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Structural Evil

July 30, 2012
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Speaking in the sort of sweeping generalities that can never really be correct (and using terms that apply only in America where theological and political conservatism are joined in unholy union), one of the primary differences between liberals and conservatives is a difference over the concept of evil.  Liberals tend to believe that evil is primarily structural – society is set up in bad ways and bad outcomes result.  Conservatives tend to believe that evil is primarily personal – people make bad choices and bad outcomes result.  Take, for instance, the easily-caricatured ideas about the poor that result from these views of evil.  On one side the poor all have hearts of pure gold and work industriously but are held down by a system in which they have no opportunity to advance.  On the other the poor represent a set of individuals who are lazy or perhaps addicted to drugs or alcohol or who make bad decisions with money.  Of course, reality is much less amenable to such easy categorization.  For instance, if your personal failings are such that you will never rise much in economic station then this is a personal problem primarily if you were born poor.  If you were born middle-class or above, that’s not really an issue.  This sort of complexity extends well beyond the example of poverty – neither structural nor personal evil is a complete explanation of evil in the real world.

The fact is that no one believes entirely in one sort of evil and not at all in the other.  The question is one of priority – do you say that Stalin was created by a badly-arranged society or do you claim that his purges should be seen as the tragic result of many personal decisions by his subordinates to follow evil orders?  This is key, actually.  Either sort of evil can be framed as the other.  Structural evil isn’t the absence of personal evil but rather it’s a structure that makes it easy to be evil and hard to be good or even requires one to be actively good to prevent harm to others.  So, for instance, a system of slavery does not (normally) prevent the manumission of individuals but it makes this an odd thing, something that one would have to actively pursue rather than making this the normal state of all people.  Someone who goes about a “normal” life in this system would engage in normal, everyday actions that would harm others.

At this point I’d like to move from discussions of the theoretical nature of evil to the Bible.  I’m going to assume that if you care about what the Bible has to say then you are aware of things like the Fall and that I do not need to convince you that the Bible speaks about personal evil, even to the extent that evil is personified in the devil.  Instead, I am going to argue that the Bible also speaks about structural evil and that Christians should take both personal and structural evil seriously.

I’d like to start with Ephesians 6:10-12 where we learn that our struggle is against the rulers, the powers, and the world-possessors of this present darkness, the spiritual doers of evil.  This is a strong case for a personal and personified evil.  However, this doesn’t merely say, “the spiritual doers of evil”, but assigns these beings positions of power and authority.  This is hardly unique to Ephesians (see also Ephesians 2:2) but also appears in John’s “prince of this world” language for Satan (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11) and in the temptation narratives where Satan offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” indicating that he currently possesses them.

Rather strangely, a lot of theologically conservative people I know seem to think that if Satan rules the world he uses this rule a lot like the mayor using his position to get free bus passes – that is, he primarily uses it to travel about, visiting individuals.  I would suggest that the language of rule indicates rules.  So, for instance, God gives Israel a Law that prohibits child sacrifice and requires that the poor be cared for.  Satan gives rules that encourage child sacrifice and get you ahead if you don’t “waste” money on the poor.  In fact, the first example of a Satanic law is one that most theologically-conservative people will agree with me on: child sacrifice is a demonically-inspired practice, a structural evil that infects societies.  The second one, though, still operates today in supposedly Christian societies1.  There still exists a world in which selling people things they don’t need or which are even outright bad for them, betraying your friends, blaming other people when you are caught, and refusing the responsibilities you owe to others gets you ahead.  In fact, the New Testament (John and Paul, primarily) frequently talks about “the world” in exactly this sense, as some sort of set of practices opposed to Christ.  See, for instance, John 8:23, (“You are of this world” is linked to “You are from below” and eventually leads into “Your father is the devil”), 14:27 (Jesus does not give in the same manner as the world), 15:19, (the believers do not belong to the world), Romans 12:2 (do not conform to the world), 1 Corinthians 1:20 (the wisdom of the world is actually foolishness),  1 Corinthians 2:12 (the spirit of the world versus the spirit of God), 2 Corinthians 10:2-4 (we do not have the world’s standard, manner of waging war, or weapons), Galatians 6:14 (crucified to the world), and even Ephesians 2:2 where the mention of “the prince of the kingdom of the air” is linked to following the ways of the world.  There is a real sense in which God’s Kingdom comes to impose a new set of rules upon a world that currently operates under a different set altogether.

