Episcopalians reflect on the nature of evil and how to confront it

September 6, 2011

"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil." (Matthew 4:1)

When terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon 10 years ago, many saw it as an act of evil, like the massacre in Rwanda and the Holocaust of Nazi Germany before it.

The struggle of good versus evil lies at Christianity's core. But what exactly is evil, and how do Christians confront it?

"I think as growing Christians in the faith, we have to name evil," said Phoebe Griswold. While her husband, Frank, served as presiding bishop from 1997 to 2006, she kept a journal about evil and its manifestations to try to learn more about it, something she considered necessary to be a "profound Christian." She chronicled the marks of evil, ways to protect oneself against it, antidotes to evil and helpful quotations.

"It's dangerous to talk about evil," she noted. "Evil does not want its story told. It does not want truth to confront it."

"It was very calming to keep the journal on evil, because whenever something struck me as emanating from some place I called evil, I could put that experience in the file," she recalled in a recent e-mail. "It gave me something to do with very unsettling experiences."

Some people define evil as an absence of good, as intentional malice or as the cumulative effect of wrong choices. Others point to independent forces of evil and demonic spirits.

"Evil always tears the fabric of God's good creation," said Episcopal Diocese of Alabama Bishop Henry Parsley, who chaired the House of Bishops Theology Committee until 2010. "I think the biblical tradition would say that human sin creates an opportunity for evil to come in, which goes back to the Genesis story. The first man and woman – who are every man and woman – sinned; that is, they did something opposite from what God intended, and the biblical tradition says that through their sin, evil came into the world and became a force to tempt us."

"Traditionally, there are two forms of evil," said Sandra Lee Dixon, an Episcopalian who is associate professor of psychology and religion at the University of Denver. "The Catholics separate what they call natural and moral evil." The former encompasses things such as droughts and hurricanes. "Moral evils are the things that people do to each other."

Similarly, Episcopal priest Robert Morris, director of the Interweave Center for Holistic Living, an interfaith adult learning center in Summit, New Jersey, describes evil first as "inappropriate and absolutely unnecessary destructiveness." More important to him – and what he addresses in his books Suffering the Courage of God: Exploring How Grace and Suffering Meet and Wrestling with Grace – "is the sort of evil in our hearts, which I call malign willfulness."

All struggle with this – wanting to hurt those who hurt them, for example. "I'm not sure that rises to evil with a capital E. But if we get impacted in that ... especially if it goes unconscious or semiconscious or we deliberately ignore our feelings, it can begin to become sinister," he said. "The worst cases of that in people become what Scott Peck labels as the 'people of the lie.'"

"Very often, if you get that far gone, what gets projected is a facade of enormous righteousness, and the only way one can notice it is to smell the hatred behind the righteousness," he said.

The results can be tragic. Morris recalled visiting someone to talk about a daughter, who was acting contrary to the person's values. Morris came to realize the person hated the child for being disobedient. A year later, the girl and her boyfriend killed themselves in an apparent suicide pact.

Traditional definitions

Biblically, one can look to Genesis for an explanation of evil, said the Rev. Fred Burnham, retired director of the Trinity Institute based at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, in New York, which held a conference on "Naming Evil" in 2004. "What God really did in Creation was to push the unruly waters of chaos, which is really evil and randomness and chance, ... back."

"God didn't get rid of it," he noted, "so it breaks in every once in a while and really screws things up."

God didn't banish evil because that would eliminate free choice, he said.

Among classical theologians, Augustine defined evil as the absence of good, Dixon said, "and the less good in a situation, the greater the potential for evil."

"A lot of people don't like this. They say evil isn't just where there isn't good there. Evil is a force. It has its own momentum."

Dixon, who did dissertation work on Augustine and who taught classes on confronting evil at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral, Denver, around the time of the 9-11 attacks, has a different theory.

"I'm not at all convinced that there's any kind of a separate power of evil," she said. "What I think goes on is that human beings act in various ways that produce all kinds of results, some of them pretty awful for each other, and that our actions and our patterns of actions can create bad situations that get out of our own control. And we then end up experiencing those as though there [is] a separate force – and they do take on a certain momentum and power of their own. ... Evil is the word we give to the outcome."

Others disagree.

"I would say that evil from the prayer book tradition would be defined as those powers that corrupt and destroy God's creation," Parsley said. "Evil is something humans fall into and act out of. It is a power beyond us, but it can sort of take us over. I think it is a separate force."

"I think of evil," Griswold said, "as a force, a real force that tries to derail goodness. And that happens in extremely concrete ways, tiny little things in human beings, and large decisions. And I think it takes tremendous self-awareness and courage to make those decisions for goodness."

The force of evil can enter people, said Griswold, who is a member of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross and president of the board of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. "Isn't that what confession is about? Isn't that a cleansing ritual, to cleanse yourself of some way in which you feel a piece of evil has lodged within you? You need forgiveness for speaking evilly or behaving evilly or succumbing to evil in some way."


Daniel (not his real name) witnessed such spiritual forces after a fellow priest referred a man to him who believed himself demonically possessed. An Episcopal rector who was in his mid-40s when this happened, Daniel asked to remain anonymous to protect the privacy of those involved and anyone who might be referred to him in the future.

With the sacraments concealed in his pocket, Daniel greeted the man, who immediately convulsed when they shook hands. Then, while interviewing the man, Daniel heard multiple voices speak. "It happened in split seconds, just like there was someone else there interrupting. ... Each of these voices had a kind of persona, and they never got confused."

Unlike in a typical multiple-personality disorder, the man was aware of them, Daniel said.

