Monday, June 20, 2022

To warn or to explain. . .

The reality of evil, of organized evil, and of the evil one seems to be one of the casualties of our estimation of ourselves as erudite, educated, and urbane people.  Oh, sure, we invoke the usual condemnations of evil upon the causes du jour -- injustice, unwokeness, and inequality.  But that does not mean we think much of evil the way Scripture or Christianity in its earlier years judged it.  Even Lutherans are somewhat embarrassed by the ranting and raving of Luther in his cell against the devil and his works and ways.  

We tend to play with evil rather than take it seriously.  Take, for example, how Salem has catapulted its once shameful past with witches into a money making industry that brings tourists and dollars to the city.  Far from hiding this past, it is celebrated -- even in temples dedicated to witchcraft and such.  And Christians line up to visit the sites and entertain themselves with something that ought not to be so amusing.

For the modern imagination, “Satan” and “satanic” are merely heightened metaphors for evil.  When we say "Hitler was satanic” we do not actually mean that the devil and his forces worked in him and through him but merely to describe the depth of his personal depravity.  For this reason the toys of the dark arts have been rendered harmless -- less harmless, in fact, than the forces of Christianity against Islam in the Crusades or the oppression of homosexuality.  The old evil is imagined, in the mind of modernity, and the new evil labeled according to the prejudice of the moment is real.

It does not help when Christians try to explain the evils of history or of the moment by conjuring up conspiracy theories from the great abyss.  Of course, the devil is working in our world but this is no mere competition for dominance.  The goal of Satan is not a world but the person.  What better way to accomplish this than to diminish the idea of a personal evil -- for then one does not need a personal God.  

We see evidence of evil and the evil one all around us but an appeal to Satan is not necessary to explain everything.  The evil and evil one have only the power over us we surrender to him -- whether in ignorance or deliberately.  Vladimir Putin has become the new Hitler for what was done in Ukraine.  But the evil one does his best not by the obvious.  Rather, his power lies in the shadows rather than center stage and in the subtlety of the moment rather than the obvious.  And that is precisely where we are most vulnerable and where the Great Tempter has the advantage.  Our world has no trouble insisting that the evidence and explanation of evil is found in the savagery of barbaric military assaults on the innocent or in the kidnapping, enslavement, and sex trafficking of children or in the oppression of those whose desires are not deemed normal or the minorities who live with a gender other than the one reflected in their bodies.  But we have the harder task of calling attention to evil not to explain but to warn and to call to repentance.  And that is consistent with Jesus.

The people wanted to explain the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, for example, but Jesus refused to simply explain why this happen and instead used it to call them to repentance.  This is what will happen to you if you do not repent.  The problem is that even Christians are fascinated with evil and preoccupied with evil as an explanation rather than its presence to warn and call to repentance.  We are like the child who knows the hot stove will burn but who is drawn to touch it anyway.  Those who serve us in God's name call out evil not to explain so that we might comprehend how the devil and his works and ways operate but rather to warn and call us to repentance for failing to take evil seriously, for playing with evil as if it were a benign toy for our amusement, and for its power to dominate our ears with the whispers of desire instead of the blunt and clear voice of the Gospel.  Horns and hooves and pointy tails are not the problem.  We are.  He has only the power we concede to him but, as Luther well reminded, one little word can fell him.

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