And he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan
standing at his right hand to resist him.
In his classic work, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer makes the striking statement that a
mass movement can arise and thrive without belief in a god, but not without belief in a
devil. The genius of the mass movement leader, he says, is in timing and in identification
of the adversary, which must be in some way visible and in some way omnipresent.
This could hardly be more vividly illustrated than by the appalling destruction at
Oklahoma City. "Satan," in this instance, is our government. It is sometimes called the
"Zionist Occupation Government," because it is seen as the cloak for a Jewish conspiracy.
Satan is particularly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which is seen as
lurking behind every bush. The result is a fanatical loyalty and, apparently, a complete
destruction of conscience--a cellmate of the accused bomber reports that he denied having
any regrets for the children who had been killed.
We are not, fortunately, talking about a "mass movement" in this instance, but the first
suspicions after the bombing need to be attended to. The minds of millions immediately
turned toward militant Muslims, and not without reason. Whether or not specific Muslims
are convicted of the bombing of the World Trade Center, the fact remains that it is this
particular fringe that consistently portrays the United States as "the great Satan," and
in both Iran and Iraq, we can surely talk about "mass movements." In these instances, the
identification of a devil is linked with loyalty to a God, but it seems that this God was
much more real to the Ayatollah than to Hussein, and that this difference did not make
much difference in their actions.
Our own country has not wholly escaped the blight. We can turn back the clock to colonial
Salem if we wish, and look at the mentality behind the burning of witches. Or we can look
to the much more recent past and the rhetoric against the Soviet Union as "the evil
empire." One's heart has to go out to Robert MacNamara as he takes the unprecedented step
of staring tragedy squarely in the face and acknowledging his own part in it. He is wrong,
though, if he takes the blame entirely on himself. He could never have made the decisions
he did without massive and intense support.
We are dealing here with a theological question, not just a political or a military one.
Demonization is an act of faith--of negative faith, to be sure, but of faith none the
less. Hoffer is quite right when he sets it in parallelism with belief in God. In fact, if
we want a demonstration that religion is relevant to life, that we are not living in a
"post-religious" age, the persistence of belief in one satan or another might be our
strongest argument. Some philosophers and academic theologians, beginning with Nietzsche,
have announced the "death of God," but to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet
proclaimed the death of Satan. The transcendent, the omnipresent, is still very much with
us, for worse if not for better.
If this is a theological question, then, what does Scripture have to tell us about it?
What help can we find in our own theology? Turning to Scripture first, we find less than
we might expect, and we find a variety of views. In the apocalyptic passages that
predominate in Zechariah and the Book of Revelation, there are clear political overtones.
For example, our Old Testament reading had Joshua the high priest as an obvious symbol of
the nation of Israel, and Satan, apparently, as a symbol of their military or political
enemies. Joshua's filthy garments are to be taken away and clean ones are to be given him
as a sign of the cleansing of the nation from the sins that had brought about its
downfall. God will stand between the nation and the Satan who is trying to prevent the
In the Gospels, though, we find something different. We do find references to a cosmic
Satan being cast down from heaven, to the prince of this world being judged. This seems to
have nothing to do with Judah's oppressor, Rome, though. It seems to refer rather to the
spirit of worldliness. Perhaps the identification is clearest in the extraordinary story
of Peter's confession, when immediately after having been called the rock and the
foundation of the church for his recognition of the Christ, Peter objects to the thought
that Jesus must suffer death and is promptly called "Satan."
The reason is given, and is important. "You are an offense to me because you do not attend
to what matters to God but to what matters to mortals." Peter was sensitive to the way
things looked. His view was understandable and in a sense not entirely wrong. It was not a
"good thing" for Jesus to be executed. Peter's view was wrong not because of what it
affirmed but because of what it left out. He did not see what way going on under the
surface. He did not see that this evil had to be faced.
In addition to the devil as the cosmic "prince of this world" and as the disciple Peter,
we often--perhaps most often--find devils or evil spirits in the plural as enslaving or
obsessing individuals, as needing to be cast out. This may well be the pivotal element.
We have moved from the demonization of some outward military enemy to the demonization of
a member of the inner circle, namely Peter, to the identification of demons within the
individual, demons that can be cast out.
It is striking, once we reflect on it, how many forms this last message takes in the
Gospels. "First cleanse the inside of the cup and the platter." "First cast the beam out
of your own eye." "Our enemies are those of our own household." "Do you still not
understand that what enters through the mouth goes through to the belly and is cast out?
