You know you can name a few people that come to mind. Wickedness or evil by another name is alive and well. We can name it, identify it, codify it in our laws and social norms, and perhaps even struggle intimately with our very own wicked thoughts and actions. Also if we are free of the latter are we not prone to judge the former? Today I invite you to contemplate our relationship with others and yourself in the context of the existence of wickedness and evil:
“The wicked in this life serve the promotion of virtue in my servants, just as the devils in hell serve as my executioners and promoters.” (The Dialogue, Catherine of Siena, pg. 150).
Initially deconstructing this sentence in my head was difficult as my heart had an immediate aversion to its implications. I leaped to an insinuation that all wickedness and evil was explainable and to be accepted as somehow part of a higher divine test. Alas, after sitting with this a bit, I pulled back to a more exact deconstruction of this sentence. Wicked people allow us to deepen our faith and our virtue just as Christ expressed the greatest sacrifice for our sins at the hands of his executioners.
The greatest mystery of our faith would not have been possible without a plethora of evil acts that prepared for and ultimately led to an authority sanctioned crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The execution was not a single act of evil. It was a campaign of evil and wicked plotting carried out by many and eventually supported by enough people to allow for both the Jewish and Roman authorities to let the travesty proceed. The attacks were perpetrated with lies, slander, gossip, calculated test, and traps set all throughout Jesus’s ministry. And then the ultimate betrayal by Judas of Iscariot for 30 shekels of silver.
It is worthy of taking a divergence here on Judas’s role in history. We despise traitors in American culture. Loyalty and commitment are expected as a form of our patriotism, in our religious institutions, social circles, and even allegiance to sports teams. Yet we see traitors and departures at every level of our society. Minor defections often occur with sports fans as their team takes a significant dive or they relocate to a new area. To some this is not a small issue – it makes you unworthy of being a sports fan at all! Nationally we have had some very famous defections (Alrdick Ames, the Rosenbergs, Robert Hansen, and Benedict Arnold). Spiritually how often do we defect from our cause by our actions or by failing to stand up against the social injustices of today? Judas did not defect without reason.
It was not just greed for 30 shekels of silver. Perhaps his faith was never really authentically sealed to sustain him for the sacrifices pending if he had remained loyal to his apostleship. Maybe he saw that Jesus and the apostles were losing the campaign to win the hearts of the Jewish people. He saw the end was near as forces coalesced. Judas recognized the inevitable and could not see any other path except Jesus’ demise. They would find Jesus whether he participated or not. He would have nothing left after his sacrifice of following and supporting Jesus, only to be crushed by his own people. Thirty shekels does not sound like much but in real dollars today could equal to about four months of wages!
Now let’s apply the Judas principle today in a less dramatic fashion. The Lord’s church (Ekklesia) remains as the apostleship of Christ to preach the good word and the faith to all people and all nations. Its enemies are numerous in nature.
There are well-intentioned secularist, agnostics, and competing religious denominations countering Catholicism’s theology and role in society with reasoned and principled arguments. Catholics have provided this group with legitimate concerns as our actions collectively have presented a pervasive practice of moral evils (clergy sex abuse crisis), consent by our silence on multiple social justice issues (poverty, capital punishment, equality, extreme nationalism, immigration, and war), and dwindling church pews in developed nations. These issues challenge any legitimacy our church claims on religious and spiritual grounds.
And then there are the not so well-intentioned critics that attack the church by any means necessary to promote or preserve their own interest. American politicians, dictatorships, extreme capitalism proponents protecting their individual wealth, authors and media outlets feeding on controversy, and individuals who live and practice with wicked intentions and actions for personal satisfaction. Members in this group may alternately support the church when it pleases their cause and attacks it convenient. This is evident today with the multiple attacks on Pope Francis by faithful that do not appreciate Catholicisms role to love the poor.
And then there is you. Every day your loyalty to the church is tested when confronted with poverty (homeless in your streets), politics (think immigration and death penalty), individual decisions (consider gossip, greed, intentions), and overall alliance and commitment to God in your every action. What if I offered you 30,000 dollars to write a negative opinion op-ed piece on how your parish and church has disappointed you? Could you see some Catholics accepting this offer, perhaps even justifying it by rationalizing everything they have to say is already known and will only help raise awareness and promote the church reform? Afterall we do have a responsibility to stand up to evil whether it is within our own congregation or not! The latter is actually noble and if done without the intention of personal gain may even be saintly. Don’t forget Jesus Christ himself was the original rebel standing up against rigid Judaism.
