Demonizing Difference

Demonizing Difference

Sun 25 Oct

I don’t believe in the devil, Satan, or evil spirits that cause epilepsy.  Horny little figurines with pitchforks are the product of a fertile imagination and always have been.

Dysfunctional systems and individuals can be destructive.  Sometimes that destructiveness can feel evil.  Although I can understand why some have moulded their feelings about evil into a supernatural being, I’m very wary of such moulding.  I’m wary of deifying evil.

When we read of the boy with epilepsy in Mark 9 who was afflicted by an ‘unclean spirit’ we need to be careful in firstly not interpreting it literally [and thus nonsensically], and secondly be careful in ignoring the symbolic nature of ‘exorcism’ in a pre-modern society under foreign domination.

Interestingly the prayer that can “exorcise”, prayer being the point of this healing story according to Ched Myers,[i] is to learn to believe in a transformation of self and the world, even though that seems impossible.  And ‘unbelief’ is the despair, dictated by the dominant political and religious system, that nothing can really change, a despair that renders revolutionary vision and practice impotent.  The devil, demons, or unclean spirits are – at their best – literary and political codes for things and circumstances that restrict human possibility and freedom.

The devil though has a history.  It isn’t just a harmless belief that can be left to the makers of horror movies.  The devil has been used, and is still being used, to stigmatise those who for whatever reason are disliked.  When a religious group decides that they alone have a monopoly on truth they tend to smear their opponents as “corrupted by the devil”. 

One of the problems of any institution or group, religious or not, is how to deal with difference.  Most groups like to encourage some difference – whether that is in age composition, or backgrounds, or experience, or ideas.  Difference can help build a healthy appreciation of diversity, and therefore a rich community.

But every group has limits to how much difference it can tolerate.  Some difference, for example, can work its way into patterns of dysfunctionality and in time destruction. 

Most difference though is simply… different.  Not particularly bad or good or immoral or moral.  Just different.

Yet some institutions and groups interpret difference as threat – a threat to community, to order, to theology, and to God.  Such difference has at times, particularly when leaders are weak, been demonised.  Rather than just acknowledging the discomfort of difference some groups have attributed the difference to the devil.

One example that I experienced in 2011 was the “Catholic Action Group” who said of a billboard I had erected: “This is Satanic, this is the ultimate Satanic attack”.  Their spokesperson went on to say that I would “burn in hell.”

Engaging in dialogue, even protest, around different theological ideas is part of the landscape of a mature society and mature churches.  But labelling and stigmatizing individuals or communities by using Satan as a way to fortify one’s viewpoint, or justify one’s actions, doesn’t assist that dialogue. 

In times past those suffering from medical conditions, like epilepsy, were demonised.  So too those with contagious diseases were demonised.  Similarly those with mental ill-health were demonised.  Similarly sexual minorities were demonised.  So too many women and some men who dared to be different in societies where religious conformity was king were demonised.  The stigma of ‘Satan’ was brought out of the cupboard called fear and let loose as a weapon.

Whenever I hear a religious leader using devil language I wait to hear whom he or she is aiming at.  Will it be gays and lesbians this time?  Will it be Jews or Muslims?  Will it be neo-pagans?  Or will it, this time, be you and me?  Dividing the world into black and white, right and wrong, my God and heretics, is bad enough without demonising your opponents.  For it is a short step between demonising the opposition, and thus making them less than human, and ‘freeing’ the conscience to cage and mistreat them like a laboratory rats.  The odour of Auschwitz is never far away.

The devil hasn’t always been about.  He seems to have popped up with the name ‘Satan’ around the 6th century BCE.  In the Book of Numbers and Job the Satan appears, not as an evil seducer, but as one of God’s obedient servants – an angel who has an adversarial role.  Note the Satan was a role, not a character.

As a literary device Satan’s presence in a narrative could help account for unexpected obstacles or reversals of fortune.  Take the story of Balaam – a man who had decided to go where God had ordered him not to.  Balaam saddled his ass and set off, but in Numbers 22:-, v.22 “God’s anger was kindled… and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his Satan” – i.e. as his adversary or obstructer.  In the Book of Job Satan likewise has this adversarial role – with God authorizing Satan’s testing of Job.

