Systemic Evil

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While John and Marti are on retreat, our good friend, Dave Roper will be providing our Catches each day. For more on Dave’s works, click here.


In every institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence.  C. S. Lewis

While I don’t embrace Critical Race Theory—its roots are antagonistic to the gospel—it is true that evil exists within systems. Patterns of sinful behavior and oppression can become entrenched and once these patterns are in place, they make it easier for individuals within that system to sin with impunity.

But the Bible makes it very clear that we are responsible for our own sins (Deuteronomy 24:16). I may be the product of an ungodly family or a member of a corrupt organization, but systemic evil is never a rational for wrong-doing. I can, by God’s grace, resist the pressure to conform to unjust standards of behavior. 

Ezekiel 18 is a case study on what happens when we place our emphasis on corporate evil: It leads to individual moral irresponsibility: If I’m not answerable for my actions I can evade the consequences of those actions. But the scriptures make it clear that I am responsible for my actions no matter what others do. “The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts” (Gulag Archipelago). Paul writes without nuance or qualification, “All have sinned” (Romans 3:23). 

So, while there is systemic and corporate evil in the world I must face the fact of the evil in me and the consequences of it. English journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, was asked on one occasion  “What’s wrong with world?” Muggeridge replied with unambiguous candor, “I am.”

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6 Responses to Systemic Evil

  1. Wayne C Bridegroom says:

    While I agree with what Dave Roper says regarding systemic evil, I see a things through a slightly different lens. I just finished a 31 week discipleship study that was fabulous, lacking one thing: the leader denied any such thing as systemic evil – all evil is individual evil. Hmm, wait a minute. If one refuses to acknowledge systems of evil, it becomes very difficult to see how one’s own behavior may be contributing to that evil. Systemic evil is incredibly subtle. We have grown up with these cultural systems and take them for granted. It’s like walking. We don’t think, “OK. left foot, now right foot, now back to the left foot.” No, the ‘habit’ of walking is built in – thank God!!! Ah, but the ‘habits’ of systemic evil are built in as well – we don’t think about them; they just ‘are.’ They’ve been part of our life, our auto reflexes since childhood. That only changes when one agrees that there really is such a thing as sin embedded in systems.

    Was the Old Testament law a system? Indeed, a system of Godly behavior and a system to deal with individual sin that stood in stark contrast to the people groups surrounding the Hebrews.

    So, do we see a particular systemic sin and say to ourselves, “I will refuse to cooperate with that evil system?” Yes. But is that all? I want healing in my life of my individual sin problems.
    Perhaps I should also want and work toward healing of systemic evil that haunts not just my life, but those around me as well.

  2. Toni Petrella says:

    We have all mad mistakes and the first part we is so true. No matter what led us to those mistakes we made them. Thank God for his grace and our faith so we can move on from this but, we must first admit we made them. Today is my birthday and like Mom always says thank God for each and every one.

  3. It seems personal accountability has lost it’s poignancy in many peoples’ lives and their thinking these days, and it seems to be losing it’s reality and reliability with each passing day globally. There is always somebody else somewhere else to blame or point fingers at.
    We find reasons to make ourselves into victims because it’s so easy to accomplish anymore. Why should we bear any responsibility for any of our thoughts, words, actions or attitudes when there are so many influential “experts” and authorities broadcasting to us that nothing at all is our fault, whether personally or tribally? They tell us we are “justified” depending on our individual truths or facts; it’s the fault of the ubiquitous “them” instead.

    I remember the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam – along with other similar atrocities since then (whether committed by military, political, religious, or other societal entities, along with the growing number of deranged individuals) – and those American soldiers involved in the mass-murder who used the ever-blameless excuse, “I was just following orders.”
    I don’t doubt that many of those grunts and officers who fired their weapons into the crowd of men, women, children, and elderly, at first, felt a sense of apprehension at receiving those highly-unusual orders and, then, probable remorse after the heinous act.
    But war is war and hell and all of that… so a soothing balm of self-justification or comfort was offered in the form of reassurance that they were only doing as commanded by higher-ups as on any other given day.
    Sure, they committed a grievous sin (crime) but somebody else farther up the chain-of-command did far worse through the infamous order; that captain, major, colonel, or general will ultimately pay a far heavier price IF this sin (crime) is ever discovered.
    Well, we all know what happened after that.

