What does systemic evil have to do with Friends?

I'd like to hear what you think about that. I think we have a very hard time understanding, recognizing, finding ways to avoid complicity in it. As does everyone else.

Are there Quaker values and emotional stances that have rendered us more susceptible to this?

Might "What can we do about this?" be a bad approach to that question? Why would I think so?

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My thoughts on evil have been strongly influenced by the psychologist Richard Beck, who's written a series of blog posts on how to make progressive theology (which many liberal Quakers implicitly adhere to) more compelling. Here's his precis of the series:

God is love. This means that God is weak in the world, not exerting top down power over the world. Thus, love exists among a plurality of antagonistic powers, forces of violence and dehumanization, forces we'd call "satanic" in that they are manifestations of anti-love (and, thus, in the Christian imagination anti-Christ). Creating outposts of love in the world--making the Kingdom of God come to earth as it is in heaven--thus involves constant, daily struggle, a spiritual battle and war that is both moral and political, social and individual. And critical to keep in mind in all this is that this battle and war is fought with love and for love. Jesus "wins" a "victory" over satan on the cross. Jesus does battle with satan at Golgotha. That is the paradigmatic example of spiritual warfare. And if that vision has been bastardized in the Christian witness, with "warfare" looking like power and dominion rather than self-giving and weakness, then that is no reason to abandon the metaphor of spiritual warfare but cause to reclaim its biblical roots. Let's not abandon the language of spiritual warfare to heretics. 

To frame this in Quaker terms, when we follow the leadings of the Christ spirit, we are turning from darkness to light, from self-centeredness and aggression to self-giving and peace. Once we do this, we are in a position to name the forces of darkness in the world: the "principalities and powers" that give rise to violence and war, the hoarding of wealth in the hands of a few, discrimination against women and minorities, and the degradation of the environment.

The hard question is, how do you resist these forces without becoming like them? How does love resist violence and dehumanization, given love's weakness? This is the irony of George Fox's phrase "the Lamb's War": How does the lamb, the weakest thing in nature, fight a war, much less win? There are many ways to do this, not least of which is embodying the principles of self-giving in our own communities. Quaker business practice is perhaps the premiere example of this: It may seem like a terrible weakness to not take votes and let all present have an opportunity to speak, but when guided rightly, it can lead to decisions that have much firmer foundations than if shortcuts were permitted.

Wow, thanks for the link to that series (which is taking some time & thought to work through; please bear with me, meanwhile.)

I've had trouble finding the link on some machines so here it is again:


and in case people have missed my own related post, here that is:


This post [ http://aquakerstew.blogspot.com/2014/03/g-is-for-good-and-evil.html ] looks more relevant...

I'm still slogging through the Beck, continually irritated by him talking as if God were subject to his convenience... as if the purpose of theology was not to better know the One it's about, but to persuade people to behave as Beck would prefer. Also interested by many of his thoughts about the influence of various forms of theology -- but the emphasis belongs on how God truly is, on Whom you know and whether your formulation is helpful for the human development God intends.

Back to 'systemic evil' -- The metaphor that many human minds are 'captive to' 'Powers and Principalities' does seem to illuminate the various crazy things people collectively do. Seeing these as elements of a collective being we are unconsciously linked to -- elements of a larger principality we call 'our nation' -- does fit much of what we observe people saying and doing.

As in a popular William Stringfellow quote: “In this world as it is, in the era of time, in common history – in the epoch of the Fall, as the Bible designates this scene every principality has the elemental significance of death, notwithstanding contrary appearances. This is eminently so with respect to nations, for nations are, as Revelation indicates, the archetypical principalities..."

What makes this language seem most apropos is the unconscious nature of the influences we find at work in American political talk. So far as we want to talk about 'systemic evil' as a spiritual and psychological phenomenon, that's part of it -- and something we needs must clean out of our own eyes before we can deal with its embodied forms.