However, around the same time as Job was written [550 BCE], other Biblical writers began to use the concept of Satan to explain division in Israel.  1st Chronicles suggests that a supernatural foe had managed to infiltrate the House of David and lead the king into sin.  Zechariah depicted the Satan inciting factions among the people.  These writers paint the Satan as sinister and the role begins to change: from Satan as God’s agent to Satan as God’s opponent.

Four centuries later, 168 BCE, internal conflicts within Israel are even more acute.  The problem was how to accommodate the cultural and religious traditions of foreigners who now lived in Israel.  Some promoted tolerance and integration, others the opposite.  Following the Maccabean Revolt, when foreigners were expelled, the internal divisions remained extreme.  Separatist groups emerged who used the concept of Satan to demonise their Jewish opponents.  Satan was not just the enemy without [foreigners] but also the enemy within [fellow Jews].  These separatist groups also constructed stories of Satan’s origin – one of the more common ones being that he was a princely angel who through lust or arrogance fell from grace.

Of course other Jewish writers tried to stem the tide of racist and religious xenophobia.  Daniel, for example, while concerned about ethnic identity never uses Satan language to demonise his opponents.

The Gospels were undoubtedly affected by the views of the separatists.  They, by and large, depicted Satan not as a servant of God but as a force subverting the will of God.  Mark writes the devil into the opening scenes of his gospel and goes on to characterize Jesus’ ministry as a continual struggle between God’s spirit and Satan’s demons.

In particular Mark downplays Roman responsibility for Jesus’ execution and instead names Jesus’ Jewish opponents, fired by Satan, as the real culprits.  The deadly mix of blaming Jews for killing Jesus, and then characterising them as ‘servants of Satan’, has continued down through the ages in anti-Semitic literature and acts of violence.

Matthew and Luke largely follow Mark’s lead, escalating the conflict with Jesus’ opponents to the level of a cosmic war.  These opponents are the enemy within, the Pharisees.  This reaches a crescendo in John’s Gospel.  Satan is incarnated in Judas Iscariot, then in the Jewish authorities, and finally in those he simply calls ‘the Jews’.  The gospels reflect the increasing conflict between groups of Jesus’ followers and their opponents from 68 to 120 CE.

The division of the divine sphere into goodies verses baddies has continued down to the present day.  Christians first demonised Jews, then pagans, then dissident Christians [labelled heretics], then independent women [labelled witches], and so on, and on, and on…

I remember one correspondent some years ago told me that my dismissal of a literal devil was proof that my words came from the devil himself.  This is a time-tested way of plugging one’s ears to views other than one’s own.  It is also though a strange experience to be labelled a spokesman of the devil.  Like a scene from The Crucible nothing I say can counter it.

Theologically Jews and Christians are monotheists.  There is only one God.  There is not a good God and a bad God.  There is no cosmic war with God and the angelic armies on one side and the devil and demonic hordes on the other. 

Within the Christian Scriptures, thank God, there are also more healthy ways of understanding one’s opponents.  Think of Matthew’s text [5:23-24] about leaving your gift at the altar and going to reconcile yourself with your brother or sister; or the famous text [5:43-44] about loving your enemies.  St. Paul too was big on reconciliation.

Many Christians from the first century through Francis of Assisi in the 13th and Martin Luther King in the 20th have believed that they stood on God’s side without having to demonise their opponents.  Their religious vision inspired them to oppose policies and powers they regarded as dysfunctional and destructive while praying for the reconciliation – not the damnation – of those who opposed them.  Sadly though, for the most part, over the centuries Christians have taught and acted upon the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption.

Now, maybe more than ever before, we need to stop demonizing difference and learn how to respond to our opponents firmly but respectfully, robustly but hospitably, ever aware of the dignity of each and every human being, and the limitations of our own knowledge and opinions.  We need to believe into being the seemingly impossible transformation of self and the world, and politely disregard those who think nothing can ever really change. 

[i] Ched Myers Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus  p.255.