Powers of Darkness and Systems of Evil

To treat sin as if it were not there, when in fact it is there, amounts to living as if the world were redeemed when in fact it is not.

–Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace

Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!

Psalm 120:6–7 ESV

In this post I will complete my theological argument that systemic evil is a real thing. By that I simply mean that evil is more than individual acts, that individuals work together for evil purposes.

Why am I doing this?

A few months ago the murder of George Floyd sparked national and international response. Extreme and violent anarchists rode the wave of protests for their own ends, ultimately blurring the line between righteous protest and wicked violence. To speak against their violence was to be labeled a racist. Labels like “systemic racism” and “woke” became commonplace.

I decided to ignore the ideologues. Rather I sought to learn personally about our history of racism and white supremacy. What were the facts? That meant hearing from more than one side of the discussion. My training taught me to be suspicious of the trendy and popular. I read books and read critiques of the same. More than all else I was determined to do the hard work of seeing it a Christians Mind. One book, more than any other, has informed my understanding of our history: Isobel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. She tells the story of the migration of 6 million blacks from the Jim Crow South to the North and West.

A Christian Mind in conversation with the Great Migration

I reviewed Wilkerson’s book here and gave my personal response here.  Clearly, American history is stained with a great wrong. We are not an exceptionally virtuous people.

As a Christian, beginning with an assertion of the truth and plausibility of God’s revelation, I looked at the definition of racism and the roots of racism in each person’s malice toward others. Christianity’s best contribution to this discussion is its unvarnished honesty about the darkness each individual carries with them.

That left me with the question of how something like Jim Crow took root and infected whole regions of the country. My assertion is that Scripture explains the mechanism of systemic sin and institutionalized injustice.

I want to finish that effort here, with a presentation of a biblically informed model of systemic evil and how it applies to racism. You will see that it applies to so much more. And I assert that change is far more difficult than you may imagine.

Individuals work together

There are many evils I will not do unless I have the “support” of others. That support can be conspiratorial, or it can be “understood.” Here is one example. The Bible tells the story of Jacob 9Israel) and his 12 sons. One of them, Joseph, was Jacob’s favorite. The other sons of Jacob hated their brother Joseph. This was “understood.” But they lacked opportunity to do him harm, until Jacob sent Joseph to help them in their work. Then their unspoken agreement erupted into a conspiracy.

“They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them, they conspired against him to kill him.” (Gen 37:18 ESV)

I doubt any one of them alone would have killed him.  But they egged each other on. They reinforced each other in their justified hatred. When Joseph arrived, they threw him into a hole in the ground, decided to sell him to slave traders for profit, and made up a cover story (complete with evidence) that wild animal had killed him.

Mutual accountability and enforcement

Their plan would only succeed if the truth was never told. Cover up is hard work, especially when you are covering selling your own flesh and blood into slavery and lying about it.

You can imagine the system of “enforcement” that followed. Perhaps it was the ringleader who put out the word that anyone who even thought of ‘fessing up to their Dad would find that wild animals still killed people, maybe their wife or their children. For two decades they sustained the silence.

Collusion is the way it works

I know that sounds simple, and it is. Why does it have to be complex? Not only is it simple, it is common. The Bible is not a collection of inspiration stories. It is a raw description of the evil acts of sinners. Scripture records many examples of injustice and wrong-doing by co-conspirators.

One person wrote a collection of poems that were his prayers when enemies threatened him: King David. The Psalms show that he frequently experienced conspiracy and collusion against him. For example:

 For my enemies speak concerning me; those who watch for my life consult together. (Psalm 71:10 ESV)

Sounds like politics and media doesn’t it?

To cultivate collusion, injustice is required

People in power understand that preserving power and its fringe benefits is the bottom line. Keeping power requires writing unjust laws and using power to take advantage of powerless people. Nearly no one gets power and keeps it without yielding to its corrupt use. The prophet Isaiah describes it like this:

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! (Isa 10:1–2 ESV)

Isaiah is describing codified evil. People access power to write laws that warrant their wickedness.

To preserve collusion, intimidate the whistleblower

Remember, the core motive is always greed for money or power or both. Don’t forget people with money and power will use money and power to remove obstacles. They will pay for silence or threaten to maintain silence.

