A Summary of The 5 Interlocking Evils

Reposting this to my blog for safekeeping. Originally published via my “Resisting Empire” newsletter on Oct 30, 2020.

Image from “The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America”

How do you name immorality? Do the words sin and evil find their way into your vocabulary or have they been shunned long ago because of the overuse of these words by some? How do you think and talk about what is wrong in the world? Where does it come from and how would you go about addressing it?

When it comes to naming evil in today’s world, I have been helped by the thinking of those in the Freedom Church of the Poor who find their roots in what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. calls “the triplets of evil” – that is racism, militarism, and economic injustice. The Poor People’s Campaign and the Freedom Church of the Poor have expounded upon these three, adding two more: ecological devastation and the distorted moral narrative of Christian Nationalism.

In The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America, which I draw on for the rest of this newsletter, the data and stories reveal these five interlocking evils as the core to the problems within our American society and the key to changing America for the better.

To reiterate the five interlocking evils are (read a summary of the five here):

  1. Systemic Racism
  2. Poverty and Inequality
  3. War Economy and Militarism
  4. Ecological Devastation
  5. Distorted Moral Narrative of Christian Nationalism

I wanted to share a summary of these five evils with you this week because I believe that you’ll find these helpful in your own work and my hope is that using these five interlocking injustices as a way to analyze where we are, we can focus our efforts on addressing the issues.

Systemic Racism

From a legal system that restricts people of color from participating in democratic processes to ongoing police brutality, to “tough on crime” politics, the carceral system, and so much more, racism is baked into the DNA of America. Indeed some have called it America’s “Original Sin,” and at the heart of all of our major challenges. Consider that, “Federal spending on immigration, deportation, and border policies increased from $2 billion to $17 billion and deportations increased tenfold between 1976 and 2015. These anti-immigrant measures affect not only deportees and detainees, but also their communities and family members, who face greater difficulty in affording basic expenses, meeting rent, and paying for utilities” (Souls of Poor Folks, 24ff).

Poverty and Inequality

We are told that poverty is simply due to people making bad choices, being lazy, or just trying to game the system. On the contrary, poverty in America is structural, meaning that it is due to policies and practices over time leaving the vulnerable more and more economically unprotected in our country. In other words, poverty is a sign of the system working the way it was intended to work, not a sign that the system of broken.

The Souls of Poor Folks charts critical changes from the 1970s onward – especially in labor, housing, hourly compensation (which has barely increased in comparison to profits for those in power), higher education costs, and many other changes that have left, “Nearly 41 million Americans liv[ing] below the federal poverty line and 140 million people (43.5 percent) are either poor or low-income.” [That] four in ten children spend at least one year of their lives in poverty” in the US should be unacceptable to all of us. Considering just how much wealth in concentrated in the hands of a few, there is no need for poverty in this country.

As the report states:

America has become a debtor nation. Excluding the value of the family car, 19 percent of all U.S. households (60 million people), 30 percent of Black households, 27 percent of Latinx households, and 14 percent of White households have zero wealth or their debts exceeded the value of their assets” (p.

War Economy and Militarism

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the basis of the Vietnam War not just on the principle of non-violence, but because the tremendous cost of war redirects money away from social services that aid the poor and working class towards funding wars in other parts of the world (that is often aimed against the poor of other countries). King called war a “demonic, destructive suction tube” suctioning money away from the most vulnerable in our country.

I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such (King, Beyond Vietnam).

Matters have only worsened. For instance, in America today, “The current annual military budget, at $668 billion, dwarfs the $190 billion allocated for education, jobs, housing, and other basic services and infrastructure. Out of every dollar in federal discretionary spending, 53 cents goes towards the military, with just 15 cents on anti-poverty programs” (Souls of Poor Folks, 11).

Furthermore, we are now seeing “perpetual war,” around the world in the name of national security and democracy, all the while our neighbors and cities – especially after Ferguson – are becoming increasingly militarized. We are becoming desensitized to violence, comfortable with state violence in our street and with gun violence in our elementary schools.