I say to you that even Judas is worthy of our forgiveness and that we are unqualified to judge Judas or any other sinners and evil ones amongst us. I say to you evil or wicked actions committed against us provide us the opportunity to deepen our faith and our good works. I go a step further and advocate that even accidental harms or natural demise (diseases) present us with an opportunity as well to deepen our faith.
First, we can turn to Matthew ‘s gospel (7: 1-5) on judging others:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Living with these unnecessary transgressions against us or with human suffering experienced at the hands of diseases, nature, or other accidental situations is not for the faint of heart. Where do we turn for help? Perhaps Matthew 7: 7-12:
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
This little entry from Christ teaching not only teaches us to ask for help but at the same time calls us to “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”
Here we are presented with another challenge. The evil and wicked amongst us are sometimes living by a standard of doing to others what they believe you would do unto them if afforded the opportunity. Many a vile and evil person has had many evils perpetrated against them. They may lack the moral conscience from which to even contemplate making an ethical decision when choosing to commit wicked or evil actions. It is reduced to purely a primal act of survival or self-serving effort to further their individual interest. It is neither right nor wrong. Just necessary. This is scary as hell, no pun intended. It is literally hell on earth.
When our social conscience as a society or our individual conscience is alienated from our inner calling to God (by any name) the propensity for evil and wickedness is magnificent. You may be averse to the use of adjective magnificent here. But I assure you that individuals achieving personal success or collective success by evil or wicked actions can often be seen boasting of their great feats of obtaining immense wealth or power by dubious or in their minds brilliant means. In there lives the means justify the ends. We participate in this as well when we allow, for example, our political leaders and parties to outright lie and shade the truth to achieve political power and influence. In essence, we may justify supporting a candidate because they will win anyway and cast our vote as they have some policies that will benefit us. We may be silent when they lie and manipulate or even when their policies hurt us as our social identity will suffer if we admit any wrongdoing. In this case, we would be loyal to a party and disloyal to our spiritual values. We may even benefit a few shekels in our weekly paycheck.
Hopefully, if you are reading this blog, you indeed have an active conscience. I fear that many of us have an active conscience that is on autopilot. We are generally good people. Raised on sound values and adopted most social norms. On the surface, we are mostly in alignment with the ten commandments. I believe we are at risk here of failing to subject our conscience to daily spiritual examination to ensure our intentions and actions are aligned with God as opposed to purely human social norms or even religious institutionalized spirituality.
An Alethia and WordPress Blogger, John Burger, did a piece on John Henry Newman’s definition of the conscience. He blogged the following two paragraphs that I chose to include in its entirety verbatim as I cannot summarize it any better!
“Newman described conscience as “the aboriginal vicar of Christ.” What he meant is that it is through our conscience that we first hear the voice of God speaking to us. Building off this point, Newman was insistent that we are compelled to follow our conscience at all times. Doing otherwise would undercut the ability to live a coherent moral life. The Church, Newman argued, would be foolish to attack the importance of the following conscience. In doing so, the magisterium would be in effect sawing off the very branch that it sits upon because it is precisely through heeding conscience that persons can recognize the truthfulness of Catholic moral theology and follow the path to sanctity.
All that being said, Newman also warned against a false understanding of conscience, which understands conscience as “the right of self-will”—the prerogative to define right and wrong for oneself. In this light, it’s not enough to talk about the primacy of conscience without addressing the importance of having our consciences properly formed. Those who pit conscience against Church teaching fail to see how God has providentially ordained the Church as a trustworthy guide in the moral life. Conscience and Church authority exist in a reciprocal, not competitive relationship.”
To live and co-exist with wicked among us while also experiencing accidental suffering we are called by God to listen to our conscience. Forgive our oppressors (evil and wicked people), ask for God’s help (Ask, See Knock), and “in everything we do” love others as we would like ourselves to be loved. This includes the wicked who serve as antagonists to deepen our faith. Oh, I forgot, when the chips are low don’t be like Judas!
How do we avoid the errors of Judas, dramatically or in minor actions? Pray.