By Jennifer McKenzie
Last night at my church we began a forum series called ‘Evil: Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer.’ There is a technical term in theological circles for this kind of study. It’s called ‘Theodicy.’ Basically, theodicy is the religious-philosophical engagement of trying to reconcile how evil can be at work in the world when we believe that there is a loving, benevolent God in charge. Theodicy takes for granted that both evil and God exist – but what is not taken for granted is that we often lack an understanding of how the two interplay and what exactly our role is in the struggle against evil forces: cosmic, systemic, and personal.
OK, so that’s the intellectual description of our six-week forum. But here’s the real deal: if you want people to sit up and take notice and to come to the darned thing, you have to advertise. And if you are going to advertise a series like that you can’t go putting up a sign that reads, “Theodicy forum.” Because if you did people will respond with either complete disinterest or they will cock their heads ever so slightly and go, “huh?” Either way the result would be the same: no one except a couple of theology geeks would show up. So, the couple of us theology geeks who are taking the lead in presenting this series made the decision to hang an attention-grabbing banner on the fence of the church that reads, “EVIL: Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer.” The word EVIL was in huge bold white letters that spanned the top line of the black banner. The other words were in a smaller font that ran just underneath. We knew it would be edgy but we also knew it would be clear. That was our goal. Our hope and expectation was that we would draw a sizable number of folks from outside of the church – in other words, that this would be a topic of interest to those not even connected with the church so that they would be drawn in for a reasoned, careful discussion of something that is mysterious yet prescient. If the first night of the series is any indication, then our expectations were met. However, the unintended consequence was that the sign has caused a bit of an uproar from within the congregation and staff. People are polarized over this banner that hangs on the church fence in very public view that reads in big bold letters, “EVIL.”
Well, on the one hand, “duh…” but on the other hand, why the uproar? Really. Is it just because some folks think the banner is in poor taste? Or do more folks think that the subject matter is in poor taste? One thoughtful and sincere colleague asked, “Would you have hung that banner up at Christmas?” Well, no. But then again neither would I have hung an Easter banner up at Christmas, or a Christmas banner up at Easter. But that’s not the point, and I think her question gets at the REAL issue: As Christians in this day and age, we want to focus on a God who is loving and benevolent. We want a feel-good experience of church. And I agree that is important – but not in isolation and not in a way that fails to acknowledge the whole truth. I think that the real problem behind the ‘shock’ of this banner is that in the church we tend to want to make nice, and to focus only on the good. But to do so completely ignores the very real fact that evil does exist and that we are frequently co-opted by evil. We are only human after all, and as St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “…I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:14b-15, 18b-19)
Archbishop William Temple once wrote, “The church is the only society that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” At Christ Church we have taken that saying and simplified it to say, “We exist for those who are not here yet.” I think this is a really good way for us as a church to understand who we are and who we are called to serve. And, if we take this mantra to heart then we must realize that to ignore the reality of Evil is to ignore the reality of the world that most people live in today: a world of deception, of addiction, of chaotic lives and of subjection to political powers that lack integrity and that are engaged in way of terrorism.
For example, we were privileged last night at our first forum on this topic to hear from Fr. Joseph Garang-Atem, a Sudanese Anglican priest and from The Reverend Lauren Stanley, an Episcopal missionary to the Sudan from the Diocese of Virginia. They spoke to us about the atrocities of the genocide in the Sudan and the church’s response to it. Interestingly, it was the ‘outsiders’, the ones who came to this forum who have never been to our church before, who were most engaged in the dialogue with our guests.
Let’s face it churchy folks, Evil is real and persistent, and it is a force that must be reckoned with – both from within the church and from without. Think about the work of Ghandi who stood against the evil of racism and social class in South Africa and among the people of India and who fostered inter-religious dialogue, who even died for the cause – and while great awareness was raised and changes initiated, racism still persisted. Think about Archbishop Desmond Tutu who later similarly stood against the apartheid that continued in South Africa and in response fostered the work of the truth and reconciliation commission. Neither of these men would deny that there is a force of Evil at work in the world and that there is a clear need for the church to respond.
There is no nice way to say it. If we ignore the reality of evil then rather than embracing the notion that ‘we exist for those who are not here yet’, we are in fact embracing a self-serving attitude of a feel-good religion. And a feel-good religion is a mostly impotent religion that will find great difficulty in offering healing, support, and consolation to the multitudes around the world and just outside our doors who are hurting and even dying in the face of Evil.
The Rev. Jennifer McKenzie is on the staff of Christ Church, Alexandria, Va, and keeps the blog, The Reverend Mother.