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The Urgent Question for Today: Why Do We Let Evil Prosper?

 

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers,

but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Psalm 1, New International Version

           

The book of Psalms is a collection of prayers used in the Second Temple. About one-third of the collection is laments, which are complaints to or even against God. These negative prayers usually complain of innocent suffering at the hand of wicked people who seem to escape retribution. Yet the entire collection begins with a statement of hope in God that promises to reverse the situations against which so many prayers complain. This seems like a contradiction—a paradox at the very least. Does this psalm offer hope or assurance for our own time?

Our Current Situation. We live in a time in which the possibilities for evil are multiplying as fast as, and possibly faster than the good being accomplished by our innovations. That some people would choose the dark side is not surprising, but it is very troubling that forces of evil are prospering and multiplying astronomically with significant public approval. Evil is prospering because too many people let it succeed to gain momentary advantages or for lack of courage to stand against it.

Who can deny that we are living in a period when evil is on the ascendant in our globalized world? Modern technology has multiplied the accumulation of verified knowledge and stimulated remarkable achievements such as a reliable Covid vaccine in record time. Yet there are purveyors of modern technologies, using them for deception and personal gain at the public expense, who have captured the most popular forms of media, undermined the moral foundations of a party that once saved our country from internal destruction, and subverted entire segments within Christianity so that they no longer follow the fundamental message of Jesus. Political leaders are no longer held accountable if they are like chaff blowing in the wind of whatever opinion will gain or keep power, no matter the long-term damage to democracy, human rights, or the equal and fair administration of justice. Truth is being drowned out by algorithm-generated tsunamis of false information.

Every seemingly wondrous innovation generates possibilities for evil that sometimes appear to overpower the good that drives the use of the new marvel. As the internet remade modern life, it also generated opportunities for crime and public harm that have been tolerated as they undermined the bonds holding peaceful societies together. Americans knew how to respond to deadly attacks on Pearl Harbor and landmarks in New York, but couldn’t see the comparable danger when an adversary used the internet to undermine a presidential election in 2016 or when Russian propaganda outlets started broadcasting openly in the United States. Multiple internet sites have fostered the resurgence of Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan, and a host of new extremist groups. Internet media denied the danger of a pandemic that killed over half a million Americans in its first year and will soon reach a total of one million fatalities. As medical guidance, preventive measures, then vaccines were proved effective, they came under attack. Many Americans chose bogus untested therapies promoted over the internet as they raised groundless objections to carefully verified scientific evidence for approved therapies.

What Is Evil? The first verse of Psalm 1 provides a functional description of evil. It happens when wicked people attract large followings, or block the way of the truthful.  Meditating on the Torah (Law) refers to sincere efforts to live by its ethical and ritual standards. For those of us who are not Jews, the phrase is still valid when it refers to ethical standards stated in the Sermon on the Mount, parables like the Good Samaritan, and the Golden Rule. Seeking and adhering to the truth is coupled with ethical behavior in the Torah and the Gospels as part of respecting the God behind truth.

According to this Psalm, those who are grounded in the truth will bear fruit and ultimately will flourish, while the wicked lack grounding and their accomplishments will lack substance or permanence. This Psalm is a statement of faith that ultimately evil must lose, even though we see it prospering to greater or lesser extent in various historical periods.

So how can we recognize a wicked person? According to Psalm 1, we recognize them by their behaviors and the people they choose to associate with. The most obvious current example of wicked behavior is Vladimir Putin who does not care for truth, justice, or basic human empathy. Russian war doctrine under his leadership is monstrously brutal in destroying cities and murdering, torturing, and raping civilian populations. His doctrine was carried out in Syria, causing a refugee problem for European countries that he thought would weaken NATO. Most recently his method has been applied before the eyes of the world in Ukraine. Domestically, Putin pedals entirely false information with techniques perfected under Stalin’s domination of Eastern Europe, puts political opponents in jail on false charges, and even murders opponents in Russia and throughout Europe. Yet he is supported by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and so-called conservatives in Europe and the United States proclaim him a leader in efforts to save Christianity from atheism and a plurality of world religions.

If Putin stands out clearly as a representative of evil, who are the ones who become wicked by associating themselves with him? There are far right parties emerging in Europe seeking to follow Putin’s tactics against free speech and free elections. In the United States, a former president has openly associated himself with Putin, even to the extent of undermining American national security publicly over and over. This president has followers in Congress and right-wing media who support him no matter how immoral or unlawful his actions may be.

Who Is to Blame? Does this mean God is to blame when evil is paramount? The Psalmist is confident that God will ensure the ultimate defeat of evil, but says nothing about God’s responsibility day by day. The beginning of Psalm 1 emphasizes those who resist temptations to do evil as important to God’s overall plan. This implies that the flourishing of evil is entirely due to human motives and actions. The problem is not just that some humans choose the path of evil, for it cannot succeed unless there are lots of supporters who “walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers.”

Look again at the opening of Psalm 1. Those who are blessed are those who resist the temptation to follow the wicked. This psalm doesn’t try to explain evil or why there are wicked people. It emphasizes the importance of those who refuse to enable wickedness.

Why Is Evil Prospering? The answer is clear in the case of the United States. First, far too many Americans have deserted truth, basic honesty, and respect for the law as they choose political leaders to support. Those who stand against evil are vilified using algorithm-driven methods that follow the Russian example. They claim to do it out of religious or political principles that transparently turn reason inside-out. Second, there are people in Congress and in positions in state governments who are more determined to gain or hold on to political power at the expense of every value they claim to support and in violation of the oath of office they took. Third, too many people think of momentary complaints as unprincipled candidates seek to exploit anger and disappointment without offering any realistic prospect of improvements. And finally, cowardice is a greater epidemic in our country than the Covid pandemic has been. The million deaths caused by Covid represent a far smaller percentage of the American population than the percentage of political leaders and candidates who are asserting bolder and bolder lies as more and more followers are attracted to them.

None of us acting alone have the power to defeat the conditions that promote evil in our current situation. Psalm 1 doesn’t promise to eliminate wickedness. It states a conviction that God will defeat evil and a belief in the value of people rejecting the seemingly profitable way of wickedness. What must happen next is for Americans to muster the courage and determination to stand against the forces of evil, no matter the momentary sacrifices, until the current surge of evil is defeated.

 

Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and Sunday School teacher in a Presbyterian Church. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two chapters in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider.

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