Although he suspected demonic possession, Daniel spent months investigating before contacting the bishop. During that time, the man received care from a therapist (who arrived at the same conclusion as Daniel). "You eliminate every possibility of anything else first."

During one meeting, Daniel saw the man thrown and contorted into incredible positions by unseen forces. "I mean being in one position ... and suddenly, as if picked up by something, hurled five feet and slammed into a wall -- from a sitting position, without moving your legs. That can't happen except in special effects."

Daniel pressed a crucifix to the man's head. The voices "bellowed at the same time. ... He moaned, 'Who am I?'"

Daniel contacted the bishop, who licensed an exorcism, but then he had trouble finding an experienced exorcist so he wouldn't have to attempt it alone. "I was terrified," he said. Finally, he located someone through a religious order.

"We don't really believe in this anymore," he said. "If you ask most bishops, they think you're nuts, even Roman Catholic bishops. The rest of us are so thoroughly Westernized, we have just assumed any kind of psychic disturbance is psychological, psychiatric ... and there isn't anything else for us to do but pray for people."

What Daniel saw convinced him otherwise.

"Exorcism ... is a spiritual battle between Satan and demonic power and God, with the exorcist as the vessel. And a lot of it depends on [the exorcist's] ability, and of course everything depends on God's grace."

The battle he witnessed expelled demons that had taken partial possession of the man. Today, the man lives a normal life.

"When I talk about this, I sound crazy to me, because none of this is supposed to be real. And yet, it's somehow real," Daniel said. "I thank God that that was successful, and I hope I never have to do it again."

Within the Roman Catholic Church, exorcisms are rare and never conducted alone, said Bishop Mark Dyer, spiritual director and professor of systematic theology and mission theology at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. An Anglican since 1970, Dyer previously was a Roman Catholic Benedictine. Like all Catholic priests before Vatican II, he was ordained an exorcist – after rigorous study and training – as part of the path to the priesthood. (This no longer is required, said Joanne Ward, communications director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey.)

The Catholic Church takes the subject very seriously and maintains a specific liturgy for exorcisms, Dyer said. The first step in deciding whether an exorcism is necessary is a clinical examination to rule out medical explanations for the person's condition. A bishop grants permission for any exorcism.

If possible, the liturgy may be held "in the intimacy of the family," Dyer said, explaining, "It's not simply the person possessed. Everyone who is living with the person is somehow or other touched by that and needs their own healing."

Some investigations into possible demonic possessions prove to be false alarms. "In my ministry of 40 years, I have experienced people who felt they were affected by evil spirits," Parsley said. "My personal experience has been that that has always been a mental-illness issue. I've never experienced an exorcism."

The key, said Daniel, is being open to the possibility of demonic activity. "Satan isn't under every bushel basket – but sometimes he is under a bushel basket."

Influence of life experiences

What one believes about evil depends partly on life experiences.

For her dissertation for a doctorate in religious and theological studies, Margaret Arms compared how a sample of sexual-abuse survivors and four Protestant clergy from different denominations defined evil. (Arms, an Episcopalian, didn't interview Episcopal clergy to avoid bias.)

The survivors, she said, talked about evil concretely in terms of specific, intentional acts of harm, without love or care for the victim. Some mentioned dehumanization. "They talked about it as experiencing themselves as nonexistent in the face of the offender."

Clergy discussed evil more abstractly. "They talked about it as anything being against God, and they talked about it in terms of supernatural force or being. Almost without exception ... they missed the dynamic of objectification and dehumanization."

Asked the basis for their claims about evil, she said, "the survivors talked very strongly about life experience ... and the clergy were much more likely to go to Scripture."

Language also differed. "The survivors very clearly labeled what they experienced as evil," Arms said. "Clergy tended to talk about it more as sin."

"I think what I ended up deciding is that evil is probably a subset of sin in a similar way that ... a physical trauma wound is like a subset, perhaps, of deep laceration," she said. "But to talk about sin when you're dealing with the enormity of evil is to trivialize it."

Confronting evil

Evil exists concretely between individuals and must be resisted concretely, concluded Arms, who leads a spiritual direction practice and is an instructor in the Benedictine Spiritual Formation Program at the Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where her work includes lectures on the spiritual issues of trauma. She sees her work – helping trauma victims and educating religious and mental-health professionals about what happens to people spiritually when they experience trauma – as taking a stand against evil.

Many people react to evil by fleeing from the experience, while others are spurred to engagement, said Burnham, who escaped the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and helped organize volunteer efforts at nearby St. Paul's Episcopal Chapel. He later organized the Naming Evil conference to establish "responsible public dialogue about the nature and implications of evil in the contemporary world."

Noted Parsley, "We have to be careful what we call evil. It's very easy to call someone that disagrees with you on an issue evil."

For example, "it's very important not to say Islam is evil," he said. "Extremism is what we saw at work on 9-11 … and extremism is always susceptible to evil."

"Evil's always about power, it seems to me," Parsley said. "I believe the opposite of love is power, not hate."

And love and doing good, he said, are the antidote to evil, as evidenced by the example of Christ. "The power of that love overcomes the power of darkness, the power of evil."

As Christians, he said, "we participate in the work of the cross, that is … divine love showed fully to the world."

To Daniel, the key to confronting evil is recognition and prayer. "It can be from something as mundane as stopping a fight ... to, at the opposite end, where we have spiritual warfare."

"Most of our confrontation with evil is mundane, as evil itself is," he said.

In guarding against evil, he said, "a well-regulated, maintained prayer life and worship life is the best protection."

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