Growing up Evangelical, I was taught to be terrified of the Creator. I was informed that much of what makes being human interesting is sinful, if not downright evil, and the distinction between evil and sinful is murky. I learned both sin and evil have something to do with breaking written laws. As I grew, these ideas appeared increasingly suspect, as it seemed to me that if god were on one’s side, one could violate commandments pretty much as one pleased.
When I was a young man my teachers taught me that everything is a gift from the Creator. I was encouraged to be grateful and seek balance, and to resist the temptation to make absolutes. I was supported in being curious, playful, and on occasion, outrageous.
During that time of life, I learned that most Native cultures strive to balance the needs and proclivities of individuals with the needs of the group. While communities have guiding principles, there is no absolute law. Instead, there is an acknowledgement that human experience is both beautiful and intrinsically messy. Usually the individual has a good deal of freedom to find their personal life path, as long as the paths of others, and the needs of the wider community, are honored. From this view, evil may be understood as choosing to benefit oneself at the expense of others and the community. I find this proves a much more useful definition.
A related definition of evil is that it is the practice of giving preference to the forces of death over those of life. Folks who follow this path are the sorcerers, witches, and skinwalkers. We are not talking about the traditional European healers who were called “witches”. Rather we are speaking about people who consciously utilize the capacities of Nature and the spirits to harm others.
Evil can arise from simply losing one’s balance, from over-focusing on the light or the dark. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that evil is best described as the misuse of power, in any form, to harm others or the community. Given that for Native people the community includes the Natural World and the spirits, the possibilities for doing evil are pretty broad.
Throughout my adult life teachers have encouraged me to seek balance and be useful. I have often been reminded good people may get lost and do evil things, and I have learned that when addressing evil acting folks, it is best to limit their influence, undo their work when possible, and be kind. I have been encouraged to remember that, intergenerationally speaking, violence breeds violence, and it is good and useful to take the long view. Still, sometimes one just has to set limits and forcefully resist evil deeds.
In a world where people call the Pope “communist” for caring more for the poor, and the environment, than for the accumulation of wealth or for “progress”, Indigenous ideas about evil might seem pretty strange. Strange or not, I find them quite helpful. I also like to remember Jesus was a tribal person living in a homeland occupied by a ruthlessly repressive colonial power. Given that, it seems to me the Pope is on solid theological ground, although the terrain might seem uncomfortable to many contemporary Westerners.
The Western world is out of balance, favoring the individual and diminishing the communal to the point where poverty, the destruction of Indigenous people and innumerable species, and the poisoning of air, land, and water are accepted as necessary for progress. It seems to me these views are misguided, producing evil. Of course, there are other absolutist ideologies in the world, many of which create great harm; they share, with Western Neo-Liberalism, an addiction to power that too often results in suffering and evil.
We have deep within us a sense for balance and belonging. May we join together in the task of awakening that sense. May we honor the Earth, women, and the many paths people travel to the Creator.
8 thoughts on “Evil”
An insightful post Michael and thank you sharing this.
It is important that we find the right way to live with and in communities without to need to destroy our world 🙂
Reblogged this on Merlin and the White Eagle and commented:
Jung said that there is no evil which cannot produce good and no good which cannot produce evil. The point is to stay balanced between the light and the dark, between good and evil, and this can onlybe done on an individual basis. By embracing the dark within oneself and discovering how to be friends with the Shadow, we transform both the Dark and ourselves. Michael Watson approaches this truth from the indigenous perspective.
Thank you, Michael!
“seek balance and be useful”… I like that, in all its simplicity and complexity.
The church community that I have become involved in, and it’s a fairly bland variety being Anglican, advocates and demonstrates what you describe here. At the end of every service, we are reminded of our responsibility to neighbours, community, the environment, and the world. I think I’ve said it before… they are more Indigenous than they know. I think it’s because they are so Jesus orientated, and as you say he was a tribal man, and very much at the thick edge of the wedge, on the ground, amongst the people.
I have seen much abuse of power within Indigenous communities also – keeping jobs and funding within families, acting to benefit the self rather than the community. And often the events they hold are not the most resource-wise or kind to the environment.
The most healthy of our Elders have their Indigenous culture and values and also have a strong Christian faith. The two are not mutually exclusive. I am learning that the truth and strength of both are an amazing combination.
Tree girl, Yes, both traditions are powerful. My teachers from the Amazon used to say they are Catholic because Jesus came to their peoples 1500 years ago. They see Jesus as a great shaman and teacher, who helped bring peace to their communities. They don’t really practice European style Christianity, rather they try to bring Jesus, as they understand him, into their lives and healing work. They are marvelous people!
I am saddened by events in the Middle East, and see the violence as arising from violence and the deathly specter of colonialism. So much suffering on both/all sides, and so much the result of people being used as instruments of colonial control. We are a blended Jewish/Christian/Native family, and struggle with immense sense of frustration and angst as we watch the insanity play out. So painful!
I saw a documentary many years ago, probably 20 years ago, which focused on a particular group in Papua New Guinea.
They said they were grateful to the Christian missionaries for releasing them from all of their restrictive superstitions. They lived in constant fear of their spirits, and christianity released them from that fear. That’s an interesting perspective isn’t it?
Last year, I had a student placement with me in my work, and this woman grew up in PNG with Christian missionary parents. She said that the documentary was correct, but the current generation of young people are now angry because so much of the culture has been lost for some of the groups as they now have a more Western lifestyle. The villages and community groups were tempted by what they saw as an easier life, not so hard all of the time.
Swings and roundabouts.
I often show my students a documentary about the Inuit (Eskimos) that speaks to a similar experience. The missionaries came and the women converted because their lives were so hard, and because the gods were harsh. Now, communities are bringing back old ways and integrating them with Christianity. The now view those old gods with much love and appreciation. I have thought much about this. Perhaps having support in freeing ourselves from our fears allows us to see in new, and healing ways. My sense is that for Native cultures in North America Christianity has been very complex, indeed.
I no longer have the option of a “reply” button, so this is in reponse to your comment about the Inuit, (which I find very interesting and affirming)…
Anything involving humans is complex. The later generations judge the former, but given the same circumstances may have taken the same route. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
But ruminating gets us stuck, going around in circles with no end. What can we do right now to make it better – individually and collectively – whilst acknowledging past hurt and wrongdoing. I think that’s where we are at now, in some of our communities at least.