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April 1, 2016

April 2016
Margaret Alter

   Evil is universal, Jesus reminds us, and we are in grave danger when we fail to take that fact seriously. Psychological evil is the deeply hidden longing in each human being to be in absolute control. It presents itself to us at a conscious level quite sensibly as wanting to be safe. But the primitive terror and rage of a small child fuels it. Theologically, it is our battle against our finitude, our longing to be “like God, knowing good and evil,” as the story of Adam and Eve’s temptation in Eden (Gn. 3:5) illustrates.

   While it remains unconscious, we are likely to engage in a variety of controlling behaviors. We may attempt to force others to do as we wish. We may try to read others’ minds and change our actions accordingly. Our quest for absolute security and control often becomes institutionalized in holiness codes or perfect belief systems: “People who believe or act as I do are good; everyone else is evil.” At the same time, however, these unconscious attempts to achieve security leave us vulnerable to “the Accuser” or “the Enemy” who drives us without mercy:

   We are perfect or we are nothing; we are loved by all or we are abandoned. It is to this terrible dilemma that the Incarnation speaks.

   In the Incarnation, death, and resurrection, Jesus, as God becomes human, embraces finitude without control, without resistance, and without separation from God. In the temptation stories he refuses to be anything but human empowered by God. Throughout his life Jesus speaks honestly about the universal human potential for evil, and with solid integrity he consistently confronts the organized privilege that would avoid this truth. Through insistent forgiveness he offers us a way back into human community and new life. He teaches and demonstrates that God does not keep score, but offers good gifts—sun and rain—to good and evil alike. He encourages his followers to do the same, thereby acknowledging themselves as true children of God.

   Jesus blesses those who have been the victims of evil because of their integrity (Mt 5:11). He admonishes followers not to resist evil, but to “turn the other cheek,” and in the end he himself does not resist evil. Instead he surrenders (Jn. 18:1-12), placing himself in the hands of those who hate him, those who live for ultimate safety and guaranteed control.

   As he submits to arrest, Jesus demonstrates a choice. In choosing radical monotheism, obedience to the one God, he exposes the idolatry of those with all the answers. The exposure incurs their terror and rage. In the end Jesus faces the result of challenging unconscious, codified fear: torture and death. He surrenders to the ultimate lack of control, death. Jesus leads us once again into a major paradox—this time, life’s ultimate paradox: only through surrender is evil ultimately destroyed. Only through death is death defeated.

      Walter Wink wrote:

Because they could not kill what was alive in [Jesus], the cross revealed the impotence of death. Death is the Powers’ final sanction. Jesus at his crucifixion neither fights the darkness nor flees under cover of it, but goes with it, goes into it. Jesus entered the darkness, freely voluntarily. The darkness in not dispelled or illuminated. It remains vast, untamed, void. But he somehow encompasses it. It becomes the darkness of God. It is now possible to enter any darkness and trust God to wrest from it meaning, coherence, resurrection (Holy Week, 1994)).

   Let's go forward in the light of the resurrection.


Margaret G. Alter (Ph.D.) is Professor of Psychology and Christianity at New College Berkeley. This blog entry is based on an excerpt from her book Resurrection Psychology.

Posted on April 1, 2016 at 8:32 PM

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