Embracing the Leper: On Cosmic Evil

I know very little about evil. I have lived comfortably the past twenty-three years; I am sound in mind and body; I have never been persecuted or slandered; no one has ever beaten or robbed me or threatened anyone I love.

So I am never quite sure how to react to the evil I read about in the world. Lately, four ongoing crises have been often in my mind:

  • The Ebola outbreak in West Africa (~1000 dead)
  • Fighting in east Ukraine (~2500 dead)
  • The latest conflict in Gaza (~1800 dead)
  • The persecution of Christians and Yezidis in ISIS-occupied territories (casualties unknown)

These figures will doubtless continue to grow. This is not to mention the wounded and displaced refugees: perhaps over a million human lives. Nor have I mentioned the numerous other recent disasters sidelined by those above, such as an earthquake in China, a gas explosion in Taiwan, an insurrection in Libya, and a landslide in India. These have killed hundreds. 2014 is likely to be remembered as a tragic year in much of the world.

As a gesture of solidarity with persecuted Christians in Iraq, I have changed my Facebook profile picture to an Arabic nūn. Of course, tragic as the mass persecution is, viewed as numbers it probably does not surpass any of the other tragedies I mentioned. I cannot mark all disasters that fall on the world; I have elected to commemorate this one to remind myself of my intimate connection with the whole body of Christ.

Nevertheless, a shared humanity links me also to every crisis mentioned above, and every iota of evil that afflicts mankind. How are any of us, spatially distant and physically unaffected, to deal with the reality of wars and plagues, famines, earthquakes, and tsunamis?

One popular course is to find someone to blame. We take sides in Ukraine or Gaza. We blame religious people in general or Muslims in particular for the persecutions in Iraq. Ebola and other “natural” disasters can be a bit more difficult to pin, but panicked West Africans have at various times accused witches, western doctors, and homosexuals of deliberately spreading the disease. Or we make it simple, and blame it all on God.

But such a tendency to blame is largely useless to alleviate suffering or to respond to the problem of what we might call “cosmic evil.” I am not interested at present in proposing a full theodicy. But I would like to launch a discussion on how we, as individuals, should respond to such horrors. We must start by defining evil. Traditionally, we can distinguish between two major categories of evil:

Metaphysical evil: why do humans suffer?
Moral evil: why do humans cause suffering to others?

Logically enough, moral evil is typically attributed to human free choice. Metaphysical evil is more troubling, because it seems to reflect directly on the designer of the cosmos. Why do people, good and bad alike, suffer? Even with moral evil, how do we accept that such evils are permitted to exist under the sovereignty of a God we believe to be good?

The answers are many. God has a plan that works evil to a greater good. Moral evil has subjected humans to metaphysical evil. There are malicious self-aware forces (demons) loose in the universe which bring suffering to humanity. Evil has no positive existence and therefore cannot be created by God; it is produced by a warping of the cosmos. These are all answers worth considering, and each may be valid in its own way. But while they may provide a rational way to exculpate God, they are not ultimately satisfying. Nor should they be. We do not experience evil as such via the reason, and so evil is simply not a problem that reason alone can deal with.

There have also been responses to the problem of evil that do not try to rationalize it minutely. G. K. Chesterton, emerging from an adolescent pessimism, penned The Man Who Was Thursday in 1908. In this, probably his best-known work of fiction, Chesterton offers us a parable of policemen undercover in a society of anarchists, thinking themselves alone, only to realize that the whole society is actually made up of undercover policemen. In this work, Chesterton posits that our perception of the weight of metaphysical evil is based in part on incomplete knowledge and what it means to be a finite human.

The brutal and beautiful chief-anarchist Sunday is a prankster, apparently heedless of men and their suffering. But Sunday, who stands for Nature, is merely the nightmare, the illusion. Like Job, we all stand accused and apparently abandoned to the perverse whims of Nature. Yet Nature is really a mask for a mysterious God, who has suffered (in Christ) under Nature as we have, and can repudiate the accuser. The answer of Chesterton is the answer of God to Job: there is a deeper mystery than that of our suffering, and it is a joyful mystery. Chesterton, of course, is known not for the nihilism of his early days, but for the wit and irrepressible optimism of his mature writings. Chesterton, like Job, found himself strangely comforted by what amounts to, as a rational solution, a non-answer.

