"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, August 24, 2009

The enemy of my enemy....

The interesting thing about Pagels' thesis is that Satan is not the enemy who threatens us from without (a la Milton's Satan, in particular), but the enemy who threatens us from within. From within the community, that is, not within the psyche. Satan, in Pagels' explanation, is not some division of the soul into light and dark, but the fear that those closest to us are the ones capable of doing us the greatest harm, of being the gravest threat because they will betray us. In Pagels' account Satan is not the tempter (that's Milton), but the traitor, the one we trust when we shouldn't. It is this intimacy of the enemy that makes the idea of Satan particularly relevant just now.

First, let me step back and put this discussion in context. In seminary one doesn't really learn much about Satan; unless you study the book of Job, there really isn't much reason to pay attention to the character at all. Satan makes his longest "appearance" in the Gospel of Luke, and even there one could argue over a distinction between the tempter in the wilderness and the "powers of darkness" which Luke mentions later (Pagels easily conflates the two, and insists the latter is merely a metaphor for the former; I disagree). Most of the mentions of Satan in Matthew and Mark are also limited to the temptation in the wilderness. John makes no mention of Satan at all, (nor of the temptation sequence), but refers repeatedly to what is clearly a cosmic battle between Good and Evil, and also clearly identifies "evil" with "the Jews" (though whether he means dwellers in Judea, as the Romans did by the Greek word John uses, or the children of Abraham, is a bit harder to pin down). But there aren't that many refernces to Satan in the New Testament (most of the writings about Satan are non-canonical and more developed in the Middle Ages literature), so it's not a prime topic of seminary study.

Which means what I learned in seminary was pretty much what I'd heard before seminary, including the notion that Satan was brought into Christianity through contact with Zoroastrianism by some vague route at some indefinite time. Turns out that isn't true at all, though I know that more by Pagels' silence than by her treatment of the topic. Satan, that argument went, was a concept that violated the radical monotheism of Judaism. But that argument assumes the radical monotheism of Judaism dates back to the days of Moses, if not Abraham, and was strictly adhered to from the beginning. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, especially since it was the Essenes who contributed the idea of an enemy to God and to God's people (i.e., the Essenes; the "enemy" were the Jews who were not Essenes; more on that in a moment), an enemy they called "satan," to the religious vocabulary eventually adopted by Christians. Which is not to say the Essenes were the sole source of ideas about Satan, but they were very observant Jews who conceived of a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil, a struggle in which they were foot-soldiers. Today we might insist, with Job, that if we accept good from God we must accept evil, too (a basic principle of radical monotheism; otherwise "God" does get split into dueling powers, even if one is not quite rival to the other [again, see Milton. Lucifer is powerful, but there's never any question who has the real power in Milton's cosmos]). But the Essenes declared God good, and those who followed God's requirements as strictly as they did, good; and that made other children of Abraham apostate, or "evil." It also meant the real enemy was not the Romans, or the Gentiles more generally; it was the members of the community whose beliefs and practices didn't measure up to Essene standards. The enemy was an intimate one, and that made the danger all the worse, because only those intimate to you, can betray you.

You can see almost immediately how Satan becomes, from this, the tempter, the seducer, the one who persuades you to act against your own best interests. Your enemy can't do that; but your friend can. Your enemy is opposed to you; your friend wants what's best for you. Until it turns out your friend is Iago, who declares in the opening of "Othello": "I am not what I am." A better reversal of the statement of identity to Moses by the Burning Bush is hard to imagine. And, of course, the relationship of Creator to created is (or should be) an intimate one; so the perversion of that relationship is equally so. And it is the one you trust who can lead you to your destruction; or to your salvation: "I am God Almighty. Live always in my presence and be blameless, so that I may make my covenant with you and give you many descendants." (Genesis 17:1b, REB). The covenant promises blessing, but requires righteousness. No one can lead Abraham astray (he is a patriarch!), and as Krister Stendahl would argue, before Augustine's confessions no one can really imagine themselves pitted against themselves. The temptation that betrays you, then, that leads you astray from the righteousness the covenant commands, must come from another source, and not necessarily a powerful source; simply a destructive one, an intimate one; an internal one. Internal to the group, if not to the individual.


