Posted by: rogermitchell | October 30, 2013

deep structures of evil

My understanding of the temptations of Jesus described at the beginning of his public work by Luke and Matthew is that they expose the deep structures of political evil.
There are three in total and I suggest that they categorize the foundations of empire; of anti-God, anti-human society then and now. Right now I am in Jerusalem having just returned from Bethlehem via the caged corridors through the wall separating Palestine from Israel. If there is a place where these foundations are fully manifest it is here.

1. “And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread”(Mtt 4:3).
That is to say use what power you have to feed yourself, and by inference, feed your appetites, get possessions, get money. As with all three temptations the issue is the use of power. I conclude that the use of what power one has for the primary purpose of providing for one’s own personal and tribal survival constitutes a deep structure of evil. By evil I mean that which is anti-God, anti-human and destructive of the creation of which we are a part. The antidote is in the statement “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” As I read it this refers to the testimony of Jesus. Not all the baggage associated with the Christian faith, but that which proceeds from an interpretation that argues from Jesus to God. That’s to say use what power you have for love. Concrete, definable love. Love for God and love for one’s fellow humans especially the poor. There is no long term point in eating if one is not committed to this. If my life is not demonstrably contributing to loving my poor neighbour, I am no antidote to political, structural evil.

2. “And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, ‘I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours’ (Lk 4:5-7).”
Seeking power and authority over the political domains of life and one’s fellow humans involved in them, whether geographical, demographical or cultural is depicted as devil worship in this temptation. The antidote is expressed as “you shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” The clear implication is that worshiping and serving the Lord God has nothing to do with power and authority over people in their domains of life, and the lordship of God can’t be this either, or God would be the devil. Worship and service of God is manifest in loving and serving the human others as equals, neither myself over them or them over me. Otherwise one or other of us is in the image of the devil and not the image of God.

3. “Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, He will command his angels concerning you; and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’ (Mtt 4:5-6).”
The approach to life that says I will ignore the plight of the rest of humanity and risk all to keep the high ground of security, power and prosperity completes the trio of deep structural political evil. By this standard the city of Jerusalem stands among the most unholy cities of the earth. For this the Jews are not to blame, but the Western powers as a whole. The antidote is to reverse the normal religious hierarchical order (it was the pinnacle of the temple that Satan took Jesus to) and refusing to compete with a lowly God, make humble, costly, identification with those who have been displaced our aim, whatever our position in society or place in the world.


  1. Wow Roger: I’ve been mulling over all of this since you posted it. At first I found it jarring. I don’t think that is due to what you describe as evil but the use of theological language overall. That is your area of scholarship so I respect it but in my own life I have walked away from such language. So okay, past the language thing. What you are advocating is that to be good rather than evil I need to care for the poor rather than pursue my own interests, seek not to have power over others, and refuse to be part of a church (and other social structures?) that itself negates the good and engages in evil.

    A few things stand out for me:
    1. The issue of inequality. Poverty can be defined in an absolute or relational manner. People tend to feel poor in relationship to others in their culture. So if culturally wealth is celebrated and is highly visible then people without similar wealth feel poor. We really do measure ourselves against those around us. Research has shown that inequality is the worst economic issue in any culture. The more inequality the less health for all, and more social problems, and the higher the chance that the government will fail. So as Christians we should seek to move our societies towards more equitable policies and towards an economics that produces greater equality. This would immediately challenge global capitalism as currently practiced.
    2. Wealth produces power. We equate wealth with all sorts of virtues (unrightly as most wealthy people inherited their wealth) and hand over power to the wealthy. Again, we need to seek policies that limit the power wealth and the wealthy can have in determining a nation’s policies. That would call for Christians to protest against policies directed at further enriching the rich while harming the poor and the planet (I include the planet with the poor).
    3. Overall, what this suggests is that we need to work against the emergence of extractive elites in our society. These folks use their power to gain wealth at cost to all others, especially the poor. A nation under control of extractive elites rarely grows economically in any kind of sustained way as innovation is suppressed (it would challenge elite power). When extractive elites gain power they change the system to benefit themselves and the nation enters into a vicious rather than virtuous cycle. The poor suffer and all become impoverished as the elites ravage the society. In other words, from a biblical point of view, trickle down economics (so beloved by the conservatives) is nonsense. Better national policies that limit wealth to also limit inequality.

    Some questions/cautions:
    1. Wealth is more than money. We should not reduce the quest for wealth and power over others to a desire for money. Money is something else entirely, a symbolic system agreed upon by those who use it to represent wealth. But wealth is also ownership of land and other resources.
    2. Charity would seem to be a good thing as it provides (or presumes) care for the poor. But charity is often used by the wealthy elites as a means to maintain the system of inequality that privileges them. Note in the rush to privatisation in many countries the wealthy elites seek to reduce govt policies that combat inequality and instead demand that people rely on private charity (church or individual). Better we seek social justice and community development than depend on charity to do the job. My experience as a community organizer made it clear that people love doing charity as it affirms their power over others.
    3. What is the role of government? Many Christians despise government and seek to reduce its influence in their lives. Yet scripture demonstrates a role for government and that is to protect the poor. Government is also a place to create policies (often through progressive taxation) that reduce inequality or mitigate its effects.

    I’m still mulling so perhaps more to come. c.

    • Thanks for this Cheryl.
      It was not my intention to be overly theological. But I do aim to use language in unfamiliar ways in order to jar folk into taking note! I recognise that sometimes it just leaves them standing. Thanks for persevering and once again getting to the heart of the issues. I particularly agree with your point about extractive elites who “use their power to gain wealth at cost to all others, especially the poor.” As recent statistics in both the USA and UK demonstrate, it is these elites who are benefiting form the current economic crisis even though they are in many ways its cause. Thanks for underlining the importance of government. I believe we need it, especially to discipline the so-called free market economy that is really only greed and selfishness under another name.

  2. Here is Chris Hedges speaking on the matter. c.

    • Chris Hedges, as usual doesn’t beat about the bush here! But I’m not sure that he is radical enough. He identifies specific Christian prosperity teachers as heretics and potential fascists. But as my book The Fall of the Church makes clear, fascism and our Western liberal representative democracies are all on the same spectrum, so those he identifies may be little worse than other more liberally acceptable Christians.

      • I believe he has written the same thing, that in fact liberal democracy is no better. He has written pretty extensively on it all though he doesn’t use the theological language. Interestingly he often uses more mythical references though he did train at seminary and his father was a Presbyterian minister. c

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