“Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.”
--The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil"
I grew up in a world where we took the devil very seriously. The grid was simple: we are all players in an intergalactic war between God and Satan, and there is no neutral ground. Behind the curtain of human activity, angels and demons are sparring for the souls of women and men. The devil, it seemed, was everywhere—sometimes causing mundane mischief evidently, like causing the sound system to crackle and pop in a worship service—in which case the worship leader “would rebuke the devil in Jesus’ name.” He was lurking in the shadows when certain guitar power chords were hit, invoked by the likes of AC/DC and Megadeth. He was busy making Madonna grind onstage and in music videos, and trying to get me to watch Madonna grind in the music videos (“Get behind me, Satan!”). I didn’t listen to the Rolling Stones then, but I could have had “sympathy for the devil” just for his truly fiendish work schedule. How did he have time to do all of that, and run the Democratic party too?! The devil wasn’t just in the details; he was in the air all around us. He was in our lungs--and in our loins.
In my circles then, we spent a tremendous amount of time and attention trying to do battle with the Devil and his hordes. “Spiritual warfare” was all the rage, via books like Frank Peretti’s novel This Present Darkness, which showed me the real battle going on between angels and demons behind the scenes. I devoured the Peretti books, and took the worldview in them more seriously than anything I ever learned in history class. I listened to all kinds of music that encouraged me to stay strong in the war against Satan, albums like Petra’s “This Means War!,” songs like Carman’s “Satan, Bite the Dust.” I especially loved Christian rap that sounded like secular gangsta rap, but talked about shooting up devils instead of shooting up the police. One of my first hip hop CD’s was by a guy named T-Bone, who had lyrics like, “I’m the lyrical assassin/my lyrics go buck-buck-buck/yeah, another demon gets struck.”
The world has changed for me since those days. I no longer attribute flat tires or Victoria’s Secret ads to the devil, though I am tempted at times to hold him responsible for FOX news, the DMV, and low-carb diets, respectively. I’ve lived long enough now to know that human beings are not cartoon characters, that there are no white hats and black hats, that life is not a childish game of cowboys and Indians. I have had to deal much more closely now with my own ambiguity, and the ambiguities of the people around me. As we attend honestly to the world around us, and most especially if we attend honestly to our own souls, we develop a much higher capacity for grey.
For many people, the idea that there is an actual sentient force of malevolence called Satan seems tribalistic and primitive. And yet there are indications, perhaps, that there is a force of evil in the world that may be greater than the sum of its parts. We see it most of all in the violence human beings are able to inflict on each other. Even acts of hatred don’t fully account for this phenomenon though, which is why we still return to spirituality for some kind of explanation for it. You don’t need the framework of the Frank Peretti novels to taste something off in the atmosphere—there are times and places where the air itself feels charged with rage and blame. Whatever it is, and wherever comes from, there is a kind of spiritual energy to hate. It can be felt at a political rally or a water cooler conversation, it translates through Facebook and cable news.
This spiritual dynamic, or disposition, whatever you want to call it, is uniquely powerful but dangerous. It is tangible whenever there is an “us” and a “them.” It is palpable whenever a person or group has been labeled as a threat to a community’s well being, and becomes the object of the community’s scorn. When we find someone else to blame for whatever ails us, there is a strong group/mob instinct to cleanse ourselves on that person (drawing from Rene Girard's important work). We identify them as the contagion, the problem. If we can get rid of them, our problems will go away. It’s a powerful mythology across human cultures. In its most extreme forms—Hitler’s attempt to eliminate Jews, racial injustice in North America before the civil rights movement, such evil manifests in ways that are self-evident.
But there are much more subtle forms of this dynamic, equally powerful in any and all kind of grouping, religious or irreligious, conservative or progressive. It is not partisan, it has no brand. It is spiritual in nature, organic, living and dynamic. No wonder the apostle Paul refers to Satan as “the prince of the power of the air,” and no wonder it’s at its most dangerous when a group of people get worked up about something. It feels good to be worked up; “against” energy is intrinsically powerful. If you are quiet and still enough, you won’t hear the devil crackling in a bad sound system—but there is a dark crackle in the air at times, a force that can be felt.
