but fluid and mobile, set in motion or frozen in place by the cultural narratives we construct.  Inside a specific moral community, we employ names like martyr and hero to inscribe the suffering of our own party within narratives of hallowed sacrifice and epic achievement.  Outside of our moral community, we demonize groups so that we do not have to feel outrage or sympathy for the people we harm.  A collective demonic enemy hides the vulnerability of individual suffering.  The challenge, which terrorism and the war on terrorism has dramatized so clearly, is to discover contemporary cultural and religious narratives that authenticate all unnecessary human suffering as evil, while, at the same time, seeking to alleviate and oppose it without recourse to the dualisms of "us" and them," martyrs and demons. 

[38] Another contemporary example that highlights human suffering as a social status that is extended or withheld based on prevailing religious and cultural narratives is the illness of AIDS.  AIDS in the West emerged with an unmistakable link to the recently and imperfectly liberated world of gay sex.  It was thus linked with a group that was for many years openly oppressed and even despised, whose sexual practices religious leaders and politicians reviled as unnatural, ungodly, and unspeakable.  The popular media first described AIDS as a "gay plague" and some churches labeled AIDS as the "Wrath of God Syndrome."20   Gays often find themselves portrayed by prevailing cultural narratives in the role of self-victimized victims who deserve whatever suffering they undergo.  They are viewed as responsible for their own suffering because of their evil sexual practices and thus denied the sympathy extended to heterosexuals infected through "natural" means such as medical accidents, transfusions of tainted blood, or the follies of a spouse or lover.  Here again, we dispatch or withhold sympathy and care based on binary and exclusionary cultural narratives of moral community.   

[39] Cultural narratives of evil become dangerous precisely when they function to translate evil into something that commands our fascination and admiration rather than invoking moral concern.  Indeed, evil has taken on a glamorous sheen in contemporary pop culture.  The increasing popularity of horror and sci-fi movies, media attention on serial criminals, and the theatricalization of war as it is occurring, to name a few examples, suggest that our culture has a growing fascination with evil.  These popular representations of evil tend to relegate it to the realm of the mysterious, the other, the enemy, and the alien-in each case, to a realm beyond our acknowledged moral community.

[40] Evil, from a contemporary perspective, is as malleable as the suffering with which it has increasingly come to be portrayed.  Filmmakers, of course, continue to create stories depicting evil as an indestructible cosmic force, breeding new legions of alien invaders, or as a deathless legacy that lives on in vampires.  As we might expect, and should learn to live with, there is neither a single contemporary voice of evil nor a particular moral community that is free from evil. Indeed, the malleability of evil ranks among its most ancient features: Satan is the archetypical shape-shifter.  Moreover, the near identification between evil and suffering throws a new light on suffering.  Suffering is not simply a mystery of the human condition but expresses much of what our cultural and religious narratives have taught us.  In the extended social history of evil, one advantage the contemporary moment provides is the implicit promise that we might, at least in part, address and redress the suffering and evil that our cultural and religious narratives have so thoroughly helped to shape. 


[41] Evil, Christianity, and public discourse is a topic too broad and complicated to summarize and conclude in any satisfactory way.  It is important to realize, however, that the classic Christian understanding of evil does offer some important insights that can help us to both acknowledge evil in ourselves and others and respond to evil without falling into the traps of Manichean cosmic dualism or Pelagian self-righteousness.  Christianity recognizes that the capacity for corruption and evil reside in all human beings and all social systems and is not somehow absent in particular individuals, groups, or political arrangements.  Christians and Americans struggle with corruption and evil as much as any other religious tradition or nation.  This basic orientation towards evil helps Christians to resist the idolatrous temptation to transfer the sense of the sacred from God to a particular national affiliation and empowers Christians to resist binary ways of thinking that divides the world into "them" and "us," demons and martyrs.  Christians are obligated to acknowledge and respond to evil and suffering wherever they occur and to expand our understanding of moral community to include the total human family.   

[42] A contemporary vision that understands evil and suffering as inter-human and social (not solitary and private) matter for Christians precisely because it helps us to recognize that faithful discipleship in the world involves a struggle for both personal and social transformation.   Social suffering helps us to acknowledge the need to pass from a purely theological explanation of evil to a more practical resistance of evil in all of its shapes.  This move from speculative explanation to moral-political action liberates the insight that evil is something that ought not to be and ought to be struggled against.  By de-mystifying evil and making it a matter of contingency (social, historical, political, personal) rather than necessity (cosmic, theological, metaphysical), Christians are invited to turn our passive lament in the face of evil into the possibility for active complaint and resistance.  Evil ceases to be a matter of tragic inevitability and becomes instead an affair of human responsibility.

End Notes

1  Paul Ricoeur, The Encyclopedia of Religion, M. Eliade ed. (New York: MacMillan, 1987), s.v. "evil." Ricoeur's text is based in part on his well-known study The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).

2  Paul Ricoeur, Fallible Man, Charles Kelbley trans. (Chicago: Regnery, 1965).

3  Ibid.

4  See Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, part two.

5  Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Prss, 1983), pp. 94-95.

6  Bendavid Naftali. "War Against Terrorism Takes on Religious Tone." Philadelphia Enquirer. February 23, 2003.

7  On the theocentric element of evil, see H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1943), esp. chaps. 2 and 6.

8  On the theme of idolatry, see Wilfred Cantwell Smith, "Idolatry," in John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, eds. The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis books, 1987).

9  Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, p. 31.

10  See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1a2ae, question 84, answer 4; see also Henry Fairlie, The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978); and Sanford Layman, The Seven Deadly Sins: Society and Evil (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978).

11  Bendavid Naftali. "War Against Terrorism Takes on Religious Tone." Philadelphia Enquirer. February 23, 2003.

12  Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1964).

13  See, for example, A.B. Pin, Why Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology (New York: Continuum, 1995).

14  Timothy Anders, The Evolution of Evil: An Inquiry into the Ultimate origins of Human Suffering (Chicago: Open Court, 1994), p. 334.

15  Emanuel Levinas, "Useless Suffering," trans. R. Cohen, The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, R. Bernasconi and D. Wood eds, (New York: Routlege, 1988), pp. 161-162.

16  Ibid., p. 157.

17  Ibid.

18  A. Kleinman, V. Das, and M. Lock, "Introduction," Social Suffering, A. Kleinman, V. Das, and M. Lock eds, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. ix.

19  See G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister C. Inda and J. Eagleson (New York: Orbis Books, 1973).

20  See Hunsaker Hawkins, Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1993).


© November 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics 
Volume 3, Issue 11