It's telling that Satan is never personal in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is Abram who is afraid, on his travels, and always presents Sarai as his sister, not his wife. It is David who lust after Bathsheba, not she who lures him (or a demon out to beset David's throne). Satan never appears, anxious to undo what looks like a good thing. In Job Satan merely acts as a questioner, a challenger; an adversary in the sense of someone who merely raises questions, not one seeking to upset God's order and sew chaos in Creation (again, that's the Satan of Paradise Lost). That Satan merely asks the same question Ecclesiastes asks after the uplifting and almsot-bourgeois sentiments of Proverbs: but what about pain and suffering, and the role they play? People are the source of their problems in the Hebrew stories (even in Job; at least, according to his friends); just as they are in the Greek tragedies. "Othello" violates the most basic rule of Aristotle's theory of tragedy, because it employs an antagonist, an enemy, a person bent on the destruction of the title character, and that aim is the plot and purpose of the entire play. But it is the intimacy of the antagonist that marks the enemy from the "satan." It is the personal interest Satan takes in the Gospel stories, the temptation in the wilderness, that marks the change in the understanding of who the "tempter" is, and who is tempted. But, as Pagels shows, that change pre-dates the Gospel writers, and even Paul.

I say "even Paul" because we too easily forget that, without Paul, there might well be no Gospels. Without Paul, there might have been no gospels to collect, no communities of believers to produce them, no preservation of a record of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, because if the Christian church had not developed as primarily a Gentile organization, it might not have developed at all. And yet that development, as exemplified in the youngest of the Gospels, the Gospel of John, depended in part on demonizing the Jews by those Jews who converted to Christianity, much as the Essenes demonized their brothers in order to preserve their purity (and justify their belief system). As Pagels implies in her study of the social implications of creating an intimate enemy, there wasn't a great deal of support for a "Christian" church among Jews, and Paul was the great apostle to the Gentiles, so despite the shoes of the fisherman, it is more to the Pharisee that we owe the records of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. And it is to those records, as Dom Crossan pointed out a few years after Pagels' book, that we owe much of the anti-Semitism that has plagued Western civilization. But, as Pagels points out, that animosity burned because of the "intimate enemy" perceived to be present at the birth of what became the Christian church as it separated from the children of Abraham.

They didn't invent this enemy, however, so much as bring it with them. Pagels goes into greater detail than I can here, relating the pressures and stresses and communities among the Hebrews ("Jews" is a later appelation, and at the time of Jesus of Nazareth down to the writer of the Gospel of John (ca. 90-100 C.E.), was still a term more applicable to "dwellers in Judea" than to a people ("race" is an even later anachronism)) that led to group being pitted against group, much as Protestant denominations are to this day (some against other Protestants, some against the Roman Catholic church, some against everybody else at once!). The intimate enemy had deep roots by the time Christians began writing their gospels under Roman rule, and Roman rule played a large role in how those stories were told, especially the passion narratives. By and large they defer responsibility away from Pilate, or by Luke and John (the youngest gospels), put it almost entirely on the Jewish leadership, making Pilate what he most decidedly was not in reality: a helpless pawn. In fact, Pilate was finally removed from his governorship for ruling too harshly, for being too willing to use power over the populace, for executing with too free a hand. Unlike the picture painted by Luke, Pilate would have crucified Jesus of Nazareth without a second thought. But when you are a community caught between the established religious power of the Pharisees (after the Temple had been destroyed) and the Roman empire, it's wiser to blame the Pharisees for your problems, rather than the Romans. As the crucifixion of Jesus shows, Rome treated any complaints about its power with a rather heavy hand.

So once again, the enemy is intimate, since any knowledge of the teachings of Jesus would not only necessarily come from Hebrews, but also require knowledge of Hebrew history and religious practice to fully understand. To this day Christians don't have to practice circumcision or keep kosher to understand Christian doctrines, but they do need to be aware of what most call "the Old Testament." It was no different when all that existed were house churches, and people were just beginning to piece together a coherent narrative of this Nazarene in whose name they worshipped. But where Paul's starting point was the crucifixion, that had to be the ending point for the narratives; which meant that crucifixion had to be put into context, and it had to be explained as something more than a theological matter. There also had to be an explanation as to why Jesus taught solely the children of Abraham, while Gentiles seemed to be the ones most interested in adopting his teachings. Differences and divisions must be explained, and when the explanation involves concepts like "holiness", it's easy to see how the discussion quickly turns to "pure" and "impure." And when the distinction between you and me comes down only to a matter of doctrine, to a distinction between who we call "holy," and why, it's much easier to make that distinction stick if one choice is good, and the other choice is....bad.

It didn't have to go that way, of course, but it did go that way; and assessing fault is another game we have neither the space nor the expertise for. Suffice to say there was enough blame to go around (and the Christians, as I say, learned this kind of demonizing from the Essenes and other Judean groups; this as an intimate enemy, not a Persian one), and when the Christians finally got a chance to wield it as a club, to their discredit they did so willingly. Like Pagels, I'm more interested in the social issue here: it is the intimate enemy, the traitor in the group, the satan, who represents the most powerful force, the darkness that is always present even in the midst of the light, the danger that is the worst because it is the one you have let in, and the danger that is greatest not because it endangers you, but because it endangers the group as a whole.

