Christianity Today recently published an article comparing 9/11 to the Christian Easter story. That in itself was enough to perturb me. As a Christian I am not insulted by Christians (or anyone) finding what meaning they can, even in horrific events like that terrorist attack. And to be fair, Mr. Moore was really talking about the controversy on whether news outlets should show footage of the burning towers - whether it was best to confront or hide from those reminders of violence. He actually made some good points regarding grim fairy tales and how children needed an outlet for what they intuitively knew was a scary world. Still, comparing a single act of martyrdom done by a God-man to the mass-murder of janitors, secretaries, kids at daycare, businessmen going about their work and all the rest? I won't pretend I wasn't taken aback.
So when I read a line near the end and was completely floored by it, at first I thought it might be carry-over from my general frustration with the article. I've read it three times over two days now and even ran just the quote (without the larger context) by a friend just to make sure I wasn't overreacting or misreading. Because it's pretty tough to swallow. Here's the passage:
As Christians, we feel a certain squeamishness with our gospel. The Scriptures present a picture of the universe as a war zone, with the present age a satanic empire being invaded by the rival kingdom of Jesus. Talk of such demonic realities rises and falls through the history of the church, oscillating between preoccupation and embarrassment.
I have to wonder, just when did this present age start? God regularly walked in the gardnn of Eden, even after the Fall, and humans were expelled for their own good IIRC the story. Abraham not only talked with God but talked him down. Jacob wrestled with him, Moses talked him into carving a second decalogue once he threw away the first one. That's to say nothing of the prophets who also had direct contact with God if the Bible is true. This is enemy territory? God seems to have as much trouble interacting in the universe as Henry V does sneaking in amongst his troops before Agincourt.
And then of course there is that scene at the beginning of Job. Granted, "Job" is not God's finest hour when it comes to dealing with the nature of suffering, but it does give us what is (to my knowledge) the most thorough example of God and Satan interacting. God praises Job as a uniquely virtuous man, and Satan in turn challenges God, saying that Job only fears God because god protects him. So God gives Satan permission to injure Job and take away his blessings, but only to a point. It is clear also that Satan does these things with God's permission, and couldn't harm Job without that.
This is warfare?
I just can't see the God of the Old Testament as anything but a sovereign. The only option is that Satan gained the upper hand during the New Testament. But when exactly? Not during Christ's ministry; he clearly was able to resist Satan, drive out demons and the like. And then after Christ's resurrection, following the Biblical story, Christ is supposed to be victorious. Christians celebrate because death has no more dominion. Are we supposed to imagine that all that happened and then Jesus just walked away and left the whole universe to be taken back over by Satan? Though "back" isn't quite right, because that implies Satan had control in the first place. That's just not the kind of God I believe in. It is beyond cruel, to leave people so comparatively helpless exposed like that.
I used to think that people built the devil up like this as a kind of response to the theodicy problem. That argument basically says that God is all-powerful so he could avoid evil if he wanted to; he knows everyting, so there's no room for him to claim he didn't know some result would follow; and he's all-good, meaning he'll do what's best for the universe. The problem is, how do we get to evil? How do you explain things like the japanese tsunami or a child who gets cancer. If you're religious, when bad stuff happens you're left grasping for how could this happen - either God couldn't have avoided it, or they weren't worth saving, or what exactly? The devil provides a nice escape clause. God would have saved the child with a tumor, or he would have avoided the deadly crash or the genocide or the earthquake or the madmen hijacking planes and flying it into buildings. He would have, if the devil just hadn't gotten into the way.
Lately, though, I'm not so sure. Mr. Moore actually hits on this point, though I don't know that he recognizes it for what it is. He writes:
If we are too afraid of seeming Pentecostal to talk about the Devil, we will find ourselves declaring war against mere concepts, like "evil" or "sin." Where there are no demons, we demonize. And without a clear vision of the concrete forces we as the church are supposed to be aligned against, we find it very difficult to differentiate between enemy combatants and their hostages.
Or to bastardize Voltaire: If the devil did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. People like a story, and in our militaristic world people like a battle story. Having something to react against gives life a structure and makes it seem like there will be an ending, a resolution. It also lets us feel superior to other people, and when we start to feel guilty for that we can assuage our guilt by saying we don't really hate the Muslims, or the Jews or the Buddhists or the humanists or whatever; we do hate the ideology. That's the same line that let me believe it was possible to hate homosexuality without hating homosexuals for so long.
But God is about finding peace, not more war. (Anyone else remember a bit about beating swords into ploughshares?) And God is not about separation, either. Identifying an enemy, whether spiritual or human, only tears humanity into factions. And on this point I can't do any better than quote Dr. King, on a different topic but still (IMO) very much apropos:
All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?
When I say that this man is on my side and this other man is a hostage, a dupe - that's I/thou. And it's wrong.
It's easy to give God an enemy. I get it. It explains why we hurt and saves the trouble of revolutionizing how you view the world, from an antagonistic struggle to whatever comes after. (I'm still working on that one, btw.) But if there is to be a fight, I think it has to be against the need to fight.
As for Satan, I quite prefer the version I see time and again in the Bible: Satan exists, but he is a created thing very much below God. He may be a Loki-esque trickster and troublemaker, or perhaps a pseudo-Morgoth who is in a position to put a real challenge to God's lieutenant but not to God. Maybe he's even the noble opposition, something akin to Mr. Slugworth in the Gene Autry version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But he's sure not God's equal. Aside from everything else, that just sells God short.
Here are the other Synchroblog posts:
- Jeremy Myers at Till He Comes – The Devil Made Me Go To Church
- K.W. Leslie at More Christ – Devilish Misinformation
- Marta Layton at Fidesquarens – The Christian Jihad
- Sonnie Swenston-Forbes at A Piece Of My Mind – The Devil Made Me Do It
- Bill Sahlman at Creative Reflections – The [one who will go unnamed] Made Me Do It
- Kathy Escobar at kathy escobar – the stranger (who’s a little too familiar) & the shepherd
- Liz Dyer at Grace Rules – Have You Inhaled Demon Spirits?
- Leah Chang at desert spirit’s fire – devils, demons, et al