Rehabilitating Satan

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2001

Since the 18th century Enlightenment, western modernity has ridiculed the notion of an intelligent power of evil separable from us yet bent upon our destruction, and has optimistically trusted in the power of reason to deliver Utopia. Post modernism has lost confidence in reason and banished all optimism, but remains closed to any spiritual dimension. Both God and Satan remain banished from the media discourse of most of those who seriously debate human affairs – including the question of where the world may be going. Even Christian theologians, although defensive of God, seem often slightly embarrassed by the question of Satan – as though he were a kind of demented and distant relation with obscure and unmentionable, and maybe even absurd, criminal tendencies who is best forgotten.

The fact that Hollywood has enthusiastically adopted this embarrassing relative doesn’t help matters. As lascivious progenitor of a human Antichrist bent upon world domination he becomes merely ridiculous – even more so than Dracula, Dr No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Yet the pervasiveness of evil in our time – never more horrifically demonstrated than on September 11th, 2001 – defies our expertise, and whatever optimism we can still muster. The West’s technological sophistication – quite capable of ending global deprivation – was turned against it with terrifying effect. America, ‘land of the free’, was attacked as though it was a global tyranny to be fought by the most merciless of means.

‘Diabolical’ we may say – at a loss for words of sufficient force – even while knowing that it is the demonisation of America by militant Islam that explains that day. That is, when we humans decide that any physical entity is ‘the root of all evil’, we will justify any means to destroy it – and that attempt becomes itself an archetype of evil. Nazism justified the Shoa in precisely the same way – ‘international Jewry’ had supposedly conspired against and humiliated Germany during and after World War 1, so its destruction was a holy duty. Yet this systematic attempt to destroy an entire people became itself the archetypal example of ‘diabolical’ evil in modern times.

Accusation is the essence of the demonisation process – the loading of blame onto a specific human target. If we identify the specifically demonic act as one of accusation we can make use of the insights of René Girard (succinctly presented in a recent post-retirement work *) both to interpret what is happening, and to predict what lies down the road. Girard the anthropologist needs to do no more than minutely describe a repetitive process of mimetic rivalry, accusation, violence and concealment to justify his theories. Christian faith can go beyond this to accuse the spirit of evil, Satan, which lies behind this process, tempting us to accuse one another.

The USA’s finger was within hours of the US catastrophe pointed at Osama bin Laden, catapulting him to world notoriety and, apparently, global Islamic fame. Within a month western high explosive – often with ‘NYPD’ painted on the casing – was ‘rearranging the rubble’ in Afghanistan, and causing much ‘collateral damage’. Soon Osama bin Laden was in turn accusing the USA of being the source of all that is wrong in the Islamic world, and urging Jihad.

What I propose here is simply that mutual demonisation is an inevitable consequence of the banishment of Satan, understood as ‘the accuser’ – the spirit of accusation – from human discourse. That is, if we fail to see the resort to mutual accusation as the imitative demonic process common to protagonists on the brink of conflict, and to stand apart from it, we, almost consciously, join the dance of death. Our common enemy is this spirit of accusation, busy on both sides. Unrecognised it operates freely through us – raising our arm to point in accusation, and to hurry us to arms. And once we use them we will, knowingly now, validate one another’s accusations. Thus Satan the accuser becomes also Satan the destroyer.

“How can Satan drive out Satan?” Jesus asked. Unless the accused is totally alone and powerless, the result of accusation is invariably counter-accusation. We have seen this law survive thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland, perfectly intact. It is the veritable source of human historical inertia, the repetitive resort to violence. It would be catastrophic if this same dynamic were now to polarise the West and Islam.

Of course accusation to be plausible will usually seek, and find, justification for itself. Bin Laden’s direct part in the September 11th atrocity may be hard to prove conclusively in court, but it fits perfectly his openly espoused programme of killing Americans wherever they can be found, and he explicitly approved and exulted in the attack afterwards. Moreover his wealth and energy will inevitably place him somewhere in the paths of some of the perpetrators, and in the weave of events, leading to the disaster.