Today there is doxing, or maybe posting a picture of a loved one with a veiled threat. Before the information age, someone could be sent to inform the whistle-blower that they, their wife, their parents, their children just might have an “accident” if they proceed with their plan.

Racism and systems of evil

And so it was in the institutionalization of the slave trade and Jim Crow. Making a profit in human trafficking compelled people to work together, to bribe, to gain power in order to write new laws in their favor, and to threaten any who stood in their way.

They used power which was for good to write laws that upheld evil. They colluded. From suppliers, to transportation, to sales and banking, lots of people participated. Some did not know – they were far enough removed that they could not be aware of what they were supporting. Still others knew it was for the slave trade, that it was wrong, but they decided not to make a fuss. Or when they hinted that they might make a fuss, they found some thugs at their door threatening them and their loved ones.

The Ultimate Collusion

The Bible is really clear about this possibility. Indeed, one of greatest injustices of history, the murder of Jesus, required the parties to have an “understanding” about the threat he posed to them. Each was aware that Jesus was popular, and that he undermined their position or power or access to wealth. Without much formal planning they found remarkable cooperation in betrayal, buying witnesses, unjust processes, religious hypocrisy, political compromise, inciting a mob, sanctioning torture, and murder. This was followed with bribery and threats to uphold the injustice.

Talk about systemic evil!

Evil evil everywhere

There is no doubt that that the USA and other countries participated in the African slave trade for centuries. When slavery was abolished, the white supremacists regained power and created Jim Crow laws. An ideology of racial supremacy became part of the ecology of those societies. Racism was not the issue, power and greed were. White supremacy was a necessary justification for kidnapping and brutality.

But these kinds of systems of collusion in evil-doing and cover-up are everywhere. There are hundreds of such evil-supporting systems in every human culture, beginning sometimes with families, and extending all the ways to the halls of Congress, the White House, major media outlets, and courts. Such systems are everywhere because we are everywhere.

Family members collude to cover up abuse of a wife or children. The spouse excuses or denies the adult wrong-doing. They excuse the evil and coerce the children not to shame the family. Generations suffer because of the cover-up.

Such systems are everywhere because we are everywhere.

Business leaders manipulate the reporting of sales to add to the numbers in their quarterly report. They cover their tracks with a footnote buried deep in the annual report. They embed deceit into the culture.

University leaders tolerate miscreant behavior from a very popular professor because he attracts large donations to the school. They justify their actions by insisting that everyone has faults. The toleration spreads.

Medical researchers and scientists suppress studies that undermine their standing. Cancel culture silences good research. Harm comes to those who would have been helped by the application of the study.

Media giants bully and coerce or censure content, all in the name of making sure only the truth is published. Soon, news becomes propaganda (on the R and the L).

And, yes, it is in the church. Denominational or church leaders can avoid taking moral responsibility for wrongs committed on their watch. I have listened to leaders obfuscate moral clarity with talk of “showing grace” or “facing our deficiencies” and “our need for progress” but never admit wrong.[1] Such obfuscation, usually to protect a person or reputation, pollutes the members.

This does not minimize racism. It asserts we are blind to corrupt systems all around us, including the ones we benefit from.

All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to be silent

Evil cannot thrive unless good people are silent. Evil doers give good reasons for silence. No doubt many hated the slave trade but knew they would lose their own life or livelihood if they sought to end it. Just as many would have faced a concentration camp if they stood up to the Nazi’s.  Or would be sent to the gulag if they exposed the darkness of communism.

It is possible that our present moment of “speaking truth” is nothing but a trend, the latest in cool and wokeness. Virtue signaling gives one a sense of being, well, virtuous — but it also wins points with our peers. Winning points is not the same as calling out evil. If you call out evil to fit in, then you are doing evil to denounce evil.

We know that those who speak up usually pay a terrible price for bringing light to the shadows.

The cost of standing up to the “big” system

Look at very recent examples: In the media world, employees and reporters compromise their professional standards to keep their jobs, until one of them, or another, or another says “No more.” But where are the others who should join them in their departure?

Have you ever heard of Rachel Denhollander? She was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a medical doctor, Larry Nassar, who serviced the female athletes pursuing Olympic level competition. Her pursuit of the prosecution of Dr. Nassar brought her face to face with corruption at the highest levels of law enforcement, the leadership of Michigan State University, and the US Olympic Committee.