Even in the gospels, when Satan enters into Judas to tempt him personally to betray Jesus, it is a betrayal that strikes at the heart of the community of believers: not just the twelve disciples, but all the followers of Jesus of Nazareth (the women were never deemed disciples, yet they are present at the tomb in all four narratives). When believers are tempted in the early chapters of Acts, it is the community that is threatened, not their individual souls. Satan is still not about leading invidual souls to hell; Satan is about danger to the group, to the community; danger from the most vulnerable place of all: within. It is the intimacy of the enemy that always makes the "satan" the greatest risk.

Which brings us, with a jerk, to the present. The Japanese were demonized in World War II on the fear they would be an intimate enemy. German speakers in America were demonized in World War I. But our enemies in the 20th century were almost always from outside, from across the oceans that had made "Fortress America." And then, in the Cold War, the enemy was within: within the State Department, within Hollywood, within our TV sets. After 9/11, we had an enemy again, and the enemy within was such a threat we rounded up thousands on no basis at all other than sheer fear. But today, what drives the "birthers" and the "deathers" and the "Obama is a Nazi!" screamers, is the same fear of the intimate enemy, the one within our borders, the one in the very seat of power. Because he is black? Probably. But certainly because he is other; and the other we fear most, is the one closest to us, and the one who endangers the largest number of "us." That one, that "other," we label: "satan."

It's why racism is so virulent in America, to this day. Long ago, we kidnapped and forced people to come to this country, and immediately became dependent on their labor. Without them, the South was nothing. We depended on them, just as we depended on wave up on wave of immigrants to continue to furnish the raw material for the "American experiment," the "American dream." And so we've always had a love/hate relationship with strangers, and with change. We have to let them in, we tell ourselves, so we can flourish. We cannot let them in, because they mean change. Today we simultaneously depend on "illegal aliens," even as we despise them. And when we crank the fear up high enough, we demonize them. It is the "intimate enemy" who is the most dangerous; the one you most depend on, who presents the greatest danger to you; and that great danger, is betrayal. But betrayal not of me, or you; betrayal of the society. The risk the "satan" presents is not personal; it is on the order of Greek tragedy. It is the risk to the society. Which is why demonization works best with an angry mob.

What we are talking about here is the heilige, the holy (somehow Derrida's use of the German word always seems more appropriate to me), though nobody quite wants to put it that way. But how else do you understand this, for example?

In this tradition there is no interest at all in the unity of the institutional church. What is of interest is the exact opposite: to clarify the distinction between true Christians and everybody else, and to ensure that one's own church is entirely governed by true Christians. It is this ecclesiology which responds to the fact that one of Anglicanism's 800 bishops is an open homosexual by treating it as urgent crisis needing to be resolved immediately.
Appropriate language in a discussion of ecclesiology, to be sure, although dangerous as nitroglycerin. In secular circles, we get comments like: "I want my country back!" Which is an almost peculiarly American plaint, given the current circumstances (i.e., we hardly verge on the collapse of government or civil order). America is an idea, not really a country. If we find we don't all agree about how, politically, America should be handled, then we are perpetually on the verge of "tearing the country apart." And if we are always about to tear the country apart, or take away someone's constitutional (it's never civil) rights, then the society is done for. And the threat that will do this is always: the intimate enemy. It's the people in power, in true power: Congress, the White House. And the distinction which must always be drawn is between "true Americans" and "everybody else," and only the "true Americans" can govern. So Obama was born in Kenya; or he was born in Hawaii, but 6% of Americans aren't sure Hawaii is a state in America. The enemy must never be one of us; he must only seem to be one of us; and the more so, the more dangerous he is, the more "other" he must remain.

Transferring this "argument" to the political realm raises the question: how, then, should we respond? Obama's much maligned response has been to seek reconciliation even as his offers are rebuffed. For this he has been much derided, much despised. But it's an interesting response to demonization and vilification, and it raises the question: what is the better response? To react to the demonizers with a show of raw power? To do all within your ability to squash them, prove to them you are an enemy not to be f*cked with? Or do you prove to them, over and over again, even as they don't evidently learn the lesson, or even recognize the lesson, that you are not an enemy, not a "satan"?

I'm not sure, but it's an interesting response; and equally interesting has been the response to the response, and not just from Obama's political enemies.


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