What is evil?

Matthew Fox, Feb 11, 2021

Lakota teacher Buck Ghosthorse saying that “in our tradition, fear is the door in the heart that lets evil spirits in.TRANSFORMING EVILJULIAN OF NORWICH

The traditional definition for evil in the West has been privatio boni, privation of the good.  This says a lot.  It says that evil has nothing of good to it, and nothing of being in itself, therefore. Nothing of good or of being because being is the most basic good of all. 

Anti-Semitism on display: picketers from the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrate at the Virginia Holocaust Museum on March 2, 2010. Photo by JCWilmore. On Wikimedia Commons.

So evil is a privation of good, but it is also something else.  It is a force and a presence and an energy and a spirit as well.  I am reminded of this when I recall Lakota teacher Buck Ghosthorse saying that “in our tradition, fear is the door in the heart that lets evil spirits in.” 

Is evil a spirit as well as a privation of good?  Are there evil spirits–a presence, a power, a force–“powers and principalities” in the language of St. Paul?  Julian calls this force “the fiend” in Mirabai Star’s translation of her book, Showings or The Revelations of Divine Love, and she frequently uses the term “the spirit of evil.” 

Evil as racism: Ku Klux Klan cult gathering. Photo posted to Flickr by Image Editor.

The traditional language for evil spirits in the Biblical tradition includes “Satan” or “Beelzebub” or “Lucifer,” but we can just as well substitute words like Racism, Sexism, Militarism, Patriarchy, extractive and consumer Capitalism, etc. in our day.  These forces are spirit-like insofar as they don’t die but return generation after generation.  And they need to be addressed generation after generation.  They are spiritual therefore.  But very real. 

We do not slay them once and for all.  The most we can hope for is to awaken awareness and work on ourselves and our institutions to redirect them.  Good laws, good education, and good parenting assist in that redirection. 

On Jan. 6, 2002, the Boston Globe Spotlight Team released its first in a series of exposes on obstruction of justice by the archdiocese headed by then-Cardinal Bernard F. Law, triggering global revelations of priestly pedophilia. Photo from Boston Globe Spotlight archive.

Such spirits or energies seize the soul not only of individuals but of structures and institutions on whose doors they are always knocking to be granted entrance. 

They knock on the “doors of the heart” (Ghosthorse) of individuals and  institutions and persistently so.  They love to go where power lies.  They love to stay hidden and use others as their front men.  They are smart and do not walk around with signs on their backs that say “I am evil, kick me.”  Rather, they love to dress up, often in fancy outfits with rings on their fingers and many titles after their names. 

Charts showing findings of two newspapers’ fact checkers re the number of “false or misleading” or “false” claims by U.S. President Donald Trump. Wikimedia Commons.

Above all, they traffic in lies.  Spreading falsehoods is their basic modus operandi.  Satan is not called the “father of lies” for nothing.  It is even reported that in one four year period an American president of particular notoriety uttered over 31,000 lies, lies that were repeated and repeated through the media and social media to millions upon millions of followers.  The big lie was that one person won the election who did not.  

Those lies spawned the events of Epiphany, January 6, 2021 when the nation’s capitol was assaulted and electoral vote counters routed and democracy was put at risk.  It was a day of infamy in American history, hatred and untruths coming home to roost.


Adapted from Matthew Fox, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond, pp. 88-99.

Also see Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society

Banner Image: “The Devil tries to tempt Jesus”Fresco from San Baudelio de Berlanga, c.1129–34, now housed in the Cloisters Museum, NYC. Photo by Lawrence OP on Flickr.https://www.youtube.com/embed/rhREo0zhr6g

Queries for Contemplation

What does “privation of good” mean to you?  Do you think that is a useful understanding of evil?  Why or why not? Do you also see evil as a force or energy among and sometimes within us?

Recommended Reading

Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic-And Beyond

Julian of Norwich lived through the dreadful bubonic plague that killed close to 50% of Europeans. Being an anchoress, she ‘sheltered in place’ and developed a deep wisdom that she shared in her book, Showings, which was the first book in English by a woman. A theologian way ahead of her time, Julian develops a feminist understanding of God as mother at the heart of nature’s goodness. Fox shares her teachings in this powerful and timely and inspiring book.

Now also available as an audiobook HERE

Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society

Fox makes the point that religion has so often oversold the concept of “sin” that it has left us without language or power to combat evil. Through comparing the Eastern tradition of the 7 chakras to the Western tradition of the 7 capital sins, Fox allows us to think creatively about our capacity for personal and institutional evil and what we can do about them.

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