    My point is, we are all personally responsible. Period.
    Yes, it’s easier to make excuses and far more difficult to just ‘fess up or, in defiance, stand up for what is Truly right but our personal integrity and individual standing depend on which choice we make.
    It makes it a lot easier and somewhat comforting to say something like , “I had no choice” or “I could lose my job (or family, or power, or pride, or _____)” or “Somebody else will take the fall” or “The devil made me do it!”

    But, remember, apart from God, there are no “higher-ups” in our life.
    As adults, we are the presidents of our personal existence.
    Jesus took away our sins and He left it up to us to be the commander-in-chief of our day-to-day thoughts, words, activities, and attitudes.
    We can either confer with the Holy Spirit and the Bible, or take our chances with the counsel of our own thoughts and the so-called wisdom of other “experts”.
    At the end of the day, though, as President Harry Truman famously displayed on his Oval Office desk: “THE BUCK STOPS HERE”.

    We, especially we Christians individually and corporately as God’s Church, need to stop passing the buck. We must take personal responsibility because some day sooner or later,, whether we like it or not, we’re going to have to give an account of ourselves to He Whom refer to as, “Lord, Lord.”

    Be a blessing. Be blessed.
    Be of good will. Be cheerful.
    Be courageous. Be encouraged.

    Shalom, Peace…

  4. jwfisch says:

    Great word, Bob. Thank you.

  5. Tom Faletti says:

    This makes an important point about personal responsibility, but it also misses an important point about personal responsibility. In a democracy, we are all partially responsible for the society we have had some part in making. Many of us benefit, often in implicit and unnoticed ways, from the patterns of discrimination that are built into our society.
    This reflection makes it clear that I am responsible for myself but ducks my responsibility for the systems I live in — systems that I implicitly support and often unconsciously uphold (and sometimes even benefit from) by my actions and failure to act.
    It is not only sin if I do evil; it is also sin if I allow evil structures to persist when I could be working to change them. This reflection offers evidence from the Old Testament. The same Old Testament says that if we do not speak out against evil, we will be held to account (Ezekiel 33:8-9). The New Testament also calls upon us to rebuke sin.
    Therefore, it is a matter of personal responsibility to speak out or work for change in societal structures that are marked by patterns of sinful behavior and oppression. To fail to do so is sin.

    • Amen and good point, Tom – thanks!
      I’m currently immersed in a book that is seriously reshaping my thinking, and challenges some of my decades-old beliefs and bents that I’ve simply and uncritically accepted as gospel truth from the very societal systems and structures that you alluded to.
      The book is: “Christian Peace and Nonviolence: A Documentary History” written by Michael Long (Orbis Books – 2011).
      It is not light reading I can assure you but it certainly is a timely eye-opener and very relative to these times in which we’re living.
      This is not a book about feel-good aspirations or delusional hopes but of the need for active engagement by Christians to, as you say, “speak out or work for change.”
      As one of the reviewers describes the book, it “transcends false images of passivity.. is fully compatible with our ardent efforts for social change. It takes real courage to love our enemies as Jesus commanded; it takes an equal dose of honesty to face up to the historic failure of Christian communities to live out this command.”

      If we proclaim to be followers of the Prince of Peace, we must understand what it takes to not only attain that peace for ourselves but, also, to spread His peace to our communities and world beyond. We must recognize and acknowledge those patterns of discrimination and prejudices to which we’ve forfeited our lives… then humbly repent and come to terms with truth and reality, regardless of how painful or hopeless it may seem.

      So, thank you again, Tom, for your comments.
      They’re an added confirmation to the lessons and exhortations I should have learned and applied years ago.
      Thankfully, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, it’s not too late.

      Shalom, Peace…
      🙂

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