Wrestling not with flesh and blood…

Wrestling not with flesh and blood… February 9, 2018

Jesus commands us to love our enemies. His apostle, Paul, points out one of many techniques for helping to do that: namely, to remember that humans are, in the grand scheme of things, dupes of an even more cosmic evil than merely men:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having fastened the belt of truth around your waist, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the Evil One. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. (Eph 6:10–20).

I’m one of those primitives who has never had the slightest trouble believing in the reality of the demonic.  Jesus attests it.  So do his apostles.  The whole Tradition affirms it.  There is nothing in reason against it.  And my own personal experience bears witness to it as well.

So the idea that our world suffers from an infestation of intelligent, non-corporeal beings who have abused their free will and become implacable enemies of God, his creation, and us has always made perfect sense to me.  Proofs of a negative are, as C.S. Lewis says, hard to come by, while evidence for it is thick on the ground.  Indeed, the very skepticism of post-moderns strikes me as a startling witness of the power of the demonic to blind.  To look back on the nihilist horrors of the 20th century and conclude that radical evil is silly and mythological and non-existent is an astonishingly perverse mindset, it seems to me.

That does not mean I believe devils are to be feared under every rock.  Nor does it mean I lay awake at night fearing Satan.  Rather, it means, as Paul suggests, that we should focus on the things of God so that we are ready for attack, because attack will come on an amazingly frequent basis.

Depending on our inner disposition to God, attack can come in the form of hostility (such as in persecution, or in assault of despair, of fear, or accusation).  But it usually comes in the far more dangerous and deadly form of seduction.  Jesus is clear which we should fear more:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mt 10:28).

The devil did not inflict ruin of the fall on the human race by exterior assault, but by temptation: “Here: disobey God! It will make you Godlike!” He’s done the same ever since. Indeed, the main utility of exterior persecution in the strategems of Hell is simply to wear you down with fear or envy or anger so that you become willing to say, “Let’s hear more about the whole ‘ignore God’ thing so we can get back at those SOBs who are hurting me!”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, because I’m as subject to temptation as anybody. There are people I really find it hard not to hate. Case in point: a couple of extremely typical scenes from the freak show that is the Christianist Right in the era of Trump.

First, you have “prolife” Christianist hero Joe Arpaio, a featured speaker for the Arizona East Valley Prolife Alliance and a deeply evil man who is the widely admired founder of a system of what he himself called “concentration camps” and author of a brutal regime of cruelty to refugees, giving his fifth interview to and withholding his judgment about a rag that denies the Holocaust:

Two weeks after he announced his candidacy for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona, former sheriff Joe Arpaio gave an interview to a far-right publication that has pushed wildly anti-Semitic claims that the Holocaust was a hoax and that the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks were the result of a Jewish plot.

Arpaio talked to the American Free Press on Jan. 21, arguing for his viability as a Senate candidate and defending President Donald Trump’s agenda, according to a report from the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters. It’s at least the fifth time Arpaio has talked to the newspaper, which the Anti-Defamation League describes as “an anti-Semitic conspiracy-oriented publication.”

In an interview with HuffPost, Arpaio wouldn’t condemn American Free Press for saying that the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of other people never happened. And although he appeared to acknowledge that the Holocaust was a historical event, he said he wouldn’t comment on American Free Press or its articles claiming the Holocaust was a hoax.

“I talk to anybody,” he said. “I have an open-door policy. I don’t research every company that talks to me.”

HuffPost emphasized to Arpaio that American Free Press is an extremist and anti-Semitic publication.

“Alex Jones,” Arpaio replied, referring to the infamous InfoWars conspiracy theorist who has claimed the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax, that 9/11 was orchestrated by the U.S. government, and that juice boxes make kids gay. “Is he extreme?”

The jokes write themselves.  Sheriff Joe can’t figure out if the Holocaust is a Jew lie of those Jewish Jews or not.  But he’s still convinced that Obama was born in Kenya.  And he’s still got the passionate backing of Donald Trump, who said people marching under the banner of the swastika are “very fine people”:

And that doesn’t exhaust the the Nazi nuttiness of the Party of Trump by a long shot. It’s coming out of the woodwork all over the place. Meet congresscritter Matt Gaetz of Florida who invited a neo-Nazi named Chuck Johnson to the State of the Union:

Gaetz is a classic Christianist, using Christian imagery and jargon to score culture war points, yet having so tenuous a grasp on it that he winds up committing sacrilege and blasphemy in order to score his culture war points:

He meant the Virgin Birth but, like a lot of people, got it confused with the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, conceived without either original or actual sin. His interviewer, a Catholic, pounced and much humor ensues.