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ecological Devastation

The devastation of our natural world is an evil that we see and are experiencing in our country and world today. Devaluing of the gift of creation has not just been a failure of proper stewardship, it has become a “multiplier” of the other interlocking evils mentioned here. Hurricane Katrina devastated already poor communities, driving many deeper into Poverty. Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico in 2017 has a lasting impact today. Recent fires on the West Coast have impacted and destroyed communities. Even COVID-19 is interrelated to ecological devastation.

Pollution of air, water, and land has led to sickness and death at alarming rates.

  • “Fossil fuel, chemical, and other industries have been allowed to poison our air, water, and land, contributing to an estimated 9 million premature deaths (16 percent of all deaths) worldwide in 2015″ (Souls of Poor Folks, 12).
  • “Across the United States, poor people face crises of water affordability, water pollution, and water scarcity in some areas exacerbated by climate change” (Souls of Poor Folks, 16).
  • “While poor urban populations deal with rising water bills, the rural poor often lack access to piped water and sewage systems, with striking racial disparities” (Souls of Poor Folks, 16-17).

This multiplying effect will only continue in the years to come. We cannot unlink ecological devastation from the other interlocking sins of our society, but rather we must see it as a larger system that can be challenged and changed system-wide.

Distorted Moral Narrative of Christian Nationalism

The fifth evil addressed in the work of the Poor People’s Campaign and the Freedom Church of the Poor is referred to as “the distorted moral narrative” for shorthand. America has, since its beginning, used Christian language to justify all manner of evil from genocide of the Indigenous people who lived on this land, to slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, homophobia, racism, militarism, and more. The Moral Majority and Religious Right have built an entire political platform around Christian Nationalism.

I couldn’t explain Christian Nationalism any better than the good folks at Soulforce do when they define “Christian Supremacy” below.

If we are to address these evils, we must understand and confront the underlying ways that America operates religiously and how it has co-opted Christian language in order to do so. I believe that this can and must be undone by religious people, and by Christians or folks who understand how Christian language and practice is being abused for power.

“The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival aims to shift the distorted moral narrative, often promoted by religious extremists, from a focus on narrow issues like prayer in school, abortion, and gun rights to a focus on how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, LGBTQ folks, workers, immigrants, the disabled and the sick; to how we institutionalize equality and equal representation under the law; and how we realize the desire for peace, love and harmony within and among nations” (Souls of Poor Folks, 21).

I believe, along with many others, that one of the most potent ways to do this is to reveal the distorted moral narrative of Christian nationalism to be the lie that it is. This is why I have been so fascinated by the Radical Reformation & Quaker theology, Liberation Theology in its many forms, Howard Thurman’s work on Jesus, and re-reading books like Revelation in anti-imperial terms.

These five evils put together give a clear picture of what I mean by the Religion of Empire, a system that benefits the few at the expense of everyone and everything else, (mis)using the name of God to justify its actions.

I believe that any contextual theology meaning to make sense of American society today must address, and continue to address these five interlocking evils. It must give us ways of not only naming the sins of our society, but insights into how to make a society founded on “the ethic of love.” I would love to see more churches, meetings, and other faith communities of every tradition take as its starting point these five evils and continue to preach on them, teach on them, analyze them, and undo them in our own communities and institutions. Let us not settle for anything less than a complete “revolution of values” in our faith communities, schools, businesses and more. What we have is not good enough, but if we work together, we can create that which we want to see exist in the world.

As Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II says,

With the reality of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and the often false moral narrative of Christian nationalism, we are in a moment in time which we need a deeply moral, deeply constitutional, anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-labor, transformative fusion coalition, where people of all different races, colors and creeds come together and work together to engage in a moral direct action, massive voter mobilization, and power building form the bottom up, state by state and even in the U.S. Capitol. We need this to change the narrative and insist that we will no longer engage in attention violence against the poor and pother interlocking injustices that connect to poverty.

❓Query for Personal Reflection

  • How do you talk about evil?
  • What are the five interlocking evils of American Society?
  • What does it mean to bring these five interlocking evils onto centerstage in our communities so that they become key areas of focus for the work ahead?
  • What would it look like “if our social ethos was grounded in love?” One that clearly rejected these evils and sought to uproot them and build a different society in its place?