There is an ancient practice in the church, popularized by the monk Ignatius of Loyola, called “the discernment of spirits.” It is not for super-spiritual/hyper spiritual people. It requires an open person who is willing to have their antenna up to the world around them. Discernment is not a practice for the mind, so much as from the stomach—it’s a way of life lived from the guts of us. The next time you are a group of friends, co-workers, whatever tribe you are part of, regardless of political ideology, note the shift in the air/atmosphere whenever there is a strong “against” energy. When one person begins to speak harshly about someone else, and other people jump into the conversation—what kind of spiritual dynamic is at work around you? To be sure, there is a powerful kind of human solidarity that comes out of such settings—we are never more united than we share a common “them;” it’s how we most often know we have an “us.” And yet there is something about this than seems to conspire against gentleness, tenderness, openness and compassion. It is a way of building human community, but when identity is established on excluding the “right” people, it is at the cost of the community’s soul.
Cleansing ourselves on Pecola
The ego’s search for salvation is the quest to find the right person to blame, the right person to scapegoat. Rene Girard identifies this universal mechanism throughout cultures and mythologies throughout antiquity. But the truth of it stares us down daily, if we attend closely enough to our own hearts, in their tremendous capacity to judge, label, and finally to purge ourselves on another human being. Tony Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye is especially haunting in its depiction of this phenomenon (note: I'm forever grateful to my former professor Amy Laura Hall for introducing me to this book-it changed my life). The protagonist is a girl named Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who prays every day for beauty. Mocked by her other children for her dark skin, curly hair and brown eyes, and sexually abused by her father, she longs for the normalcy she dreams would come if she had blond hair and blue eyes. Maybe then, she could fit in. Yet all the while, we watch Pecola slowly disintegrate before us, leading to this stunning final section:
And the years folded up like pocket handkerchiefs. Sammy left town long ago; Cholly died in the workhouse; Mrs. Breedlove still does housework. And Pecola is somewhere in that little brown house she and her mother moved into on the edge of town, where you can see her even now, once in a while.
The birdlike gestures are worn away to a mere picking and plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world--which is what she herself was. All of our waste which we dumped on her she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us--all who knew her--felt so wholesome after we cleansed ourselves on her. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used--to silence our own nightmares.
And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength…And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely liscensed; were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect, we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.
Morrison’s language lingers, not only in my darkest dreams, but in my most honest waking moments of self-reflection. How often have I made myself beautiful by dumping my waste onto someone else? How often have I felt wholesome from cleansing myself on another life? “Her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor.” For Morrison, it is not only those who have directly abused her that are responsible for her breakdown—all who watched and “padded their egos” from her brokenness are complicit.
To feel stronger, wiser, or braver because of the perceived weakness or sin of someone else we judge seems like the most casual, normative human behavior imaginable. And yet in terms of Scripture, scapegoating is the most sub-human, even demonic, activity we engage in. I’m aware this all sounds very dramatic. There aren’t much stronger negative adjectives we might use than “Satanic” or “demonic.” Even if one were to use such terms, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to reserve them for cases of extreme evil—maybe those who participate in some cultic practice of ritual abuse?
Will the real Satan please stand up?
And yet in the story told in the ancient texts, “Satan” appears first in what would seem to be a much more pedestrian way. The Old Testament has no developed theology of the devil or of demons—even the appearance of the serpent in Genesis will not be linked to the figure Christians call “Satan” until much, much later. The first appearance of this character is in the book of Job, and in this early Hebrew book, Satan is not a surname, but a job description. In Hebrew his title is translated “the Satan,” meaning “the accuser.” Accusation is his job, his reason for being. It drives him, animates him, consumes him. As much as God “is love” according to the New Testament epistle of I John, Satan is accusation.
We get our first glimpse of “the Satan” as he accuses the righteous character of Job before God, charging that He only worships God because the divine one won’t let anything bad happen to him. What would it mean for us to take seriously the idea that evil, in its most pure, original form, always draws its energy from accusation? Or to come to believe that to blame, condemn or scapegoat another person, even and perhaps especially in the name of religion, is nothing less than the imitation of Satan?
