Sermon: Satan

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“Throwback Sunday” is an annual Sunday when we revisit theological ideas some of us may have grown up with and see if those ideas have relevance for us now. The illustration above is from the Codex Gigas, dating to the early 13th century.

Ephesians 6:10-16

How many of you believed in Satan when you were young? How many of you believed he was active presence in the world, ready to ensnare you in something decidedly not good? And how many of you still believe that some kind of being or entity or reality like Satan exists and is active in the world?

Zoom poll! Don’t think too hard about your answers. It’s a yes or no question, no gray zones or “if you define it this way, well maybe.” It’s just yes or no. It’s also anonymous. And only one of you is going to be able to do the poll per computer, so figure that out. You’ve got 15 seconds. Go. (Share screen after poll closes.)

So, I’m obviously having a little bit of fun today with Zoom polls, possibly at your expense. (The devil made me do it.) But I was also very curious about how much Satan was a factor in your early faith formation and how “alive” he is now for you.

Because for some Christians for much of Christian history, Satan is the real deal. He’s alive, he’s active, and he is constantly trying to tempt you. He’s tricky, he’s deceitful, and you may be under his influence without even knowing it. Play the rock music record backwards, people — he’s there, whispering things to you in a language that enters your subconscious and grows, like an infestation. (Play video.)

That still creeps me out. Some of you know what this is, and some of you are wondering: What the heck was that about? “Back masking” — in which someone intentionally records a Satanic message backward onto a musical track that’s meant to be played forward (which is what I just played for you) was taken seriously by some people in my church when I was growing up. They believed that people were putting backwards Satanic messages like this into rock music and that when you would listen to the music the right way those messages would enter your subconscious and Satan would get a hold of you. My father always always though this was kind of nutty, so I didn’t take this Satanic conspiracy too seriously…  unless I was listening to the supposedly Satanically infected record late at night, in the dark, in my room, alone.

Satan is still alive and well. Just ask the true believers of QAnon, the latest conspiracy theory involving Satan that is popular among some Trump followers. To quote a New York Times article on this, “QAnon is the umbrella term for a sprawling set of Internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.” I wish I could say that this is just another fringe conspiracy theory like back masking but it’s becoming mainstream. A QAnon true believer will very likely be the next Congressional representative from Georgia. And QAnon followers have hijacked a hashtag for a real anti-child trafficking organization called Save the Children, which has made it more difficult for that and other anti-trafficking groups to get out their message and save actual children. Now, that’s demonic, just not in the way QAnon believers think it is. 

Who is this Satan that has been so real for so many people for so long? A very brief history of Satan:

Satan as we think of him is more or less a no-show in the Hebrew Scriptures. When he does appear, he’s under God’s command and often plays the role of a prosecuting attorney whose duty is to accuse human beings of disobedience and prosecute them before the Most High. And, in fact, the word Satan is an English version of a Hebrew word whose literal meaning is “adversary.” Or, as church historian Elaine Pagels puts it, Satan plays the role of a roving intelligence agent — a kind of Divine spy — who makes sure that people are really obedient and loyal to God. This is the role played by Satan when he takes his star turn in the book of Job, where he tests this most faithful of men to see how loyal to God he really is.

But then something happens to Satan around the time the last books of the Hebrew Scripture are being written. The Hebrew people were colonized by the Persian Empire and were exposed to their more dualistic theology. Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Persian Empire, believed that there was a good deity and an evil deity and that they were in competition with each other.  They each had their minions: The good deity had the heavenly hosts, and the bad deity had demons. They are both competing for your attention, your belief, your loyalty. These ideas begin to get incorporated into Jewish theology, especially into its more apocalyptic strains. 

As I mentioned not too long ago in a sermon, the word “apocalypse” means to reveal or unveil. It means to see what’s really happening underneath the illusions a society holds. So, apocalyptic thought — in both the Jewish and Christian tradition — seeks to reveal the good and evil powers that vie for people’s attention and loyalty.  As Scripture scholar Wes Howard-Brook says, “apocalyptic literature became a vessel for protest against accommodation to empire and for the proclamation of Yahweh’s alternate vision of harmonious life on earth among people and between people and creation” (from Come Out, My People: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond). So apocalyptic literature is a kind of protest speech that points to the life-or-death struggle between the Kingdom of Satan, who becomes the personification of empire, of the way of death vs. the Kingdom of God, which is the way of life.

This is way Satan is understood by the time we get to the Gospel stories of Jesus. Satan is no longer God’s prosecuting attorney under God’s command, Satan is that which is antithetically opposed to God and God’s ways. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted by… Satan. Jesus resists Satan’s temptation to seize economic, political and religious power, and this beginning sets up the Kingdom of heaven vs. Kingdom of Satan conflict that will unfold throughout the Gospels. Satan and his demons will frequently appear in the New Testament and especially in apocalyptic books like Revelation, where Satan appears as the supernatural ruler of the Roman Empire and the ultimate cause of all evil in the world.

