Monday, April 9, 2012

The Great Satan

I am currently working through NT Wright's fascinating book, Simply Jesus. In the midst of all kinds of powerful and challenging things I'm learning from this book, came across this gem that relates to the current theme of my blog; nonviolence. It makes sense, though, one cannot study the life and teachings of Jesus without being continually confronted by Jesus' love for his (and our) enimies and his expectation that his followers extend that same love (as opposed to violence). So enjoy and then read the book for yourself.

As C.S. Lewis points out in the introduction to his famous, “Screwtape Letters,” the modern world divides into those who are obsessed with demonic power and those who mock them as outdated rubbish. Neither approach, Lewis insists, does justice to the reality. I’m with Lewis on this. Despite the caricatures, the obsessions, and the sheer muddle that people often get themselves into on this subject, there is such a thing as a dark force that seems to take over people, movements, and sometimes whole countries, a force or (as it sometimes seems) a set of forces that can make people do things they would never normally do.

You might have thought the history of the twentieth century would provide plenty of examples of this, but many still choose to resist the conclusion – despite the increasing use in public life of the language of “force” (economic “forces”, political “forces,” peer “pressure,” and so on). In recent scholarship, Walter Wink in particular has offered a sharp and compelling analysis of “the powers” and the way they function in today’s world as much as in yesterday’s. The psychotherapist Scott Peck wrote a book, “People of the Lie,” about a small but significant number of his clients who had, it seemed, bought so deeply into unreality that they appeared to have been taken over by dark forces beyond themselves. The post-Enlightenment idea that such language reeks of medieval superstition is too simplistic by half. Granted the split-level world of Enlightenment thought, we should perhaps expect that we wouldn’t have very good language for talking about a reality that is neither divine nor reducible to terms of the ordinary material world. But this should not stop us from trying to come to grips with the reality in question.

Without the perspective that sees evil as a dark force that stands behind human reality, the issue of “good” and “bad” in our world is easy to decipher. It is fatally easily, and I mean fatally easy, to typecast “people like us” as basically good and “people like them” as basically evil. This is a danger we in our day should be aware of, after the disastrous attempts by some Western leaders to speak about an “axis of evil” and then go to war to obliterate it. We turn ourselves into angels and “the other lot” into demons; we “demonize” our opponents. This is a convenient tool for avoiding having to think, but it is disastrous for both our thinking and our behavior.

But when you take seriously the existence and malevolence of non-human forces that are capable of using “us” as well as “them” in the service of evil, the focus shifts. As the hazy and shadowy realities come into view, what we thought was clear and straightforward becomes blurred. Life becomes more complex, but arguably more realistic. The traditional lines of friend and foe are not so easy to draw. You can no longer assume that “that lot” are simply agents of the devil and “this lot” – us and our friends – are automatically on God’s side. If there is an enemy at work, it is a subtle, cunning enemy, much too clever to allow itself to be identified simply with one person, one group, or one nation. Only twice in the gospel story does Jesus address, “the satan” directly by that title: once when rebuking him in the temptation narrative (Matt 4:10), and again when he is rebuking his closest associate (Mark 8:33) for resisting God’s strange plan. The line between good and evil is clear at the level of God, on the one hand, and the satan, on the other. It is much, much less clear as it passes through human beings, individually and collectively.

This is precisely the kind of redefinition that was going on in Jesus’ Nazareth Manifesto (Luke 4:14-20). Traditional enemies were suddenly brought, at least in principle, within reach of the blessing of God’s great jubilee. And traditional friends – those who might have thought that they were automatically on the right side – had to be looked at again. Perhaps one can no longer simply identify “our people” as on the side of the angels and “those people” as agents of the satan. That’s why Jesus was run out of town and nearly killed. He had suggested that foes could become friends and by implication was warning that the “good people” – Israel as the people of God – might become enemies. Ironically, his own townsfolk proceeded to prove the point by their reaction.

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