While “the Satan” is not introduced until the book of Job, the dark, blaming energy this figure embodies runs through the entire ancient story: from Cain murdering his brother Abel (the world will be right if I can just get rid of him), to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ Himself by an angry mob. While the broad story of Scripture has much to say about the native beauty of the human condition—the story begins with “original blessing” as opposed to “original sin"—it is also forward in its assessment of our shared complicity in the violence of the world.
Looking for God in all the wrong places
The most insidious thing about accusation, which is by nature a spiritual force (especially in context of any corporate human gathering) is that it has a powerful shared spiritual energy; it just feels so right. We never feel more righteous—more holy, more pious—than when we collectively cleanse ourselves on someone else. There is a sparkle, again a crackle in the air, an almost inhuman, otherworldly strength we feel when we participate in the spirit of us and them. It is a force that can take hold quickly in a room. It is a force of darkness that can be manifest through people who otherwise may seem kind, caring, reasonable or gentle—through “good” people. I find it fascinating, for example, that when Peter attempts to talk Jesus out of the necessity of suffering (the path of all true spiritual or social change), Jesus exclaims, “Get behind me, Satan!” Of course Peter had not suddenly somehow actually transformed into some kind of mythological creature with horns and a tail. But for a moment, this well-intentioned, “good” man embodied the destructive force of “the Satan.”
I will never forget the first time I felt this in an overwhelming way. It seems truthful to say I was “overwhelmed,” but the occasion was not dramatic at all—in fact I’ve borne witness to far greater displays of negative corporate spiritual power and scapegoating, both before and since. I think that week, for some reason, I was more engaged, more in tune with the spiritual dynamic somehow. The occasion was our bi-annual denominational General Assembly. This was when all we ordained ministers would come together to deliberate issues of ecclesial polity, sometimes to discuss pressing matters of church and culture.
That week there just seemed to be a pandemic of “against energy.” Whenever any of the speakers tried to constructively engage us on issues of mission or vision, the response was lethargic at best. But whenever a speaker said anything with a kind of edge—toward women, toward younger ministers, whoever—the whole place was energized quickly. And that week, there just seemed to be a lot of that. There were a lot of speeches expressing concern over some kind of outsider, some kind of perceived threat to the institution, that seemed to almost always be met with the crowd’s general approval and applause. Even now, I have to be careful about this dynamic in my own speaking/preaching—against energy is powerful and dynamic, and especially in my native Pentecostal tradition, being frankly kind of pissed off can often pass for “the anointing”—some sense of divine life and energy. And yet the energy that motivates in those kinds of settings is often anything but divine.
Given the culture of my tradition, even among what I would in fact perceive as deeply good, genuinely caring men, most of the “positions” staked out that week were not particularly surprising. But what did surprise me was just how unsettling the week was to me on a soul level. I didn’t know how to fully account for that. It came to a head at the end of the week, when the resolutions adapted that week were being read—statements drafted by the body to speak to various cultural issues. My native denomination is culturally conservative, and that year there had been a lot of political debate over gay marriage. So there was an aggressively worded resolution re-affirming the denomination’s stance against gay marriage (which mind you, from where I sit never seemed to be in question within that culture to begin with). And when the resolution was read, the response was absolutely thunderous. There was a long, rapturous standing ovation, people shouting praises to God. Within my tradition, we have as much ambiguity in matters of our own sexuality as anyone else. But dear Lord, does it feel good to make a loud, unambiguous statement that no matter what else might be wrong with us, hallelujah, at least we aren’t LIKE THEM! It is a powerful form of collective scapegoating, a kind of corporate exorcism of our demons (at someone else’s expense).
