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.