Evil, Idolatry, and Life

Woman looking at red flowers, hiding her smile behind her hand - joy that is life and the opposite of evil

Paul and Religious Authority

Nearly thirty years ago, when I started seminary, I read an article about the letters written by that ancient Christian leader, Paul. In it, the author quoted an ex-slave who said she never read Paul because white preachers had used his words against her and her loved ones, quoting Colossians 3:22: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is upon you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (NIV).

She knew that didn’t come from God. If that was the kind of thing Paul wrote, she would have nothing to do with him. For her, Paul held no religious authority at all.

Some Christians might say you can’t pick and choose from the Bible, and that makes some sense. If it’s your holy book, how can you justify promoting one passage over another? Yet we do it all the time. No one follows everything scripture says to do. A. J. Jacobs and Rachel Held Evans both tried for a year to follow all the teachings of the Bible, and they each wrote a book about their failure. [1]

So how do we decide what from scripture is sacred and what is not? If the Bible isn’t your holy book, this might not matter to you. Yet how we interpret the Bible depends on our values, our moral understanding, our approach to life. From these values and morals, we decide not only how to read scripture, but how to raise our children, what laws to promote, whether to emphasize punishment or rehabilitation in our prisons, how to approach immigration, and what we label as sin.

Woman looking at red flowers, hiding her smile behind her hand - joy that is life and the opposite of evil

What Is Sin?

Take another of Paul’s teachings from that letter to the community of Colossae: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Coll 3:5 NIV). Such verses have been used to justify all manner of labels and recriminations, especially by those who prefer the King James version: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

For the sake of exploration, let’s take this passage seriously. There is precedent for trying to interpret even verses we don’t like in a healthy and healing manner.

Years after my initial seminary studies, I came across an article by a devout Christian woman who said she had long struggled to reconcile biblical verses that promote smiting and wrath and punishment with her belief that the word of God is about love and justice. Finally, she realized that if God values love and justice above everything else, then every part of the holy book would contain such a message. All she needed to do was analyze a passage until she found the love and justice hidden within. Like Jacob, who wrestled with an angel in order to receive his blessing, we must not give up on difficult scripture passages until we are victorious, even if we come out of the struggle limping. [2]

Moral Foundations

Although her approach has merit, and although I use it myself when trying to understand what a biblical passage means, her frame is limited. According to the Moral Foundation’s Theory, developed by a team of social and cultural psychologists, we humans use five basic moral principles to inform our beliefs and our actions. These include:

  • care versus harm;
  • fairness versus cheating;
  • loyalty versus betrayal;
  • authority versus subversion; and
  • purity versus degradation.

The author of the article about how to interpret scripture used the first two principles to ground her understanding of God. These, so say the foundation’s theory’s developers, are liberal values. The other three are conservative ones.

Of course, all these values matter to most of us, though we choose to emphasize some over others.

A Man of Principles

An example of a man who sees the world through a moral lens of authority and purity can be found in Kate Wilhelm’s novel, Desperate Measures. Gus Marchand is a white landowner whose very piety drove him to attempt to right what he saw as the wrongs of the world by using intolerance, rage, and threats. An honest and hardworking man, he was devoid of joy and forgiveness. Being one to take Colossians 3:5 seriously, he hated the idea that any of his family members were sexual beings. Of course, his wife could have sex with him, but she shouldn’t enjoy it. His wife and children were so afraid of him that they learned to lie.

Ironically, Gus himself “was a good man, as honest as they come.” [3] He was a man of principles, and people respected that.

But can virtue blind us to mercy and forgiveness? When our sanctity erodes our sense of humor, leaves us glowering at all the sin around us rather than taking pleasure in the beauty and kindness that exist, our heart becomes stunted. Yes, there are wrongs in the world. Yet in our self-righteousness, do we not sometimes deny life itself?

