A devil is a story that sneaks into our consciousness and tempts us to follow its story line. It is like the script in a play.
For example, I accidentally see a pornographic image somewhere. A story pops into my head. In the story I am using the picture to produce sexual arousal in myself, a story line that could take several minutes. The story is a devil.
In the biblical book of Samuel, a spirit “rushes upon” Saul and causes him to prophesy. A story snuck into his consciousness and tempted him to follow its story line, the script of an ecstatic prophet.
There are two kinds of devils: personal and institutional. A personal devil is a story that sneaks into me as an individual. Institutional devils are what St. Paul calls “principalities and powers.” These are story lines that guide entire institutions, businesses, governments, armies. I have no control over such principalities and powers. Paul says that Jesus Christ does have control over them. At least, Jesus is with us as we suffer their effects, and brings life to us even though the principalities and powers continue to shape our shared history. In that sense, the principalities and powers cannot win out.
There is a link between a personal devil and an institutional principality or power. There are moments when I might be able to influence the institutional devil, for example, when I vote. My personal devil is a story that tells me to ignore the voting process.
The Boston politician Tip O’Neill gave us the saying “all politics is local.” This is true in the sense that we have some control over the people in our immediate physical vicinity, and it is there that the politics of the larger society take shape. If the people in my local community take seriously the task of selecting their leadership, Republican or Democratic, that will lead to the parties taking seriously the selection of state and federal representatives. When our personal devils hand us the story line that we do not have to worry about politics at any level, the institutional devils take over and we have principalities and powers that operate to do very bad things, such as allow violence to take over whole parts of our cities. The U.S. ends up with an infant mortality rate that keeps getting worse, to where it is worse than many of the poorer nations of the world. We are not taking care of our own. The principalities and powers are at work.
Terrible things are happening to people who had been living comfortable middle class lives in Syria and Afghanistan. The principalities and powers have descended upon them and destroyed their homes and driven them from their countries. If they had had a vital local political environment, perhaps such terrible things would not have happened. Was it their fault that they did not have such an environment?
Let us ask ourselves. Is it God’s graciousness that has allowed us to live in a political environment where violence is controlled and people can live with relative freedom? Or is it the vigilance of many people who reject the personal devils of non-involvement? If enough of us follow the personal devil of non-involvement, we could end up living the same story that so many other people around the world are living. Our political ancestors were very conscious of the stories of Greece and Rome, and of how those societies allowed themselves to be conquered by principalities and powers. Our founding fathers and mothers tried to set up a political system that would make it harder for the principalities and powers to take over. They continually fought against our tendency to forget the stories of what happens when we are careless. When we forget those stories, we are set up to follow the stories that lead to disaster.
We are indeed surrounded by devils. Stories float around us that tempt us to do things that destroy life rather than help us live more fully. There are principalities and powers so powerful around us that they can take over an economy and allow a tiny proportion of its people to control almost all of its resources. They come into countries like Brazil and cause people to destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of rain forest so that cattle can be raised to feed the desire of wealthier nations to enjoy hamburgers. Profit trumps God. In the name of Profit, all other values must yield. We practice idolatry no less than the people of Babylon.
But we are followers of Jesus Christ. He walked among us in a society that was ruled by the great principality and power called Rome. The book of Revelation tells the story of how the followers of Jesus deal with that Power. Jesus gave them a story more powerful than the story of the Great Satan, and the story of Jesus eventually brought down the Great Satan--for a time. The human race still lives with its devils, both personal and institutional. Every age has its Great Satan, and every age has its martyrs who are sacrificed to the Great Satan, the hundred and forty-four thousand described in Revelation.
We are a people who live in a world intended by God to be a place of justice and peace and life. But there are devils around. Jesus has shown us how to deal with devils. We deal with them by love, by respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement with the people around us, including the people who help to create the institutional principalities and powers that threaten us.
The human race now has the power to destroy itself, quickly through nuclear war, or slowly trough environmental degradation. There are devils and principalities and powers who can lead us down the path of destruction. My hope is that God will keep those devils from destroying all of us as they destroyed Jesus.
I don’t think God wants us to burn up in our own foolishness. Let us pray for deliverance from the demons that threaten us.