(AUTHOR’S NOTE: For the five weeks of Lent 2021, special focus will be given to each of the five individual questions in “The Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant”)
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and when you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Rather than the five word response written in the Prayer Book, “I will, with God’s help,” I sometimes want to respond with another (lawyer-like) five words: “Depends on what you mean.”
After all, this second individual question in the Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant is filled with rich and powerful words, capable of all manner of subtle nuances and deep complex meaning…a veritable paradise for anyone sporting a Juris Doctorate on their wall. It is impossible to consume it all in one quick reading or hearing (or even in one blogpost) when it is placed, as it is, being just one in a repetitive litany of questions. Each phrase is power-packed with a verb or noun layered with an almost endless variety of meanings and insights:
Persevere. Resist. Evil. Fall. Sin. Repent. Return.
In a way, this question is reminiscent of one of those “Recycling” posters, with big arrows flowing in a continuing clockwise circle. Note that the question does not ask whether each of us will resist evil; the writers knew better. Rather, the liturgy calls for a individual commitment to persist in efforts of resistance. The question presumes human frailty, not asking “if you fall into sin” but “when.” And then there’s the use of the term “fall” as if my “falling” into sin is like my tripping by accident over an unseen branch on a dark walk outside, as opposed to my willfully choosing to flop headlong into the deep end of a pool. The cycle continues by the commitment to “repent and return to the Lord.” The stage is then set for the endless battle of our “persistence and resistance” to begin anew.
Of all these words, though, “evil” is the one that probably gets the most attention, at least it gets mine. It is one of two “E-words” that in my experience tend to make us Whiskeypalians really uncomfortable. (“Evangelism“ is the other one, if you are wondering, and I’m not sure which one ”wins” the top prize. Mention either during the Sunday coffee hour, and you’ll likely begin to see folks start looking at their watches.)
Most Christians in most mainline Protestant churches shy away from the topic of evil. It tends to conjure up images of street corner preachers shouting about the “evil” practices of things they don’t like and/or don’t understand, or “The Church Lady” character years ago on SNL (“Hmmmm. Could it be…SAAAAY-TIN?”). There can be other comic extremes of spooky talk surrounding nasty looking gremlin-like figures who melt when shown a crucifix, or holy water is sprinkled on them.
All these images miss the mark, I think, and distract me with comedy and comfort from a plain truth that, even if I don’t like to consider it, I ignore at my extreme peril. Evil exists. Evil is real. And evil thrives most when ignored and left alone, unnamed for what it is
In his 1983 book, “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil,” author and psychiatrist Scott Peck defined evil as “that which kills or suppresses life or the life force,” and noted that it often disguises itself in a “mask of self-righteousness,” a narcissistic self-image that denies and refuses to acknowledge any personal flaws, instead manipulating or “scapegoating” others. Unlike mere mental health disorders in which a person has a disease of the brain which makes a person less able to recognize their own personal fault, evil according to Peck is a non-biological disorder of the mind. The evil person not only is able to recognize the harm being inflicted and his/her part in it, but justifies it and at some level enjoys it. Although mental illness is certainly involved, an evil personality has different deeper qualities and other characteristics.
The central tool of human evil is “the lie,” the ability to deceive others and one’s self into believing an alternate reality. The biggest lie of evil is the willing and willful deception of self, in which the evil person chooses to believe he/she is not wrong nor really is capable of wrong, and rejects and even attacks any evidence suggesting it. Interestingly, our Lenten liturgy in Morning Prayer confronts that lie head-on, reminding us of John’s words in his first letter: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:8)
Regardless of whether one accepts Peck’s theories and conclusions, the good news is that the Lenten liturgy also asks us to ponder the verse that immediately follows John’s warning. Yes, we deceive ourselves whenever we think we are not fully capable of doing horrendous evil given the right circumstances, “But if we confess (acknowledge) our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
When I was in law school, I had the opportunity to spend a week with Peck at Kanuga Center in Hendersonville, NC. (I later learned this happened while he was writing “People of the Lie.”) He lectured one evening on his psychiatric observation of evil. I remember being disturbed by his conviction, coming from someone as rational and logical and fact-driven as anyone I’ve ever met, that a true malevolent force outside of science is actively working in humanity. Ultimately though I was comforted by his even stronger conviction – also driven by rational logic and facts as he saw them – that a real force of Love (which he saw especially through the life and ministry of Jesus and “Christ crucified”) had forever conquered it.
“The War against Evil has been won,” he told us. “We are just in a mopping up operation.” We just need to be persistent about it.