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Taking Evil Seriously in Our Broken World

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 behavior on human lives.

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 wounded hearts and bodies of people and the broken social fabric of communities contrast with God’s intention to bless his creation with peace.

It is not difficult to find wounded and broken people, but 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 life to be wounded and broken.

Humans are responsible for oppressive political regimes, inequitable economic systems, pumping hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, unsafe working conditions, gender discrimination and destructive social pressures.

A New Testament story in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 has helped me understand the way in which evil can subtly become imbedded in the social and economic patterns of a culture.

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. Laborers 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, but the issues at stake would not have been so clear for an observant outsider.

The social world of the Mediterranean gave importance to honor 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, proclaiming that 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 honored members of the congregation of humiliating the poor, showing contempt for the church and participating in the Eucharist in an unworthy manner.

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 behaviors that are destructive in nature.
  2. We may participate in evil by uncritically embracing cultural norms and patterns of behavior 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 Canadian Baptist Ministries (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.

The forces of evil and their consequences are easily pushed from view by self-interest, convenience and patterns of exclusion.

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 work for God’s shalom and healing in our world. This will require collective action to:

  • 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 (Matthew 6:33).

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.

Gordon King is the global discipleship and Canadian engagement resource specialist at Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM). A longer version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2013 Mosaic magazine, a publication of CBM. It is reprinted with the permission of Mosaic magazine.