I was at a community planning group this week and as we began our work one of our members suggested that we have a time of prayer for the sake of the massacre in the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. It wasn’t the first time since that tragedy that I have paused with others for silence or prayer. It was a perfectly good suggestion; how could we continue without recognizing the specter of that outrage?
With the very best of intentions one of our number asked the only African American in our group to pray. I understand why and what might have motivated that request: “We so feel for your people. We defer to your words, your sentiments at this time.” I understand expressing that kind of respect. I might have done the same thing.
What I found myself longing for, however, was for a white person to do the praying. Why? So that the prayer would not be a black-on-black prayer, as though it was a concern that could not be shared by all of us. Again, I know that was not the intent. But what I wished for was a voice of prayer that named this event as universal evil.
Evil is not funny but acts in funny ways. It’s slippery. Most of all evil hides behind things. It hides behind certain rationalizations. It hides behind a veneer of virtue. It hides behind blaming others That’s what the racist shooter did. It hides behind banal and unremarkable hatred. It wants to lull you to sleep. This shooting makes that impossible. But most of the time evil is less dramatic, more subtle.
Though it is not in vogue these days to speak of either evil or sin, the Spring issue of Parabola did just that. The editors gathered together a remarkable body of wisdom from spiritual thinkers across time and space and presented it in one slender volume.
From C.G. Jung: “We carry the primitive and inferior person with all those desires and emotions, and it is only with an enormous effort that we can detach ourselves from that burden … everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
From C.S. Lewis: “Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others … it’s not a question of God sending us to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will become hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”
From Alan Watts on duplicity: “Not only does social convention compel him to publish one (an illusion of virtue) and suppress the other (evil intent), but most often he is himself horribly torn between the two.”
In other words, this inferior shadow self, left unchecked, may fester and become something ugly and horrible. And the way that evil presents and conceals itself is to create an illusion, a mask of righteousness, a banner behind which it hides its real intentions. As it pronounces others evil it conceals its own designs.
When the shooter kills nine people in church, or in a school, or in a hospital, or in their offices at work, or in a drive by at a home, the evil is apparent. But just because there are no bullets flying it does not mean that evil does not exist. As Jesus counseled in the Sermon on the Mount evil exists in our inner intentions before the act of murder takes place. There, festering in the heart, concealed by the appearance of righteousness, it does its dark and sinister work until those intentions finally show themselves for what they have been all along.
Thanks be to God that we may be set free from the destructive shadow of our lower natures. Thanks be to God that goodness may overcome. Thanks be to God that healing and hope may appear in its place.