Fr. Richard Rohr said that most religions don’t know what to do with evil — and within Christianity, both God and humans are complicit in evil.
“God is not just all good, but all vulnerable,” Rohr said. “… God submits to evil in its own cruel form. … God is not just allowing evil, but participating in it with us.”
Rohr delivered his first lecture for the week at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 17, titled “What Do We Do With Evil?”
This lecture served as a background for his lectures later this week. Week Eight of the Interfaith Lecture Series, titled “Reframing Our Journey,” reflects on Rohr’s book, What Do We Do With Evil?: The World, The Flesh and The Devil.
Rohr, from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said that true evil is distinct from sin. True evil, Rohr said, is found in how humans corrupt the planet and politics. And COVID-19 has exacerbated existing evil. Rohr said the way in which COVID-19 has allowed ample time to be distracted from evil allows evil to flourish. When people are removed from meaning and direction in their life for an extended period of time in quarantine, rates of mental illness, depression and suicide have increased.
Before 1054, when there was still one single strain of Christianity, the first thousand years of Christianity’s existence relied on the assumption that there are three sources of evil: the world, the flesh and the devil. While God is not in this short list, God did create them.
Rohr is a Franciscan priest serving the New Mexico province, as well as a Christian mystic. For the last 50 years, he has served as a priest and ecumenical teacher in 46 countries. From traveling in his career, he noticed that every place, regardless whether it had a Catholic or non-sectarian Christian base, struggled with discerning true evil from sin.
For example, both Judaism and Christianity uphold the 10 Commandments. These commandments tell people what not to do and separates good and bad with clear distinctions. Rohr said that while it is good for the first half of life, and is especially good for kids who can’t easily read into subtle distinctions, it doesn’t provide a full picture.
“It doesn’t teach you how to be a person in a loving relationship with your partner,” Rohr said. “It doesn’t teach you how to be forgiving and affectionate. … It’s just getting us started by teaching us some impulse controls, … to limit the ego, to cut off the arrogance of the ego.”
Referring to Ken Wilbur’s four stages of human development, Rohr said that most religions are stuck in the first stage of creating values that outline a stark contrast between good and evil. Only 10% of people reach the third stage where they wake up and overcome the feeling of separateness from others and the world. Even less people reach the stage of showing up, where a person stops worrying about their own salvation and can focus on giving to other people.
Rohr listed World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, ongoing racism that has been unchecked for most of history, sexism and homophobia as the true roots of evil.
When religious institutions concentrated on what he calls minor sins, “Evil got away with murder,” Rohr said.
To get away with being evil, it has to disguise itself as good,” Rohr said.
In his first 30 years as a priest, when going to Confession was more common, he didn’t hear people admitting their complacency with, and how they benefited from, systems that allow atrocities.
“Issues of justice were hardly ever confessed,” Rohr said.
He heard a husband admit to being impatient with his wife. He heard a child say they talked back to their parents. Before a person finished, Rohr said they would often quickly admit a sexual sin followed by being late for Mass a few times.
“Do you think God really cares?” Rohr said. “I don’t really care.”
Rohr said the first chapter of his book focuses on how minor sins overpower collective focus, which Rohr said should be directed at true evil.
“This confusion of sin taking the place of real evil is why I think we got bored with the notion of evil, and ended up with the immense evils of the 20th century at every level,” Rohr said.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a museum in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to lynching victims, lists Black people who were lynched in counties — in places defined by their citizens’ Christian values — across the United States.
“You have the list of all the names of the Black people who were lynched and hung publicly, (events where) I’m told people applauded,” Rohr said.
And in medieval Europe, both Catholic and Presbyterian monarchs would attend their respective church services. But outside of the church, Rohr said they were tyrants and liars who committed atrocities through war and conquering abroad — and against the very people they led as king or queen.
Rohr said that this issue continues today, as current heads of state in the United States and worldwide wield Christianity and other religions as a nationalist value and use religion to disguise evil.
“To get away with being evil, it has to disguise itself as good,” Rohr said.
Citizens in Nazi Germany felt they were tasked with “purifying” the German race. And in the past and present, American politicians claim they need to make the United States safe by eliminating perceived threats against democracy.
“We have Christians being some of the most total supporters of evil — of corruption, of greed, of idolatry of America,” Rohr said. “God is the creator of all creatures. Did you hear that word, ‘all’? God loves the people in Mexico and Canada as much as he loves America.”
In his next lecture on Tuesday, Aug. 18, Rohr will describe how evil manifests in the world. On Wednesday, Aug. 19, he will describe evil of the flesh, and on Thursday, Aug. 20, he will describe evil that comes from the devil. But Rohr said that each day will bring up surprises within each focus.
“We’re always dealing with disguise,” Rohr said.
This program is made possible by the Eileen and Warren Martin Lectureship for Emerging Studies in Bible and Theology & The Strnad Family Fund.