But the purpose of accusation is more than to apportion blame. It also deflects attention from the accuser – often in a crisis likely to reflect badly upon that accuser. Bin Laden did precisely the same in forecasting US atrocities in Afghanistan as a means of winning support in Pakistan, and of deflecting attention from the appalling scale and manner of death in Washington and New York.

To date I have not heard any US politician ask why the appalling weaknesses in US internal air security, spotted by the plotters probably as early as 1996, were not eliminated by those charged with this responsibility by the Washington administrations of both Bill Clinton and George Bush. Could the reason be that both of the great American political parties have been catastrophically remiss – for purely wealth-driven reasons? And when the plight of the Palestinians is raised as a cause of Islamic fundamentalist wrath, the hawkish response is to allege that some kind of moral equivalence is being argued. To placate American opinion – severely shocked by this unprecedented blow to its heart – the military hardware they finance through taxation must be put in motion eastwards, even if this does cause further havoc among the desperately poor of Afghanistan. As I write, Americans wait for some kind of dénouement there in the arrest of Bin Laden – so the deflective power of accusation is still doing its job.

The best of all lessons on the proper Christian approach to accusation is the story of the woman accused of adultery in the Temple, in Jesus’ presence. He did not address the accusation, but the accusers. Accusation deflects attention and focuses anger elsewhere by implying a moral imbalance between accuser and accused. Not only is the accused guilty, the accuser is also innocent. The scapegoating violence that normally followed such a charge was intended to envelop Jesus also – either in complicity or opposition. His direct appeal to the self-knowledge of the accusers – and to their knowledge of one another – prevented the throwing of the initial and always fatal stone.

To allude to Satan then in this context is to point to the power of the spirit of accusation in unifying one community against another. Evils exist both in a seriously sick western culture that threatens an unmodernised Islam, and in an Islamic fundamentalism that naively scapegoats America – and these must both be addressed.

When addressing the problems of the west – especially an unbounded and glorified consumerism that unbalances the world and threatens its environment – we may be temped to resort to the accusatory word ‘greed’, especially in relation to America. Yet the Bible does not make this accusation. Again it places the blame for all our weaknesses upon a spiritual entity that tempts us, without being an essential part of us. ‘You shall be as Gods!’ – this is the original temptation: to forsake the obscurity and dependence of the creature for the glory and power of the creator. To say ‘yes’ to this temptation is to admit the spirit of material dissatisfaction and ambition – the very core of Western economic dynamism and military power.

When the artist known as Madonna can assert that she will continue her career until she is ‘better known than God’, she unwittingly validates completely this biblical diagnosis of what is wrong with all of us. Our self-regard depends more and more upon the degree to which we suppose we are regarded by others – and this is the root source of our acquisitiveness. Possessions are the social symbols of success, of ‘worth’, and money the means by which these symbols are to be acquired. Celebrity is the final seal: ‘I am known by millions, therefore I exist’.

The Enlightenment was therefore entirely wrong in supposing that the concepts of sin and Satan are an indictment of humankind. Instead they are a means by which the perennial evils we visit upon one another are explained in terms that deny us the right to accuse one another, and also offer us the means of a full reconciliation, in mutual respect.

Thus when President Bush tells an American audience ‘we are the greatest nation on earth’ we need not say ‘There you are – American arrogance and imperialism!’  We can say instead that in a moment when American self-respect has been seriously damaged the temptation to hyperbole has proved irresistible. And when bin Laden identifies America as the root of all evil we can ask ‘What role, then, does Satan, the tempter, play in your theology?’

And when right and left fall into separate bitter camps over the relative evil of ‘terrorist’ and state violence we can point out that the debate needs to move on – to identify the spirit of self-exculpation and accusation in both camps as the root of the problem. Islamic societies seem to be as easily deflected from the horrors of September 11th as Americans are from the sufferings of Palestinians and other Muslims due to Western failure.

There is no doubt that otherwise we must all seek a violent righteousness – a position of moral unassailability from which we can indict everyone else. We will continue forever demonising one another until we can recognise that the temptation to do so – a temptation that is resistible – affects us all, afflicts us all, but is nevertheless separable from our better selves. And this tempter has the same name in both the Bible and the Quran.

  * I See Satan Fall like Lightning : René Girard (Orbis Books, New York, 2001)

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