I was still the pastor of a local church then, and that happened to be the same week that a tremendous controversy ignited, especially through social media, that I dubbed “Chic-fil-a gate.” Having been lost in the ecclesial forest of the general assembly all week, I had paid little attention to what was happening outside the convention center where preachers in suits and ties and women in ornate dresses took air-conditioned refuge from the summer Orlando heat. By the time I discovered the controversy—wherein there was a massive political backlash to the founder of Chic-fil-A’s vocal opposition to gay marriage, there were bodies all over the digital battlefield. Chic-fil-A had long been famous for its openly evangelical stance, closing on Sundays out of religious principle and playing Christian music in its restaurants. I am as grateful as anyone that I can hear Michael W. Smith’s classic “Friends” when I go to the bathroom at Chic-fil-A, or that someone can take my order in tongues (okay that part never happened, but wouldn’t be it awesome if it had?). I have more ambiguity about their conviction about closing on Sundays, as I often speak then and find myself craving a chicken sandwich when I’m done. I would prefer they be bought out by Seventh Day Adventists, or better yet Jewish folks, so they could close on Saturdays instead. I would say “Shabbat Shalom” when I drive by on Saturdays, and get my fried chicken fix on Sundays. I digress. But the tone and tenor of the dispute on social media was so volatile, so angry, that alongside all I saw and felt at the assembly, the sum total of against energy just felt ridiculous. Even my favorite chicken sandwich had become politicized!
This section may be an especially fun read for Christian progressives who share my concern that much of what happens under the banner of evangelical culture wars is angry, destructive, and ultimately opposite of the message of Jesus. The trouble is, I have felt that exact same, identical spirit when I’ve been wound up talking about the ills of culturally conservative Christianity among more progressive friends (and in myself). I’ve felt the same smugness, the same condescension, the same judging, blaming, condemning spirit among the people who would profess to be the most unlike those Christians. It just feels so good to be right. In fact, I think “being right” is the most dangerous drug there is. Who needs meth when you can have the high that comes from being right all the time, from feeling the rightness of your tribal identity over and against all the stupid people out there?
This is why so many people ending up trading up one kind of fundamentalism for another, even if they leave organized religion altogether. (For a case study on this sense of indulgent "rightness", read some of the major books by so-called “new atheists” in the last 15 years or so) Progressive ideology, even progressive Christian ideology, is no less exempt from this universal human propensity toward white hats and black hats, good guys and bad guys, us vs. them. I recognize this when I visit the occasional theology blog that I know in advance I’m going to have serious disagreement with. I go for the high of being right, and feeling righteous. I go to be on the right side of us vs. them, to bring some order again to the chaos and ambiguity of the world as it is.
I realized the power of this same negative, blaming spiritual energy a few years ago, when I wrote an online essay critiquing a then-popular Christian figure’s stance on women in ministry. The leader in question had made remarks that were flagrantly sexist and mean-spirited. Having been very much shaped by women in ministry who have taught me much of what I’ve come to know about God, I took the comments rather personally. I didn’t feel like I was wrong to write the piece—I was taking on the ideas, not the character of the person, and I didn’t feel like anything I wrote was violent or reactionary. But what was fascinating was how quickly the piece caught on. I had not written a book or had a lot of serious attention for my writing generally in those days, despite putting out stuff that I thought was quality.
But tapping into the power of against energy, all of the sudden things were starting to blow up online. And I knew instantly, as I watched the clicks continue to pile on, that I would never be able in good conscience to critique this leader again. I said my peace once on matters I deeply believe in, but in reality no one who knew anything about me would ever dream I was on the same page with this person’s ideas to begin with. Anything beyond that, at least for me, would have been about my own ego and about blame, finding my identity in what I was against rather than what I was for. And that’s always a dangerous combination. After that, when someone else, say a Pat Robertson, said something in the media I thought was crazy, I stopped swinging at it every time. Every family has a crazy uncle who says things at thanksgiving, but they are still your family, and they still have a place at the table. I decided the best way to respond to such things most of the time was to speak grace and blessing, not to call attention to it, delight in it, revel in being more enlightened or more cultured somehow. (For those of you that have further questions about the time and place for prophetic critique, how to know when to speak out "against" principalities and powers, or how this principle does or does not apply to more extreme cases, such as abuse...there is much more to come, this is only part one!)
Accusation, simply put, is the devil’s tool, and it can’t be used to build the kingdom of God. We cannot revel in blaming, us vs. them energy or rhetoric if we are going to build alternative communities rooted in the prophetic witness of gentleness. All that is of God is tender, loving, and non-coercive. It is that kind, sweet, enemy loving and blessing goodness that makes the message of God and of God’s people so different from the machinations of the world.