But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart: this is what defiles. For out of the
heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness,
blasphemies: these are the things which defile." "If the light that is in you is darkness,
how great is that darkness!" Time after time, Jesus turns us from blaming others, from
locating the source of our troubles "out there," to looking in the one place we can do
something about, the one place we least want to look.
There is a lot wrong with the world around us, certainly. The point is that if we do not
look for what is wrong within ourselves, we ourselves wind up at Oklahoma City, having
killed any sense of our own fallibility or our own responsibility, having destroyed our
capacity for self-criticism, having become creatures without conscience. The longer we
insist on locating Satan outside ourselves the more blind we become to the Satan within
ourselves. The more blind we become to the Satan within ourselves, the more helpless we
become to resist it.
Not "to resist him," but "to resist it," for what we are talking about is profoundly
anti-human, essentially inhuman. This Satan blinds us to ourselves and to each other,
deadens our sympathies, and isolates us from the larger human community. We admit to our
circle only those who reinforce our blindness and who share our preoccupation with
destruction. However attractive the first steps on the path of demonization may appear,
this is where the path leads. It does not really matter whether we demonize feminism or
patriarchy, communism or capitalism, as soon as we start dehumanize the "other," we start
to dehumanize ourselves.
This, I believe, is why the Gospels so insistently turn our attention inward--not to
distract us from what is wrong outside ourselves but to awaken us to our own participation
in that wrong. We can see the same impulse very clearly in our own theology, with its
emphasis on the process of regeneration. The goal of that process is not that we be
rescued from the consequences of our inhumanity but that we be rescued from inhumanity
There is of course a very personal and private side to spirituality, but it cannot stop
there. Everyone we meet is a spiritual being, and if we are sensitive only to our own
inner natures, we are seriously out of touch with reality. At SSR recently we watched a
disturbing video which followed two young men in through their search for jobs and housing
and their experiences in stores and car dealerships. The two had been carefully chosen to
have very comparable credentials as to education, financial stability, and employment
history. The main difference was that one was white and one black, and the difference in
the way they were treated was dismaying.
On further reflection, though, another awareness began to dawn. The two young men were
actually treated equally in one respect--they were treated with equal superficiality.
Both were treated not as human beings, not as spiritual individuals, but as commercial
commodities. There were presumably vague assumptions about character and integrity, but
this mattered only as it affected their market value. It is awfully familiar. "You are an
offense to me because you do not attend to what matters to God but to what matters to
mortals." This is what "Satan" does in so many ways, in all the little ways that can add
up to 4800 pounds of fertilizer, fuel oil, and hatred.
There is one thought in particular that I would draw from our theology to set the whole
question of demonization in a constructive context. It is that our present spiritual
environment is neither heaven nor hell, but the "World of Spirits," that intermediate
realm where heaven and hell meet. This is the spiritual environment of our world, of our
nations, of our states, of our cities, of our church, and of ourselves as individuals.
There is nowhere we can look where we can find pure evil or pure good.
There are some spectacular "mores" and "lesses." There is a vast difference between what
Mother Theresa is doing in India and what is happening in Bosnia, and it would be simply
stupid to pretend otherwise. There is a vast difference between the bomber who feels no
remorse and the people whose hearts have reached out to the sufferers. But we should
remember that Jesus was one who reached out to "sinners" and who said, "Why do you call me
good? There is only one who is good, namely, God."
As we take seriously our own mixed natures, the collision of heaven and hell within
ourselves, we begin to have a realistic basis for understanding each other. As we give up
on the fruitless task of figuring out whether our own good points outweigh our bad ones or
vice versa, of keeping track of some kind of total score, we give up on trying to pass
this kind of judgment on each other. We focus instead on simply trying to understand what
we are called to do for each other, and it is this more than a concern for our personal
salvation that prompts us to search our hearts. We are looking not so much for what
threatens our self-image as for what impairs our service to each other.
There is a certain appeal to living in a black and white world. It can seem more morally
sturdy, and it certainly demands less thought than facing the complexities and ambiguities
that honesty compels us to acknowledge. It reflects the reality that there is a heaven and
there is a hell and there is a great gulf between them. But we are not God, and our
enemies are not Satan. Some of us are choosing heaven and some of us are choosing
hell--the point is, all of us are choosing. In this respect we are all in this thing
together, and the more we take this to heart, the more resolutely we refuse to demonize
the "other," the less we will have to fear.