Q: Recently the news has been filled with events like the van attack in Toronto, school shootings in Texas and deaths in Gaza. How does the United Church deal with evil?
A: As a church, we recognize that evil is present in the world. In the United Church’s book of services, there is a little-known liturgy called To Resist Evil. Here’s one of its prayers: "Free us we pray, from the death-dealing power of evil, from our desires for revenge and vengeance, and all forms of domination. Release us into the resurrection of Christ that we may work to free all creation."
This service is there to help people deal with the radical evil they may face in this life, says Rev. Sandra Beardsall, professor of church history and ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon. Our Methodist forebears "saw themselves in a battle with the devil," she says. "[Founder John] Wesley wrestled with this notion frequently, seeing the devil as the one who wanted to wrench him away from the love of God." In our contemporary theology, however, we acknowledge that evil is real but not in a personified way.
Many people wonder why evil exists. In theology, this is an issue called theodicy. In short, it asks, "How can a loving God let awful things happen in the world?"
I have found the writing of Scottish theologian John Swinton to be particularly helpful in the face of this quandary. In his book Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil, he points out that the early church never asked the "why" question. People simply assumed that evil existed and came up with practical responses to it. He writes, "They created faithful forms of communities within which the impact of evil and suffering could be absorbed, resisted and transformed."
To me, this focus on collective action is key. As a pastor, I have seen and experienced too much pain to find the "why" question useful. There simply is no answer.
Rather, what’s important is how a church community reacts and responds to evil. Our Creed calls upon us to "resist evil," and our Song of Faith says, "Yet evil does not — cannot — undermine or overcome the love of God."
We should sit with those in great pain and surround them with love. We should also have the courage to call out the sources of evil that exist in our society and the wider world. We need to do both, or our response to evil is incomplete.
This story first appeared in The Observer's July/August 2018 edition with the title "Reckoning with evil."
Rev. Christopher White is in ministry with the people of St. Mark’s United in Toronto.
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