Evil as the Antithesis of Life

In English, the word “evil” spelled backwards is “live.” Of course, it’s absurd to try to create meaning out of such a random association. What does “bard” tell us about “drab,” or “reed” about “deer”? Even the sometimes noted “dog” and “god” coincidence does not, in and of itself, tell us anything significant.

Nonetheless, when that thought about evil entered my mind, I realized that in this instance, it happens to be true. Evil is the opposite of all that is life. Evil has no emotions, it does not experience joy or friendship, nor does it mourn. Life, on the other hand, is rich with the pleasure of relationships, with the wonder of moving and tasting and feeling wind in our hair, assuming we have hair and are free to stand where the wind blows, and assuming we are not numb and empty inside.

Though it isn’t life-giving, I would not say that emptiness itself is evil. When the pain of being alive overwhelms our capacity to cope, however, we sometimes use numbness to soothe our wounds. By itself, that does not make us bad, though in our desperation to maintain that numbness, we sometimes commit sinful acts.

Yet how can I talk about sin when just last week I argued that if we divide the world into good and evil, we create a dichotomy that does not actually exist? Since there is no you and me, no object, no subject, but merely the oneness of everything, there can be no hurt. There can be no evil.

The Danger of Believing in Our Own Sanctity

In such a state of oneness, it is hubris to proclaim we have the authority to define right and wrong for our families, for our slaves, for our employees. After all, who are “we”? Who is “our”? Not the family, nor the slave, nor the employee, nor the poor, nor the dark-skinned, nor the new immigrant. “We” and “our” are the white, male heads of households, the ones with the power to interpret for the rest of us what Paul meant by “sexual immorality” and “idolatry.”

Gus Marchand was a man like that. Because of this belief in his own sanctity and authority, an evil festered within him. Perhaps the evil stemmed from a shame so intense he had not only to be perfect himself, but force his family to be perfect, as well. Because the God he loved was not just a loving god, but also a wrathful one, Gus was not afraid to use violence to enforce what he believed was God’s will.

Because of Gus’s tyrannical authority, his family feared him. There’s a scene in Wilhelm’s novel in which Gus’s thirteen-year-old daughter lies to him. She has been hanging out with an older boy, probably having sex with him in his car, while hidden from her father’s house by a thick stand of blackberry bushes. When her father confronts her, she is so terrified of his wrath that she implicates a neighbor, saying she’s afraid to walk home from school because the man has been staring at her.

Evil and Self-Righteousness

She knows her father will believe her because this super-religious man hates that neighbor. He calls him “devil spawn.”

Ashamed that he had doubted her, Gus drags the girl into the bedroom to pray for God’s forgiveness. How humble of him, to admit his wrong so quickly. He feels assured of his own righteousness. He loves his Lord, but has forgotten that God prefers mercy over righteousness.

In his self-righteousness, did he deny life?

Certainly he denied laughter, playfulness, and sexuality, especially any sex that was pleasurable and fun. Gus himself only engaged in sexual behavior when he was interested in procreating, for isn’t that what God said sex was for? If, as Paul writes to Colossae, we are to put our “earthly nature” to death, to reject lust and impurity, greed and desire, then are we not in danger of putting to death the essence of life?

Our bodies are of the earth. Is this earth on which we live, and from whom we take our sustenance, not sacred? Is it not the epitome of life itself? If we reject the earth and all she represents, do we not also reject life?

Lusting After Idols

As with any passage in scripture, we can interpret Colossians 3:5 in varying ways. If we translate the Greek as “sexual immorality,” then we need not fear sexual pleasure. Idolatry is that which takes us away from God, away from the sacred, from what is life-giving and real. Is not the bliss of a good orgasm life-giving and real? After all, Paul doesn’t say we should wear hair shirts and flagellate ourselves.

Perhaps a better way to understand idolatry is to think of it as illusion itself. When we are confused by the ten thousand things of the world, we get lost in craving and lusts. We come to believe that there is good and evil, and that we can adequately define them.

