Taking Evil Seriously: Mission in a Broken World

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By Gordon King, CBM Global Discipleship and Canadian Engagement Resource Specialist

I often use the adjectives “broken” and “wounded” to describe the world. Placed together they express the collective impact of evil and destructive patterns of behaviour on human lives. The wounded hearts and bodies of people and the broken social fabric of communities contrast with God’s intention to bless his creation with peace. The Hebrew word “shalom” conveys the meaning of wholeness or health. A person who enjoys God’s gift of peace lives fully and meaningfully with God, family, community and the environment. Justice, compassion and faith are active values in locations of shalom.

The terms broken and wounded can be used to convey the circumstances of:

  • A farmer in Kenya whose crops have failed because of climate change.
  • A Syrian woman raped as part of the violent intimidation of civilian populations.
  • A mother in Bangladesh who lost her daughter when fire engulfed a clothing factory.
  • The retired pharmacist in Greece whose suicide note said that he retained too much dignity to look for food in the garbage.
  • A 15-year-old girl in India who will be married to a man three times her age because he paid a dowry to her family.
  • A teenager in Canada who struggles with an anxiety disorder and contemplates ending his life.

It is not difficult to find wounded and broken people; it is challenging to analyze and constructively deal with the evil or sin that causes their suffering.

The starting point is to affirm that God did not intend that life in Kenya, Syria, Bangladesh, Greece, India and Canada should be this way. Humans are responsible for oppressive political regimes, inequitable economic systems, pumping hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, unsafe working conditions, gender discrimination and destructive social pressures.

The next statement might be a humble confession that we are confused and bewildered by the forces of evil in our world. Perhaps we discovered clothes from Bangladesh in our closet. We want to defend our virtue but feel implicated in an economic system that exploited workers to produce cheap garments and ended in a human tragedy.

A New Testament story has helped me understand the way in which evil can subtly become imbedded in the social and economic patterns of a culture.

The Story (1 Corinthians 11:17-34)

Community dinners were an important part of the life of the early church in Corinth. The shared meals, accompanied by the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, helped define the distinct nature of the Christian movement in this great Mediterranean city. However, these social occasions were never easy to organize and manage. Only the wealthy owned homes large enough to accommodate such gatherings. Labourers and slaves arrived late because they exercised little control over their working hours. Usually the best food and wine had been consumed and only a few leftovers remained for those on the bottom rungs of the social ladder.

It is easy to condemn the actions of the upper class members of the church. The issues at stake would not have been so clear for an observant outsider. The social world of the Mediterranean gave importance to honour as a virtue. The cultural code assumed distinctions in seating arrangements, the quality of food and wine, and in the quantities served among the guests of different ranks. Social relations in the Roman Empire functioned in this way and were seldom questioned.

The Apostle Paul took a dissident position. The inequity of community meals were evidence that the church participated in the evil and brokenness of the world around it. He offered a stunning critique that accused the honoured members of the congregation of humiliating the poor, showing contempt for the church, and participating in the Eucharist in an unworthy manner. He warned them some church members may have died as a sign of God’s judgment.

Reflections on the Story

We can draw at least four conclusions from this story:

  1. Our definition of sin or evil needs to be expanded beyond individual actions such as dishonesty, gossip, avarice, violence, addictions and compulsive behaviours that are destructive in nature.
  2. We may participate in evil by uncritically embracing cultural norms and patterns of behaviour that reinforce the broken nature of our world.
  3. God’s intention and will are that all people have the opportunity to live with a sense of dignity and a share in the common good of creation.
  4. The church’s mission requires healing actions that begin with the proclamation of Christ crucified and lead to consideration of the needs of others, social equality, and the primacy of love. At CBM we use the term integral mission to represent this kind of engagement with the world.

The Corinthian story makes us aware that individuals can have high standards of personal morality and simultaneously be perpetrators of social evil in a broken world. Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, was an exemplary husband, devoted father, dedicated bureaucrat, and trustworthy colleague who claimed to have no knowledge of the Holocaust.  He would later say: “If I did not see it was because I chose not to see.” I fear that I may make the same confession when I stand before God and account for my life. The forces of evil and their consequences are easily pushed from view by self interest and convenience.

Mission in a Broken World

Mission in a wounded and broken world requires the Church to take seriously personal sin and social evils. We are challenged to go back to the core elements of our faith so that we may individually and collectively:

  • Discern and critically examine the evils of our time in history.
  • Confess and seek God’s forgiveness for personal and social sins that compromise our faithfulness.
  • Celebrate the generous grace of our God.
  • Demonstrate the fruits of repentance by living as dissidents who strive for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (Mt. 6:33). In this way we work for God’s shalom and healing in our world.

I conclude with a story from our own time that continues to inspire me. It is commonly known that Nelson Mandela was tried in 1963 in a South African court for treason. The prosecutor, Percy Yutar, demanded the death penalty; the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment. Mandela spent 27 years in prison, the majority on Robben Island where he laboured in a lime quarry and lived in isolation. He was released from prison in 1990 and elected president of South Africa in 1994. Within months President Mandela invited Yutar to the president’s office for lunch. The shared meal was used to communicate forgiveness for the pain and injustice that had been inflicted. It was a bold and controversial act. Mandela recognized that hope for peace depended upon individual decisions to seek reconciliation rather than revenge.

The mission of the Church is not to be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Faithfulness to this mission requires prayer, discernment and courage as we follow Jesus into a broken and wounded world.