Meanwhile, we live within the social and economic structures that embody those spiritual forces. We take our money ["Money and sex are among the angelic powers..." but they are also manifest in concrete form to our physical embodiments] out of the bank [where we have needed to do various specific things to make it appear] and give it to the landlord [or back to the bank that hold the mortgage] and the grocer [who won't give us food otherwise] and all this links us inexorably to vast social machinery which renders us complicit in many significant evils it performs while incidentally keeping us fed and housed. Both the psychological and the literal captivity make those evils difficult to see and to effectively oppose.

I agree. You can't really disentangle yourself from the iniquities of the world, not without going completely off the grid, and even then success isn't assured. After all, you and I are just as fallen as those institutions we abhor. In that context, resisting systemic evil may simply mean embodying a pattern of goodness, a sign of life amid death. You mention William Stringfellow; I happen to be fond of his phrase, "the sacrament of mere presence," that is, being in relationship with those who are poor, marginalized, or in distress. To be sure, that doesn't obviate trying to ameliorate social problems where we can, but that relationship is foundational.

Talking about 'Powers' is like talking about flames or storms; there's no object present and yet a self-sustaining process someplace maintains a certain pattern of motion there. Such terminology helped Stringfellow relate the gods and 'angels of the nations' in the Bible to the collective delusions and idolatries of modern life; it also enabled him to be extremely eloquent but practically unintelligible -- a great starting point for thought about our situation; not so good for anyone content to just love (or hate) the rhetoric without further digestion!

'Babylon' in Jeremiah's day was just an alien place of exile, a place where Judaism could be reconstructed in idealized form by a 'remnant' of dedicated adherents. In New Testament times the name came to symbolize Rome, a far more seductive power which ruled Judea indirectly through the Temple priesthood, a power which promulgated an attractive pagan culture which paid little heed to the 'safety net' of the Torah as understood in rural Galilee. Jeremiah's recommendation that Jews accept Babylon as their temporary home, to contribute to the wellbeing of their neighbors there -- thus shifted toward Revelation's call: "Come out of her, my people, lest you partake of her sins."

Many people see the institutions of the modern world as analogous powers: deceptive, seductive, full of violence against the weak, both covert and overt. We have no place on Earth to escape these powers, no way to put out the flames in which vast numbers of people are being consumed. Efforts to smother them or deprive them of fuel... seem self-evidently futile. All I know we can deny them... is worship, credence, acceptance of their lies and violence. But how difficult are these things to recognize?

 I dont have any easy answers about this.  It brings to mind 2 courageous individuals- Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Mohandas gandhi who fought systemic evil in an effective and non violent way.  There is a price to be apid for this and I recall reading that when doctors autopsied Dr King after his murder he had the insides of a 70 year old man-most likely due to the stress and aggrivation he went through.

    For most of us with busy lives, jobs that barely pay th e bills challenging family situiations and a world that changes every minute- I think that as I do-doing ONE thing each day that "moves the ball forward" for social change in a positive way once a day-maybe for 10  15 minutes or so- I think is a lot. Also having the discernment to not "burn yourself out" and consistently do what you can- without giving up in the face of opposition-to me-is the only thing ythat resulted in social change. Votes for women and abolishing slavery for example took many hundreds of years.peace-rich brookhaven ny

Hello friends,

May I ask if indeed the verbs "resist", "fight", and the phrase "not be captive to" evil...are reflecting the proper relationship we are called toward regarding this thing, Evil?

Olivia said:

Hello friends,

May I ask if indeed the verbs "resist", "fight", and the phrase "not be captive to" evil...are reflecting the proper relationship we are called toward regarding this thing, Evil?

Hmmm, I'm wondering if the idea of 'Powers and Principalities' is relevant to this. They're sort of a late addition to Christianity -- but maybe related to some Jewish ideas re 'the angels of the nations' aka foreign 'gods' aka 'false gods'; at least that's where we seem to get the idea of them being deceptive opponents of God (as a Being identified with Israel's national deity) -- notions which weren't quite explicitly included in Christianity until we found the idea in Ephesians: that these are the enemies Christians are called to struggle against, not their human followers.

