Richard Rohr – The World, The Flesh, and The Devil

Traditional Catholic moral teaching said there were three sources of evil—“the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Dom Helder Camara, who was the holy and wise archbishop of Recife, Brazil, taught this in terms of “a spiral of violence” spiraling from the bottom up. “The world” (systemic evil) is the lie at the root of most cultures about power, prestige, and possessions; in the middle is “the flesh” (the personal evil and bad choices of individuals); and at the top is “the devil” (evil disguised as “good power” to enforce the first two), which is usually the unquestionable institutions like war, the “laws” of the market economy, most penal systems and many police forces, unjust legal systems and tax systems, etc. They are rightly called “diabolical” because, starting with the snake in Genesis, high-level evil always disguises itself as good, charming, on your side, and even virtuous. Satan must present himself as too big or too needed to ever be wrong.

Up to now in human history most people’s moral thinking has been overwhelmingly oriented around the personal evils of “the flesh.” There was not too much knowledge of the foundations of evil in cultural assumptions themselves, nor hardly any critique of major social institutions on a broad level, until the 1960s! This is really quite amazing. The individual person got all the blame and punishment for evil, while the supportive worldviews and violent institutions were never called into account or “punishment,” as Jesus did when he critiqued the temple system itself.

The biblical prophets of Judaism were the unique and inspired group who exposed all three sources of evil, and it’s also why they have been largely ignored, as was Jesus, the greatest of the Jewish prophets. They didn’t concentrate on the flesh, but largely on “the world” and what I just described as “the devil,” which very often passes as good and necessary “evil.” You see what we are up against, and why evil continues to control so much of the human situation.

Adapted from Spiral of Violence: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil
(CD, MP3)


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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