Reflection of the Week - 3rd May 2022

By Richard Rohr

Posted in Faith

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara (1909–1999) was a brilliant non-violent activist who offered a model for understanding how structural injustice leads to greater violence. He wrote: ‘If violence is met by violence, the world will fall into a spiral of violence’ (emphasis mine). [1] I overlay Dom Hélder’s teaching with traditional Catholic moral teaching which saw the three primary sources of evil as the world, the flesh, and the devil—in that order. When evil and institutionalised violence (‘structural sin’) go unrecognized at the first level, the second and third levels of violence and evil are inevitable. If we don’t nip evil in the bud at the level where it is legitimated and disguised, we will have little power to fight it at the individual level.

By ‘world’ we don’t mean creation or nature, but ‘the system’: how groups, cultures, institutions, and nations organise to protect themselves and maintain their power. This is the most hidden and denied level of evil and violence. We cannot see it because we’re all inside of it, and it is in our ego’s self-interest to protect this corporate deception.

Historically, organised religion has put most of its concern at the middle level of the spiral of violence, or what we called ‘the flesh.’ Flesh in this context is individual sin, the personal mistakes that we make. Individual evil is certainly real, but the very word ‘flesh’ has made us preoccupied with sexual sins, which Jesus rarely mentioned. When we punish or shame individuals for their sins, we are usually treating symptoms rather than the root problem or cause: the illusion of separation from God and others.

At the top of the spiral of violence sits ‘the devil.’ This personification of evil is hard to describe because it’s so well disguised and even idealised. If ‘the world’ is hidden structural violence, primarily through oppression and injustice, then ‘the devil’ is sanctified, romanticised, and legitimated violence—violence deemed culturally necessary to control the other two levels: the angry flesh and the world run amuck. Any institution thought of as ‘too big to fail’ or somehow above criticism has a strong possibility of diabolical misuse. Think of the military industrial complex, the penal system, the worldwide banking system, multinational corporations subject to no law, tax codes benefiting the wealthy, the healthcare and pharmaceutical establishments, the worldwide war economy led by my own country, or even organised religion. We need and admire these institutions all too much. Paul called this level of violence ‘powers, principalities, thrones, and dominions’ (Ephesians 6:12).

If we do not recognise the roots of violence at the first structural level (‘the world’), we will waste time focusing exclusively on the second and individual level (‘the flesh’), and we will seldom see those real evils which disguise themselves as angels of light (‘the devil’). Remember, Lucifer means ‘Light Bearer.’

As Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) taught, Evil only succeeds by disguising itself as good. [2]

[1] Hélder Câmara, Spiral of Violence (London: Sheed and Ward, 1971), 55.



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