Speaking of the Devil

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Most people would agree that a political conversation is probably skidding downhill when one participant accuses another of channeling demons. One person who would beg to differ is the political firebrand Ann Coulter, who lives pretty far down that hill and whose latest book is Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America.

According to her, liberals and Democrats are literally demonic because they foster a “mob mentality,” which they’ve done since the civil rights movement— “the first mob,” Coulter calls it. Left-leaning activists including environmentalists and unionists are the principal horn-wearers in this book. They are cast as both demonically possessed and as the evil spirits themselves—which raises the metaphysical conundrum of demons possessed by demons.

Of course Coulter is hardly the first to see the Prince of Darkness behind causes unpalatable to her. Many opponents of civil rights conducted a brisk trade in such imagery during the 1960s, and still do—if the deluge of Google results for “Martin Lucifer King” is any guide. Christian antinuclear protesters have proclaimed a mission to “expel the demons” from those who countenance the stockpiling of such weapons.

I’d be happy to leave Satan out of any and all political discussions. But now comes a different tack on the subject by one of my favorite scholars of antiquity, Luke Timothy Johnson, whose probing article in the October 7 edition of Commonweal magazine is titled “Powers and Principalities: The Devil is No Joke.”

Johnson points to a general inclination among reasonable people to see the Devil as an amusing topic—rendered as the man in red tights, for instance, or Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. In contrast, he makes an authoritative case that the New Testament writers and early Christian theologians, not to mention the Greco-Roman world and Jewish thinkers, used the language of demons and evil spirits fluently. And they did so in all seriousness.

A professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, he asks: “Is it possible, then, that the New Testament’s language about the demonic is true in ways that are important for us to relearn? Does the language say what needs saying in a way no other language can?”

Johnson argues soundly that in our time the language of social science has proved inadequate to the task of explaining such unspeakable evil as the Holocaust and the Cambodian killing fields. For such behavior, he writes, “It is important to be able to speak of the Devil.”

A Call for Reticence

Perhaps, but Johnson is quick to acknowledge the downside. He grants that demon language has a checkered history of “misapplication, overextension, and trivialization,” notably among Christians (as evidenced in the polemics against Jews, heretics, and many others). People of faith should exercise “reticence and linguistic discipline” as they seek to rehabilitate Devil talk, he advises.

At the same time he sees ample signs of demonic pull—for example, in the “systems of addiction” that enslave people and destroy families. In addition, Johnson (whose most recent book is Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity) applauds the liberation theologians for speaking of the Evil One when critiquing structures of oppression.

Linguistic purists may shudder at the terms employed in such critical analyses. But racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia are real, and their capacity to damage and destroy, even as they corrupt those who practice them, is powerful indeed…. The act of liberation begins with naming such systems for what they are: the work of powers and principalities—the Devil’s work—intended to hurt God by harming humans.

Johnson’s cautions and caveats are welcomed, but there’s still cause for wariness. He might see a huge difference between demonizing an oppressive social system (which can be problematic enough), and demonizing one’s political opponents (as Coulter does with aplomb). Unfortunately the distinction can be a quick casualty in the ideological crossfire.

What might help is the sensibility of St. Augustine. The theologian and philosopher understood evil, which is why he believed the use of deadly force against an aggressor could be (in theory) morally justified. But he also wrestled with his internal demons and wrote about them more than 1600 years ago in his Confessions, the first and most celebrated spiritual autobiography.

One lesson from Augustine is that no one should ever fight evil as though it were completely outside of himself or herself. Or, to paraphrase a modern-day conservationist slogan: We have seen the Devil, and he is, all too frequently, us. …read more