This article appeared first in The Finger Lake Times, Geneva, New York http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-politics-meets-theology/article_de730520-857a-11e6-8e3f 03f5cb327d81.html#utm_source=fltimes.com&utm_campaign=%2Fnewsletters%2Fheadlines%2F&utm_medium=email&utm_content=headline
Most of what the general public associates with religion, whether followers or the growing number of people who say they are “spiritual but not religious,” has little to do with the worldview of religion – theology.
Christianity, for example, gets associated with the institution generally referred to as “Church.” The prominent stereotype of church is constructed from the rituals of worship, i.e., communion, preaching, choir, candle lighting and prayers, speaking in tongues, fainting. But the various institutions of Christianity, with their great variety of ritual practices, are not the religion itself. The vessel holding a religion is theology.
I used to teach an introductory Religion course at Canisius College in which I introduced students to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by focusing on what I called their “core narrative,” or first stories. We spent very little time learning about historic or contemporary ritual practices in favor of honing in on the worldview or theology embedded in the narrative traditions of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad. Those who had grown up as Christians were flabbergasted by how much the actual Gospel narrative of Jesus differed from the teachings of their church, and in particular, how domesticated the “Church Jesus” had become.
I mention this because I want to use a significant theological word to frame the presidential campaign now that we are mercifully through the media’s unconscionable hype of the first debate. For those of you who are allergic to religion, this theological concept I want to share can be thought of in utterly secular terms as well.
The word and concept is “evil.” Theologically, evil does not need to refer to a supernatural entity. Do not think “Satan” or the devil. Nor is evil the opposite of “good.” The whole concept has been distorted by juxtaposing good next to evil. The opposite of evil, theologically speaking, is spiritual.
In theological terms, spiritual has to do with the web of dynamic relationships that create and nurture health and wholeness, providing a balance within which life thrives. Evil, on the other hand, fragments by picking apart the fabric of exquisite interdependency that fosters life. Theologically speaking, that which is spiritual weaves wholeness while evil provokes fragmentation.
Again, for those of you averse to all things religious (for which I take no offense, by the way), it is possible to speak of evil in completely non-theological terms: that is, for example, behavior benefiting ecological balance verses actions causing the breakdown and decay of an ecological community. But being a theological thinker, I will stick with spiritual and evil.
The contemporary historian Ken Burns, in an interview on CNN (July 16, 016) said: “It is the tactic of the demagogue to make enemies of ‘the other.’” That is a pithy definition of evil as well, whether referring to a demagogue, neighbors in a standoff, or neighborhoods segregated by socio-economic forces into class and race.
This presidential campaign is evil.
It follows on decades of effort to use “cultural wedge” issues to further divide us rather than weave us together, so the evil is not new. But the demagoguery of Donald Trump to demonize “the other” is the worst, most blatant effort to divide us in recent memory. While he is not the only politician to do it, including Hilary (even though her slogan is “Stronger Together”), he is strategically and mercilessly targeting fissures of fear, hatred, and anxiety to what he thinks will be his advantage. All such efforts at fragmentation are evil, and for those who think theologically about life, naming it publicly as I am doing now, is necessary.
Again, Ken Burns whose historical perspective is better than most, was prophetic when he said in the same interview: “(Trump’s demagoguery) offers a temporary assurance to people who are most susceptible to these messages, but in the long run it is actually those people who will be voting against their self interest, if they vote for Trump, who will suffer most.” Such is the inevitable outcome of pursuing our own self-interests at the cost of any and all other concerns, evil.