As symbols of the deceptive addictions, rationalizations, perverse loyalties that plague modern humanity... they have understandable appeal to anybody wanting to free us from such forces. Metaphorically, they serve as great descriptions of the self-perpetuating, manipulative, cunning qualities we see continually at work in the human capacity to use our own intelligence against itself in every intractable social and psychological problem we know.

If you want to talk about 'casting out demons',  these would be the big examples: collective 'spirits' that might serve to personify evils afflicting some human group -- the delusions of Nazism or segregationist movements, for example. They might be 'embodied' as ideals that only become 'demonic' through human exaggeration & distortion of their value & function... [as symbolized by that notion of 'the Devil disguising himself as an angel of light.']

Despite Walter Wink, I don't think we are talking about 'beings' with 'an inwardness'.  But any 'Power' gets its juice from seeming to embody qualities that at least some people personally value -- So when we take a resolute stand against such an evil, some actual human being is likely to feel attacked. ("Love me, love my addiction!") At bottom there needs to be a proper human desire at work... but then the question becomes, How could that rightful desire be recognized and fulfilled in some way that isn't distorted or harmful?

So yes, to the extent we're "captive to" any such thing, we'd seem to have a 'duty to escape'. But 'fighting' might not be the best metaphor to describe this.


Hello friends

What are we to make of Gen. Chapt. 4 V7 concerning Cain: "If you do well, will you not be accepted. And if you do not well, sin crouches at your door.  It's desire is to have you"

I think it comes down to obedience and love.. and these can only be accomplished by the "indwelling"

I certainly agree that indwelling must be the solution to all of this.  I guess my question was more along the lines of "how do we get there?"       Looking at your comments, Forrest, on the powers that we try to escape, and on demons...   I guess my question is then more fleshed out as: 

Given that we want to be free of demons and Powers and such, what gets us there?   Fighting -- to me -- always seemed to be a way to get defensiveness or even offensive action from the other side.  Am wondering how this relates to the spiritual world and Jesus' choices...which do in many cases seem to not be offensive or defensive at all. And is there a verb for all that?   So that we can follow in that way?


Well, if Jesus is to be our model for this -- He seems to have spent a good part of his teaching career in verbal sparring -- not out of an innate defensiveness but because his indwelling make him a threat to everyone's "possessions".

Sometimes that possession would be literally 'Mammon' (one of the biggies to this day, yes?) and sometimes Mars -- even if the one possessed was a good Jew... The question about "Should we pay tribute to Caesar?" was a setup, to force Jesus into a stand for -- or against -- the patriotic, zealous yearning to smote those Romans out of God's country & all the way back home, no more to rome about oppressing other peoples... How about our contemporary, endless "War Against Bad Stuff"?

Or whatever you might call the spirit of oppressive piety -- "Those few coins she just put into the Temple treasury were all she had to live on!" That was an indictment, not an incitement!

The temptations of being Good... unlike so many Bad people one encounters... You can't cast that one out until the victim recognizes it as an affliction, which might  not happen even after you've been safely crucified.

Spirits of false faith, of clinging to "What Is Written" while afraid to recognize what God is writing in and around everyone... [Whatever makes one need 'to cling'?]

And -- what drew all the country for miles around to come, from the beginning -- healing, utterly free and complete. How come we can't do that; what have we missed?


Cain, Able -- "sin crouching at the door." Whenever this story was circulating, the tendency to personify and to see human propensities as 'bad spirits from Yahweh' (ie bothering Saul) was certainly a part of their culture. The belief that these sometimes 'possessed' people and needed to be driven out -- was taken for granted where Jesus was going around sending them away.

That was implicit, not embedded in 'a theology' until the 'Paul' of Ephesians explicitly described them as the enemies we're called to struggle with. Poetically it makes sense, as a statement that human beings are not truly our enemies... (and in Revelation, sayeth Jacques Ellul, it is these creatures which go into the flames, not people.) It just doesn't come from Jesus directly.

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