Now, let’s also be clear that this apocalyptic language — this idea that people are either on the side of God or on the side of Satan — was not just used against the Roman Empire. This language is also used by Jews against other Jews in the New Testament. Pharisees will accuse followers of Jesus of being under the influence of Satan; Jesus and his followers will accuse the Pharisees of the same — “brood of vipers” being one of the Gospels’ favorite metaphors for them. Both the Pharisees and the Jesus movement were hoping to attract folks to their movement; they are competing for the hearts and minds of the people. And, like all intra-group fighting, it can get ugly — and you need look no further than our recent Democratic primary to get the dynamic present here.

Unfortunately, as Christianity becomes separated from its Jewish roots and then especially when Christianity becomes the state religion of the Roman Empire, Christian leaders will use this demonizing language in the New Testament to justify anti-Semitism, with the horrible consequences of which we are all aware. And throughout the centuries, imperial Christianity will turn this demonizing vocabulary against a wide range of enemies. The Crusades will demonize Muslims; the Inquisition will demonize Jews, Muslims, and heretics; the witch trials will demonize women; the papal edicts known as the Doctrine of Discovery will demonize all “pagans,” thus justifying slavery and colonization.

Things don’t get better with the Protestant Reformation, either. In the 16th century, Martin Luther — founder of Protestant Christianity — will denounce as “’agents of Satan’ all Christians who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, all Jews who refused to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, all who challenged the power of the landowning aristocrats by participating in the Peasants War, and all ‘protestant’ Christians who were not Lutheran” — including the Anabaptists, for whom Luther had a particular hatred.  (Quote from Elaine Pagels’ book The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics)

So, how about we retire the idea of Satan once and for all? Doesn’t it just lead to us demonizing each other in an endless cycle of dehumanization?  Doesn’t it just lead to more walls — like the ones we heard about in the children’s story? Shall I take another poll? 

At one point in my life, I would have given a hearty “yes” to that question. The idea of Satan I grew up with was, frankly, a bit silly and an obviously blatant attempt to control behaviors and ideas people didn’t like, like listening to rock music or questioning religious beliefs.  But as I got older, I got to know people — some in our congregation — who have had experiences with what I can only call “the dark side” that are not easily rationalized away and certainly weren’t silly. Hmmm… Are there spiritual realities out there that I am not aware of but that might exist?

And I also started reading psychologists like Carl Jung and theologians like Walter Wink who believe in Satan and demons but in a different way than the guy who talks to you through “Stairway to Heaven.” Wink believes that there are real and powerful demonic forces in the world that influence it toward evil. That demons are real and not just the evil that we do. But Wink does not believe that these “powers and principalities” are personal beings — he believes they are social realities, systems that oppress and exploit people like militarism and poverty and white supremacy and the despoiling of nature. Wink calls these dominations systems. And in his theology, Satan is the name of the world-encompassing spirit of that Domination System.

However, even if we could snap our fingers and magically end these domination systems,  that would not mean that that evil would just end, that Satan would have been cast out. In Wink’s Biblically-based theology, militarism and poverty and white supremacy are just the outer manifestations of an inner spirit or driving force in us. So there’s an outer and inner aspect to these dominations systems. Unless we become aware of that inner spirit or driving force and address it— those inner demons that animate and legitimate militarism and poverty and white supremacy — then these “demonic” forces will continue to reproduce themselves. I think we see this as we look at the history of white supremacy in this country. After 250 years, slavery was abolished. Woohoo! But it didn’t take long for the demonic spirit known as white supremacy to morph into Jim Crow and then into mass incarceration and then into police brutality. It’s the same story with our country’s relationship with Indigenous people.

I tend to think of the demonic as the will to power — the will to dominate — that exists in each one of us, along with the capacity to love and be compassionate. When that will to power infests groups of people who then create social structures that concretize domination and who create philosophies or theologies to legitimate that domination — then evil powers have come into the world. These powers are bigger than we are and are hard to eradicate once loosed upon the world. They become normalized, even, hidden within the larger structures of our society. Just the way things are. In this way, the “old-fashioned” idea of Satan had some wisdom, perhaps: Satan, understood as the name of the world-encompassing spirit of the Domination System, is alive, he is active, and he is constantly trying to tempt you. He is tricky, he is deceitful; and you may be under his influence without even knowing it.

Our job as Jesus’ followers, then, is to follow his lead in unmasking these powers, naming them and engaging them. Our job is to put on the “whole armor of God” and to use the spiritual power we’ve been given to stand against these demonic, death-dealing powers without demonizing the people who perpetuate these systems.  “For our struggle,” to quote our Scripture, “is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Amen.