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Liberal Theology and the Problem of Evil

General Assembly 2001 Event 3088

Sponsor: Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association

To a packed room of about 150, Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor took up the difficult topic, especially for religious liberals, of evil. Rasor received his Ph.D. in theology from Harvard a couple of years ago, has taught at both Andover Newton Theological School and Harvard Divinity School, and served part-time at a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church in Lexington. Currently he is part of the staff of Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study in Pennsylvania.

Rasor characterized evil as "an important topic we have avoided for a long time in a systemic way." He too has mostly preferred to avoid the issue, but in recent months the question of evil has been "sneaking up" on him, and increasingly he's convinced of its importance.

His work on the question of evil began last fall, when he was asked to give a paper to a theology and racism consultation at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The paper focused on the tensions inherent in liberal religion, which he thinks tend to sabotage our social justice work. While most of the paper was a structural analysis, the end was theological, looking at the concept of evil in the context of racism. To quote from this paper:

My claim is that the tensions I have identified will continue to weaken our prophetic voice and interfere with our anti-racism work unless we recognize that racisn is an evil that poisons not only our institutions, but also our hearts. We must, in other words, attend to its spiritual dimensions. And, in order to do this, we must begin to see racism not only as a matter of institutional structures and social power disparities, but a profound evil.

This is a difficult message for liberals to hear, so let me be as clear as possible. I am not simply making a moral judgment that racism is wrong, nor am I making an anthropological claim that human beings have the capacity to do horrible things and create oppressive institutions. These statements are of course true; in fact, they represent the way religious liberals usually think about systemic evils. Instead, I am making a theological claim. Racism is an evil, a profound structural evil embedded deeply within our culture and within ourselves. It is a "power" in the biblical sense.

It is hard for liberals to talk in these terms because we have no real theology of evil, and therefore no language or conceptual reference points adequate to the task. Indeed, this language has been difficult for me. But as I have thought about white racism in the context of our ongoing denominational struggle, I have come to believe that any other approach is inadequate. Treating racism as an evil, a power that has us in its grasp, may help us realize more clearly what we are up against. This does not mean that we need to think of it as a disembodied supernatural demon or the like. White racism is of course a cultural construct, the invention of human beings in specific historical settings and social contexts. But to approach it as a human construct and nothing more misses its profound power over us. We are tempted to think it can be dismantled with the right motivation, proper analysis, and good programs. It will take all of these and more, but these, by themselves, are not enough.

Instead, racism, once unleashed onto the world and embedded within human structures and institutions, takes on a life of its own. Like all cultural and institutional structures, it eventually becomes self-perpetuating and, to some, self-justifying. Despite our best and most persistent efforts to dismantle it, it keeps coming back in newer and more subtle forms. As Bill Wylie-Kellermann says, "no force in U.S. history has proven more relentless or devastatingly resilient than white racism. It is empirically a demon that again and again rises up transmogrified in ever more predatory and beguiling forms, truly tempting our despair."

When we begin to see it from this perspective, we can more easily recognize that the evil of racism poisons our spirits as much as our institutions. It gets inside us despite our best efforts to block it out, eating away at our hearts, eroding our capacity for expanded community.

In other words, the evil of racism is not only structural and institutional, it is also spiritual. This means that all of our analysis, no matter how sophisticated, and all of our programs, no matter how well designed, will never be sufficient by themselves to make us anti-racist. We must also be "willing to do the difficult soul work necessary for spiritual transformation."

This paper is not the place to work out a full-blown theology of evil for liberals, or even to suggest specific spiritual practices or techniques for addressing the particular evil of white racism. As a necessary first step, however, we must at least recognize these dimensions of the struggle we are engaged in. We have been shaped by the very powers and structures we now want to dismantle. The social transformation we seek requires spiritual transformation as well. Without this, our anti-racism work, like other prophetic practice for social change, becomes difficult to sustain or retreats into the safety of disengaged analysis or internal debate...

Questions About Evil

Razor then discussed his subsequent work, trying to develop a more systematic approach to the problem of evil, in particular by working on a series of four questions.

  1. Why, that is, why think about evil at all? It's rarely addressed in liberal theology, so are we missing something? Razor thinks that facing it head on helps us see the seriousness of problems, and takes us more deeply into the spiritual dimension. If we think of things as simply moral problems, we fall in the trap of believing we just need to be better people.
  2. What, or how is evil defined? Gordon Kaufman of Harvard calls the concept of evil a primarily anthropocentric one. Razor says using this, "we might say that evil is that which destroys life or that prevents or inhibits life from flourishing." It is dehumanizing—preventing the full unfolding of the powers of human life. Razor emphasized that evil is larger than ourselves and more than simply the blocking of good. He also highlighted its dual nature, operating within the forces of social structures, while at the same time it is internalized—"killing the soul." To resist evil is the work of religious practice and religious community.
  3. What else, in particular—sin? While evil is traditionally defined in anthropocentric terms, sin has been traditionally defined in terms of God. Although such ideas make us nervous, Razor is starting to believe that the concept of sin can help us address some forms of structural evil. At this point, his definition of sin is: "Sin is conscious or unconscious cooperation with evil." It includes not only racism, but also violence and consumerism. It arises not just from intention, but also from ignorance. We are born into structures of oppression. Once aware of them, we are involved in sin. In this sense, sin becomes a form of idolatry—and idolatry may be a more useful theological category to work on.
  4. How or now what? If evil is dehumanizing with structural and spiritual dimensions, this leads to other questions. What kind of structures should we think of as evil? What kind of structures are we talking about? Other examples that are useful to think about are violence and materialism (or consumerism). Violence is unavoidable. To live is to do violence to other life forms in some way. Also, the practice of non-violence necessarily involves the use of power. And it is possible that some forms of violence are justified. Materialism, a by-product of market capitalism, results in forms of violence, including poverty, which is dehumanizing. It is even dehumanizing to those of us who reap the benefits. But maybe all economic systems can be dehumanizing.

To conclude, Razor offered one final thought: "Whether the structure we're dealing with is racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or violence, or materialism, the evil is in the ability of the dominant world view to make itself seem logical, even necessary… To fight them, we need an inner transformation… It is not simply a matter of purifying our hearts. It is also a matter of coming to have a different sort of perception. What we need in these cases is the kind of transformation that will allow us to perceive things in a new way. We need a shift in our world view, a new gestalt that allows us to move forward together and to resist. Social analysis by itself can't give us this. In fact, much of our social analysis is done from the perspective of the dominant world view. Much of our social justice work makes only a political statement, not a faith statement. It can speak only to the intellect, and seeks a political response. But when we deal with the spiritual aspect, we are making a faith claim, and what we seek is a spiritual response. That's what I'm hoping to work toward in my approach to evil."

Reported by Anna Belle Leiserson.