“Deliver us from evil.”
Most Sundays we pray these words, but rarely do they sound the resonance we hear in these anarchic days. Evil seems unrelenting, incapable of exhausting its ravenous power. Who can withstand its voracious appetite for destruction?
More police shootings in Baton Rouge, a careening truck driven to kill as many as possible, an attempted coup in Turkey — these headlines scream the turmoil in which we live. Evil is seeking to devour at every turn.
And it is not just these violent episodes. Systemic and structural racism, economic exploitation, and gender disparity are protracted manifestations of evil. Even religion cannot get a pass as certain expressions of faith construct templates of oppression.
It is instructive that the Lord’s Prayer separates sins/debts/trespasses from evil:
And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
— From An Inclusive Lord’s Prayer by Richard D. McCall
Sin and evil are not the same thing, although our sins contribute to the vacuum evil inhabits. Evil speaks of a twisting, demonic power that is larger than any individual’s transgression, abhorrent though it may be. While evil is not a rival power to God in the sense of a “good God” and a “bad God,” it nevertheless threatens and distorts God’s purposes for creation, humanity included.
Walter Wink has sought to help us reconsider the meaning of the demonic in a demythologized epoch. In his thinking, the demonic does not refer to personal spiritual beings but rather to social realities-systems that oppress and exploit people. They are “violence-prone systems of power and domination.” They are beyond human sinning, for they are not the products of human decisions but a larger force of malevolence.
While many of us are not comfortable with the language of “spiritual warfare” because we have seen too many charlatans, Wink believes it to be social action that names and unmasks the powers as destructive forces in our world. Liberation movements are an example of spiritual warfare, and I would argue that the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement would fulfill his criteria.
The prayer Jesus taught us is unflinching about the reality of evil and our need for deliverance. Of course we must resist evil at every turn; however, there is also need for a sober recognition that we are engaging more than flesh and blood; we battle “powers and principalities” (Eph. 6:12-13). In other words, we are punching above our weight if we believe that we can conquer evil in our own strength.
Yet, God does not choose to defeat them without our participation. Wink encourages persons to practice Jesus’ “third way” of nonviolent engagement. In his fine text Engaging the Powers, he cautions against “becoming what we hate.” In other words, contending against evil holds peril, especially if our resistance mirrors what we oppose.
I fear that the present battle with radical Islamic forces portends the possibility that we as a nation will become what we collectively hate. Our methods of eradication will escalate the confrontation; this is what Wink calls “imitative resistance.”
Overcoming evil with good will require a coalition of persons who simply will not give up on the proposition that this world can be put better to rights than it is. This coalition also confesses that God’s powerful Spirit must contend for and with them if deliverance is to come.
Last evening at the annual gathering of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, we sang our response to our fear of the evil encroaching upon our lives. In songs of lament and consolation, we put our trust in God to light the way against the powers of darkness. Singing together heals the brokenness inflicted by the reality we call evil. It is a form of protest, and I was grateful to be in the company of gifted musicians and liturgists.
Many are sick of hearing about “thoughts and prayers” being with those who are presently suffering, but I believe Wink is correct in saying “the struggle to be human in the face of suprahuman Powers requires it.” The act of praying — or singing our faith — is one of the indispensable means by which we join with God in the hard work of healing the diseased spirituality caused by the “contagion of evil.”
The prayerful conversion to nonviolence prepares us to craft a different future with God. As Wink observes, “history belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.” So we pray, “deliver us from evil.” And then we make common cause with others who follow Jesus.