The Author of Violence and Staying Awake

In the midst of my theological education, I came to an understanding of why the existence of evil in our world was so often attributed to a conscious entity, called by many names but conveniently referenced as the Devil or Satan or what have you. Evil didn’t seem like an impersonal force at all, but one that made choices to come at us where we were weakest. As a Buddhist, I feel strange to name it this way — but Buddhism identifies energies with personal characters as well, so it might not be so far from the mark.

My education was theologically liberal and politically progressive, so when I talk about evil, I generally accept the views of theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch, Paul Tillich, and Martin King — that evil is most manifest not in sinful actions but in a sinful social order. “Sin is separation,” King quoted Tillich, making the argument in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that segregation was a moral wrong, a symbol of the human’s existential separation from God.

When I am curious to see evil in the world, I generally needn’t look much farther than my Facebook feed, bringing news of the latest of the many the waves of violence that have washed over the country and the world this year, the titles of which become a numbing litany: Syria, Brussels, Turkey, Iraq, Orlando, Baton Rouge and #AltonSterling, Minnesota and #PhilandoCastile, and now Dallas. There is no shortage of that which is opposed to life in this world, and we see it expressed over and over again.

What is so vexing about these outbursts or campaigns of violence is their pervasive presence, and how they seem so often to grow out of developments that at one point in history might have been considered progressive, even liberative.

I think of the development of race relations and the persistence of racial violence in this country through the years.  As a nation we have haltingly and imperfectly sought to redress some of the more dire wrongs that proceed from the legacy of slavery. Slavery becomes illegal, suffrage is extended, laws are written to protect the rights of the black community to vote and to have equal protection and due process. These victories are won at a great cost of effort, tears, sweat, and blood — especially blood. We honor those who have led these movements and sometimes have given up their lives.

And yet — every solution to the problem that is struggled for and finally established as law seems, inevitably, to have the seed of its own spiritual defeat sown into its fabric. The root of the problem, the hatred we wish to abolish, the violence we hope to prevent, the evil that grips communities and destroys bodies — it doesn’t seem to go away, but instead is pushed deeper, goes underground, becomes harder to recognize and harder to agree upon, begins to work in a way that confuses a clear moral cause. It is because of this, I believe, that people stand beside our present crisis of police brutality and mass incarceration for the black community, and say, “but it’s gotten so much better!”

When I engage these people, I find myself drifting deeper into confusion, like a smoke screen or fog of war has descended. And it doesn’t seem to come from with whom the people I’m arguing, who often speak from a place of wishing to honor those who have given their lives to bring us where we are. No, the confusion seems to include them, but they aren’t its source. The confusion is broader, it includes them and me and the situation in general — it arises in exactly the place that clarity is most urgently needed. An attack right at our weakest joint, as if it knew to go right there.

In fact, weighing the heavy burden of objective evidence that the criminal justice system is racist, AND the consistent personal testimony of black persons — families having to give their children the terrifying “talk” about how to escape an encounter with law enforcement with their bodies intact — it’s surprising that there’s any confusion at all about this. And it’s shocking that we haven’t dealt with it already. And it’s shocking that it comes after so many victories have been hard won by freedom-seekers throughout space and time.

When a problem continues to appear with pervasive persistence; when a problem as clear as day seems so given to confusion; when our weaknesses around race and violence are so frequently exploited to further injustice, as if those weaknesses were chosen for their vulnerability — well, this makes me feel like there’s a Chooser. That there is some conscious entity that is maneuvering to play us against ourselves, giving freedom to the violence that seems to seep up from the ground and use us as its hateful tools. Meanwhile a smokescreen is generated that keeps us coughing and blinking — what is its source?

At this point, I imagine some Christian theologians with (maybe) more conservative training than I would speak with some precision about the Devil. And when I see how persistently we must face evil, separation, sin, violence, hatred — within ourselves and within our communities — I see the appeal of that idea. Evil, it seems, has an Author, a deft Manipulator who plays on our weaknesses if we are not awake.

This is not a historical or Biblical argument. I don’t subscribe to a Devil-as-ontological-reality, and as a theologian I don’t feel I have the wherewithal to make such an argument. What I’m lifting up is quality of violence and anger that makes it seem like we’re talking about an agency that is always one step ahead of us. For me, it helps to think of anger and violence as being arranged by an entity, because then I know to look for its footprints (no jokes about hoof-prints, pls). I suppose this is an argument that draws on an engaged spirituality, dedicated to being clearly present to the world as it is now, and a psychological perspective that acknowledges that the violence and anger we see out in the world doesn’t start in any one of us, but also lives and breathes in each of us, if we don’t keep an eye out for it, in ourselves and others.

It takes up residence in us — but it’s not us. It’s not anyTHING, in fact. There is a long tradition in Christianity that evil is not a positive existence, but a privation of the inherent goodness of creation. This was Augustine’s argument. It is not found whole in any given person or institution or nation or religion, but rather is something that feeds on all of those things — parasitical and often subtle, it feeds on life that doesn’t note its presence.

The value in this perspective is found when we try to argue what the hell we’re up against. Because, sure: there are racist cops, and there shouldn’t be. But the current conversation about systematic racism is not about individual discrimination, even to the point of murder — it’s about a whole system that performs racism. But how can a system perform?? Again, this implies a Performer.

This Performer’s trace is made MANIFEST in the actions of some cops, who might or might not be racist, who might or might not even be white — but they are still performing white supremacy, because they are acting as agents of it — puppets, really. Individuals must be held accountable, but this is not a problem to be located only in individuals. It’s larger than that — it’s unconscious, unquestioned; it’s the assumptions that we make without thinking; it’s the way policing and processing and incarceration and schools and poverty and capitalism (and, and, and…) intersect and CREATE conditions for, in this case, a black community under attack. It’s the thing that shows up where we’re not looking, as it were put there because we’re not looking — there are those fingerprints of the Performer.

And it breeds confusion, making similar things look different. The system that destroyed the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile is also implicated in the murder of the five officers in Dallas shortly thereafter. It’s similar, though I’m sure many won’t receive it that way. The first two incidents were a betrayal of the public, of the power of life and death police are given by our society. The last incident was an affront to our society organizing to protect itself against violence. In both cases, something inimical to our individual and collective well-being was enacted. Our responses will vary with context, but they should fundamentally be the same thing: supporting and cultivating life.

Is that confusing? It’s because evil — anger — delusion — sin — whatever religious language you want to use to describe it — exhibits behavior like it is a Confuser. In the end I think this systemic negation of life is too big for us to fathom and too close for us to see, but when we experience it we experience it as an entity, one that has us where it wants us, and confuses and enrages us and tires us out until we can’t act for ourselves and for our true well-being anymore.

So, right, that’s like the Devil. I get you, Christians. Again, I’m not making any ontological claims about this entity, but I never want to shake the feeling that what I’m trying to see in every waking moment is being obscured by something not wanting to be found, hiding in the shadows of my own person, in my community, and in my wider society.

The first move — the diabolical opening, if you will — is the confusion. Our first responsibility is to stay awake and take care of ourselves, and then awaken others. It’s also to be open to awakening from others — a loving and mutually committed community is essential.

Next up, Universal Restoration and Indra’s Net.

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