There is a strong natural and Biblical case that structural evil is a real problem.  However, the absence of this sense is not merely a theological error but has a set of practical consequences.

The first of these is to ignore any evil that is not consciously done.  Structural evil is all about setting routines that you follow that do harm to others.  You go to work, write some copy, sell some product, and someone ends up horribly deformed because your product is highly toxic.  But you didn’t intend to poison anyone, you just wrote ad copy.  You see something odd going on at the neighbors, you call the tip line, and the secret police break up their illegal political meeting, and torture them all.  You didn’t call with the intent to get anyone tortured, you just live in a society where failure to report odd things would make you liable as well.  Maybe you go to the store and buy some food.  The money goes to an organization operating out of West Africa where children are forced to harvest crops and are mutilated if they fail to meet quota2.  You didn’t mutilate any kids, you didn’t do anything but buy groceries.  The upshot of all of this is that if you do any of these things (and we all engage in a deeply flawed world where we do these sorts of things) you find any attempt to fix these things accusatory.  Your action resulted in evil but when someone points that out you believe they are saying that you are evil.  That’s not really what structural evil is about.  Structural evil is about getting good people to do evil by oversight.  An awareness of structural evil and a real commitment to seeing God’s structures come in instead is necessary to find these evils and root them out.

Take another simple example.  Have you ever been at a church where someone who was completely terrible at their task was appointed simply because they were enthusiastic?  I don’t mean something like the music minister being terrible at music, I mean something like the person who leads a small group being the sort of person who only engages with their personal friends causing the group to be completely dysfunctional.  That’s a failure to think about structures.  They are trying to do good and so they must be good, right?  The idea of a failure that has nothing to do with personal evil, the decision to be actively evil, has not occurred to the unfortunate leaders who have just appointed an incompetent.  The belief has been that as long as someone is searching their heart for evil intent then they are probably just fine, ignoring the fact that they could be trained, through no fault of their own, to overlook certain flaws.

A failure to believe in evil structures, or, to some extent, the ability of any structures to influence people for good or ill, is also present in the task of reading the Bible.  As I’ve said often before, we bring a whole host of interpretive structures to the Bible.  These structures come from our culture.  If we don’t believe that structures do much, though, we will be tempted to think that our reading is dependent only on our faithfulness and not on our skill.  Essentially, we will believe that we could not possibly have been trained to read poorly or that any such training would involve training overt disobedience (“When you read the Bible and feel your conscience pushing you to act do nothing”).  However, it is very possible to train someone to read all wrong without them needing to engage in some willful error (e.g., teach someone a bizarre meaning of the word “faith”).  A failure to see the structures that underlie reading becomes a failure to be able to combat the bad ones.

I believe that Christians need to be broadly aware of evil as both personal and structural.  Evil beings create evil structures and only God’s good structures can combat that.  It is all too easy to be sucked into the complacency of “I am not currently willing evil to anyone” and miss that evil is still being done not only to others but also to ourselves.


[1] Child sacrifice hasn’t gone away either and is an active problem in some parts of East Africa.

[2] This actually happens.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2012 9:46 am

    by foot note 2 do you mean that you are unable to add your source because of legal repercussions?

    • August 11, 2012 11:45 am

      No. I didn’t link to a source because my source for that was a Brethren activist who was involved in one of the initial attempts to pressure chocolate companies to buy from responsible growers rather than something I could link to on the internet. I believe that the corporations actually engaging in this behavior were not the multinational buyers but local growers (slavery is banned across Africa but one stills runs across incidents that suggest is it much more widespread than the ban would suggest).

      However, if you want sources punch “cocoa farming child slavery” into Google and plenty of articles pop up. I didn’t look through them all to see if any discuss mutilation as a means of quota-enforcement but they certainly discuss horrible conditions for child slaves.

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