In her book, she tells the story of how public officials and leaders at all levels of the system minimized, excused, denied, and covered up years of being aware there was a problem and doing nothing about it.  Reasons were given for the denial: it was a minor offense, there was no evidence, Denhollander was pursuing money, the DA had more serious criminal activity to go after, ad nauseum.

Medals were more important than morals” is the sum of the situation by one journalist.  In the end, Dr. Nassar was found to be a serial abuser and is currently serving multiple life sentences for his crimes.

But why does evil have such power?

But why do such systems become so entrenched? Why are they so hard to reform? Why did slavery last so long? Why do I keep silence too readily? It is because there are invisible powers of darkness at work. The Apostle Paul said, “we do not wrestle with flesh and blood.” (Ephesians 6:12).

When you face an evil system, you have a sense that there is a power involved that both blinds the participants and enables the system to do its dirty work. That is a right intuition. Corrupt systems are truly demonized.

Visible and invisible woven together

Over the last few days I reviewed some notes on Lesslie Newbegin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. In his 16th chapter, he addresses the reality of systems of evil.

Citing organizations that have an enduring culture of pride or spin or abuse for people, he notes that the culture exceeds the life span of any individual. How can this be? He suggests that the teaching of the Bible about invisible principalities and powers provides a rubric for understanding this. I think he is correct.

Every structure has power for good or evil. Structure and power can enforce good and hinder evil. But they can be twisted for evil too. The invisible principalities and powers take advantage of the drift to abuse and corruption.

Powerless to change even if we want to

Point out corruption to someone in a twisted system, and you will almost always hear the lament of “being powerless” to change it.  There are powers at work beyond our ability to quash.

We are not fighting against the individuals who perform their roles within these institutions. We know well that when we get a chance to talk intimately with them, they feel themselves powerless. To the outsider they appear to wield great power, but they know that they are under the control of forces greater than their own and that their freedom to change things is very narrowly limited.[2]

Evil’s sleight of hand

My implication, I cannot take up the power of such darkness to overcome the power of darkness. Corrupt means cannot overthrow corrupt systems. The house of evil is not divided. The end does not justify the means. If there are invisible powers at work, then making alliances with any form of darkness to overcome darkness is to play into their hand.

But the evil I use to reform the evil I want to change may look virtuous. Evil is deceitful. However, using wicked means to turn back wickedness deepens the darkness. Murdering leaders to break their power leads to brutal dictatorships. Controlling media to out an aberrant ideology will create a culture of lies. Electing corrupt leaders to overcome corruption empowers the darkness.

Overthrowing the powers through weakness

Evil is far more pervasive and powerful than we care to admit. Christianity exposes the futility of optimism in humankind’s improve-ability.  But Christianity is not without hope. Scripture insists that Jesus despoiled the dark forces of evil.

He did not do this through taking up greater institutional or political power. He did not organize a protest mob or mobilize voters or call for more virtuous members of the Sanhedrin or the Roman Senate.

Rather, he stripped himself of power, absorbed injustice, and did not retaliate when wronged. The systems of evil of his day arrayed themselves against him – corrupt religious leaders, self-serving politicians, and revolutionary mobs weary of Roman oppression. They abused and scorned and humiliated him. To their eyes he was a powerless victim upon whom they could vent their greatest malice. In truth, God was breaking the power of evil in his weakness.

By his powerlessness the crushed the dominion of darkness. He absorbed injustice to bring an end to injustice. By humble service he overcame the proud. Miroslav Wolf, a man acquainted with the darkness of humanity in war, put it this way:

At the core of Christian faith lies the claim that God entered history and died on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ for an unjust and deceitful world. In taking upon himself the sin of the world, God told the truth about the deceitful world and enthroned justice in an unjust world. [3]

The Church is never to ally herself with the powers of this age

 If we are to follow in the path of our Lord and Savior, then we must cease believing that politics and judges and laws can cleanse evil systems of their corruption. We must speak of Christ alone. We must live as people without anything but the power of sacrifice and humble service.

[1] Wade Mullen has done extensive research in religious institutional abuse. See Something’s Not Right.

[2] Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society . Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[3] Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace, Revised and Updated (p. 289). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.