So there is that. We do not deny metaphysical evil, but we recognize that despite its apparent weight and power, it is not most real, and we see it in the context of higher mysteries beyond our understanding.

Yet none of these responses have provided us with any specific action. For direct experience of metaphysical evil, we may look to the Bible for some general guidelines: take care of widows and orphans, give a cup of cold water to the thirsty, bear one another’s burdens, etc. All these charitable acts are necessary if the Church is to respond effectively to metaphysical evil. We may look to and be inspired by the deeds of the saints across time and space, and how they have borne suffering in their bodies and transformed it into beauty.

And Christians have not been idle in the crises of the present, according to reports. Christian missionaries have been working with those dying of Ebola, only to have American conservative figures decrying their sacrifices as “useless.” Even as the politics of Russian intervention in Donbass threatens to split the Russian Orthodox Church, Orthodox organizations have set up humanitarian centers for refugees. Christian churches in Gaza have opened their doors to Palestinian refugees, even as Arab Christians are mostly forgotten by Israel-supporting American coreligionists. Chaldean Christians in Iraq, many of them refugees themselves, have been sharing their meager resources with displaced Yezidis.

But once again we are reminded that if we do not live in Liberia, or Donbass, or Gaza, or Iraq, we cannot do any of these things directly. If we have the resources, we can support such action financially. But none of these deeds will of themselves stop the killing and the dying, nor will relief of the sort secular organizations can also offer do aught to diminish the power of cosmic evil in the world to invent new forms of destruction. Despite a prevalent cultural pragmatism that values action, and despite charity’s essential role in the life of the Church, it is clear that it is not a complete cure. Is it really enough?

At the beginning of this essay, I remarked that I know little about evil. In a sense, this is true; metaphysical evil has not weighted me down nearly to the extent that it has most of the world’s population. I also have not been in a position to witness unadulterated evil proceeding from the souls of those around me. But there is an instantiation of cosmic evil I know well: the moral evil within myself. And for this evil I alone am responsible.

International manifestations of cosmic evil should remind me of the evil that remains within my own disordered thoughts and desires. The cosmic battlefield between good and evil runs through my own heart. The Egyptian Christian anchorite Macarius described the heart as a vast country mirroring the world outside, populated with lions and wild beasts and demons. But the heart is also the dwelling-place of God, working against the forces of chaos and destruction. Most people ignore this inner conflict and focus on the exterior person, the ego, a false self distracting them from who they truly are.

This conflict in my heart is not irrelevant to the suffering of Christians in Mosul at the hands of violent men. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima describes his young dying brother, who used to ask forgiveness of the birds.

[I]t seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin.

In this vision of reality, everything is connected. By our own evil we are implicated in all the evil of the world, and must forgive and seek forgiveness of all. Similarly, all human beings participate in the divine image and thus the highest good. Yet as Christians we have the unique privilege of recognizing and communicating that highest good manifested in Christ. It is in the sacrificial goodness Christ has incarnated that we must participate and which we must carry in our bodies to the suffering world. Yet while evil dwells in us this goodness may be obscured and hindered in its going-forth. To be finally victorious, the Kingdom of God must subdue all evil and all chaos, not merely to bring an end to violence between men, but to plant peace in every heart. A peace that does not penetrate the heart is no true peace.

As Christians, we do not use evil to fight evil, wrath to fight wrath, violence to fight violence. Perhaps there are times when war is justifiable, but even a just war can only contain evil, it cannot heal it. We fight violence by suffering, suffering by submission, evil by holiness. Dying with Christ, we share in his glory and take of his peace.

In light of the suffering in west Africa, Ukraine, Gaza, and Iraq, I know I have been too complacent about evil. I could do more. I could learn to pray better. I could fast. I could make more charitable use of my resources. And I should seek in all things to unite my will to God’s, that by laying down my life and all I own to him, I should receive it back transformed. By offering my parcel of dust for God’s use, and by that alone, can the peace of God enter the world through me.

I have no right to be self-righteous and superior, thinking I am better than the militant Sunni executioner, while a shred of darkness remains in me and a shred of humanity remains in him. If I am to awaken him or those like him to the light, I must be willing to deal first with my own darkness.

This, I think, is the proper response to evil for each individual. Where possible, act in practical ways to relieve the suffering, yes. But also take responsibility for cosmic evil, embrace it as St. Francis embraced the leper, and extinguish it by the infinite reservoir of God’s love made available to us. And that starts in the soul of each man and woman.

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