This is not to say everything is relative. Harm does exist. Sometimes we abuse authority; sometimes we take advantage of generosity. We may reject the constraints that healthy relationships require, and we may use the value of purity to vilify those who are ugly or fat or homeless. Over and over, we sin. We lust after idols, after alcohol, power, money, and possessions. We long for importance, for respect, so we pretend to be upright and honest, yet we refuse to see the log in our eye.

Avoiding Sin

Not long ago, I met with a patient for whom the most important thing in life was to avoid sin. Before falling asleep each night, he reviewed his day and repented for all he had done wrong. I’m reminded of the tenth step of AA in which one reviews one’s day and makes amends immediately for any transgressions. It’s a lovely practice. The man was trying to see his own log rather than his neighbor’s mote. His efforts were commendable.

But what if, instead of focusing on what he had done wrong or on his sins, he focused on being kind? What if all of us tried to follow Jesus’s commandments rather than avoid what he said not to do? Might we be able to love our god with all our heart and soul and mind and love our neighbor as ourselves?

Of course, love is one of those liberal values. Not that conservatives don’t appreciate it. They do. Yet the decisions people like Gus Marchand make are based more on righteousness and obedience than on care and kindness. That doesn’t necessarily make them evil.

What Is Evil?

What does make a person evil?

If good and evil don’t actually exist, we can’t answer that question. Yet, though we might believe in oneness, we live as if we were separate. We are embodied beings whose minds perceive the illusion of separateness as the only existence we have. In such a situation, we do feel hurt, and we hurt others. Is the hurt we cause evil? When is the harm we do acceptable, and when is it so wrong it must itself be punished?

We all have a different idea of how to answer that question.

Is it not evil to use the word of a people’s holy book against them, as when preachers quoted Paul to the slaves? Is it not evil to preach obedience for everyone except yourself, as have generations of white men? What about the man or woman who focuses entirely on the code of the law, the rigid interpretation of the gospel? When we put our lust for righteousness over God’s declarations of love and forgiveness, are we being evil? Or is that too harsh a judgment? And who gets to decide?

Is There a Liberal Evil?

The theologian, Walter Brueggeman suggests that “neo-atheists,” reductionists, and progressives have colluded “to have a god who is either remote from all worldly reality and does not engage with us or who is so intimate with us that we choose to be ‘spiritual but not religious,’ which means, I believe, something like: ‘I am not accountable to anyone, and neither God nor I have any public staying power in faith.’” [Brueggeman, Walter. From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, edited by Brent A. Strawn, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 28.]

Perhaps this is the liberal evil, to refuse to judge, to refuse to hold ourselves and others accountable. Do we not create victims by always taking the side of the oppressed? In our effort to encourage creativity, vitality, fairness, and compassion, do we not ignore the evils done in the name of political correctness?

To Love as God Loves Us

As Marshall Curry said about a film he edited of a rally in Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism, “We’d like to believe that there are sharp lines between good people and bad people.” Yet we all experience “dark passions.” We are all susceptible to being “stirred up by a demagogue who is funny and mean.” [4] We come to believe that the idol is the god, that evil is life.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with purity, authority, or loyalty. We need these. Unless they are grounded in the values of care and justice, however, they can become evil. Similarly, the values of care and justice can become perverted when we forget about the importance of the other three values. We humans do not know how to balance God’s love and God’s wrath. God’s true nature eludes us. Nonetheless, we are called to look deep within for divinity, for oneness, for the earthiness that is not a sin, but is joy in the grace of a holiness that loves us far better than we love ourselves.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. See Jacobs, A. J., The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, https://ajjacobs.com/books/the-year-of-living-biblically/ New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007 and A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master,’ https://rachelheldevans.com/womanhood-project Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012.
  2. See Gen 32:33-32.
  3. Wilhelm, Kate, Desperate Measures, Ashland: Blackstone Audio, 2005, 102.
  4. Curry, Marshall, “A Night in the Garden,” an interview, 2017, https://anightatthegarden.com/, accessed 2/23/19.

Photo by Huyen Nguyen on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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