Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Triumvirate of Evil

Rachel weeping
"A cry was heard in Ramah--weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead."

Matthew 2:18 (New Living translation)

This anguished lament came to mind as news broke of the senseless murders of 27 innocent people, mostly children, at the Newtown Elementary School yesterday. The words are from the prophet Jeremiah, quoted in Matthew’s gospel to describe of the grief parents felt at King Herod’s massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem, but they represent the cry of every mother and father whose children are torn from them by brutal violence.

Innocent children should never have to die that way. Yet the slaughter continues--with distressing regularity and in ever greater numbers--not just at the hands of crazed individuals but as a result of whole systems bent on wielding power and dominance.

Thus thousands of children all over the world die every day of preventable diseases, from hunger and starvation, from lack of basic shelter and warmth, from famine and other effects of climate change, from drone and terrorist attacks and bomb strikes, and from abortions resulting from an immoral disregard for human life.

In the case of King Herod, he simply acted as tyrants do, to prevent any possible threat to his throne. Political stability and continuity must be preserved at all costs. If the innocent die in the process, so be it. It's just collateral damage.

In any case, far, far more violence is perpetrated by evil systems than by individual psycho-terrorists, as unimaginably horrible and devastating as their actions are.

I became especially aware of this as I was introduced to the following symbols of a trinity of evil systems in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation, which pictures each of these three evil forces as dominated by the epitome of all evil, Satan.

                                               The Great Harlot
                                             (massive addiction to
                                      a greed-based economic system)

                                     THE GREAT RED DRAGON

        THE FIRST BEAST                                      THE SECOND BEAST
    A Many-Headed Monster                                   A Lamb-like False Prophet
  (massive oppression through                             (massive persuasion through
an evil political system)                                               a deceptive belief system)

Regardless of how one feels about the mystifying collage of images and metaphors found in the Apocalypse (means "unveiling"), I find this symbolic portrayal of the nature of evil profound and insightful.

I grew up thinking that all sin and wrongdoing resulted from individuals yielding to personal temptations presented by a personal Satan, the devil.

The Revelation doesn’t refute that view, but presents us with a much more comprehensive picture of evil as a force that controls the very systems that tend to hold all of us in their grip.

First century believers, who lived under the most advanced and most oppressive empire of their time, understood this. They realized how much evil comes from simply going along with whatever have become the political, economic and religious norms of the day. In other words, we sin by simply doing what we are all expected to do, go along with the seemingly normal and acceptable status quo.

In this way, the Evil One, the Dragon, the Ruler of Darkness becomes much more efficient at perpetrating violence and other forms of evil, by infusing the world’s very systems and institutions with it, as follows:

This is a symbol of political power become cruel and heartless. In the cartoon-like portrayal of this creature in Revelation 13, we see evil in the form of a fearful looking creature with many heads and many horns. While the original readers of the Apocalypse would have clearly associated this with Rome, this “beast” is still at work wherever governments, ordained by God to preserve order and do justice, instead become agents of destruction, intimidation and oppression. This beastliness is everywhere, exists under many flags and is a part of many (if not all) forms of human government.

By contrast, this creature appears benign and harmless, and is portrayed as a lamb with two innocent looking horns. “Lamb” is, of course, the metaphor used most often for the slain but triumphant Christ in the Revelation, but this false imitation has “a voice like the Dragon” (Satan). In other words, it is like a devil in lamb’s clothing, and its primary purpose is to persuade the masses to give their full allegiance to the First Beast (above).

In the first century, this would have involved an actual cult of emperor worship, but in every age and in every place, oppressive regimes rely on the support of various forms of false religious or secular belief systems. These may include, in our time, the nationalistic cult of civil religion, based on the myth of American exceptionalism and of our being a superior and indestructible nation. All “God and country” based religion extols patriotism as one of its highest virtue, as do secular belief systems like socialism, fascism, or communism.  All serve one and the same purpose, to convince people that by serving the First Beast they are serving God or some other form of supreme good.

BABYLON (THE GREAT HARLOT) (Revelation 14-19)
This seductive woman sits royally astride the First Beast, the one with seven heads and ten horns. She is the antithesis of the Radiant Woman in Revelation 12 who represents the holy people of God, and is dressed in purple and scarlet and bedecked with gold and expensive jewelry of all kinds. She holds a seductively beautiful gold cup in her hands but one that is filled with filth. All the kings of the earth commit adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth weep and wail when she finally collapses in ruin.

Babylon is the symbol of a greedy and self indulgent global economic system that is in bed with all of the political powers that be.  So great is her grip on the wealthy and her ability to oppress the world’s poor and add to their misery that all heaven breaks loose with a chorus of praise when she collapses (Interestingly, the words of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in his “Messiah” oratorio are from this section of the Apocalypse).

This three-fold combination of the oppressive political power of world's empires, the persuasive power of  false belief systems that support such powers, and the seductive power of greed and wealth that is wedded to them, all result in evil being deeply entrenched in the institutions that govern our world.

Only the kind of alternative power available to the followers of the slain Lamb can keep us from being controlled by this triumvirate of evil.

"Ours is not a conflict with mere flesh and blood, but with the despotisms, the empires, the forces that control and govern this dark world--the spiritual hosts of evil arrayed against us..."
  Ephesians 6:12 (Weymouth translation)
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