But the thing to *really* note is that the subtext of the Gaetz’ remarks is that he thinks the story of the Virgin Birth is as phony as he thinks the FBI story to be. What he means is that the FBI story is just as big a lie as the lie Mary told in order to cover up her sinful out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Because Christianism uses the forms and images of Christianity, but a cult at war with it. And in this case, all too common with the Party of Trump, the cultist is a Nazi sympathizer.

I cannot help but regard this perversion of the faith as diabolical. I think such perversion and misuse of Christian jargon and imagery in the service of a racist, neo-Nazi agenda is exactly the kind of seduction from hell that Jesus warns about and I greatly fear the destruction of many souls because of it.

Nor do I find it easy to overlook this latest manifestation of the Trumpian Freak Show as actual genuine Nazi Arthur Jones becomes the GOP candidate for Congress in Illinois.

“Oh!  But the Illinois GOP has repudiated him in the past!”

Yeah.  Funny that.  I remember when the GOP repudiated the White Supremacist they now cheer on as White Supremacist-in-Chief.  I remember just last December when the national GOP went from repudiating the child molester Roy Moore to pushing for the Faithful to support him BECAUSE ABORTION AND TAX PLAN!!!! I wonder how long till the Illinois GOP is telling the Faithful “You must support him BECAUSE ABORTION!” and Christianist liars are telling us that God uses “flawed people” like Nazis, his wonders to perform?

But that said, last week I had a troubling conversation with a man who routinely and casually used the term “demonic” to describe entire swaths of people he believed to be complicit the sin of abortion. The thing is, I agree with him that abortion is, in the words of the Church, an “abominable crime” (CCC 2271).

But as the conversation went on, it became clear that for him, it was the only sin, and that Democrats were the only sinners. It mattered not a jot that the Party of Trump had refunded Planned Parenthood five times last year. Only Democrats supported abortion and they were satanic and demonic and that was that. If you, for any reason, suggested that there could be legitimate prudential reason for supporting a Democrat in order to stop Trump (such as the fact that nothing whatsoever will change about abortion under him except that poor people will be driven to Planned Parenthood since he and his party are destroying our CHCs), that was it. You are demonic.

What about Trump’s jackboots murdering people by thirst? Doesn’t matter. Abortion is demonic. Deportation of DREAMers? Who cares? Abortion is demonic! Threats of war with North Korea, perhaps even nuclear strikes? Big deal. Abortion is demonic! But Trump and his party are the ones re-funding PP! Fake news! Abortion is demonic! Trump is prolife!

And so it ended with me accused, of course, of twisting words and with cries that I too was “Demonic!” and so forth. I don’t think this person was dishonest so much as simply blinded by their own interior narrative of Manichaean simplicity. This was the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness and you were one or the other.

Which got me thinking about the mote in my own eye. At Mass last week, the thought (which I take to be from the Spirit) crossed my mind, “Stop using the word ‘diabolical’ to describe people.” So I’m going to obey that. And I apologize for doing so.

So now I’m puzzled.  I want to avoid that language since I think it is alienating to people of good will.  But I do think certain ideas and behaviors are diabolical and that, as Paul points out, there really are powers and principalities at work in the world. I have no other categories for mindsets that look at a family torn apart by deportation with relish. Such sadistic, gratuitous glee in human anguish is redolent of the demonic. There is a principle of active cruelty there that is absent even from apologetics for abortion. I have never encountered a single abortion apologist–not one–who speaks with glee over the death of an aborted child. The most passionate abortion supporter speaks, at most, with a blind eye turned to the child. The glee is directed at the opponent of abortion, who is perceived to have been defeated in a power struggle with the woman seeking an abortion. It is, of course, a massive blind spot, but it is not spite directed a child. The child is invisible to the abortion defender. All that is visible is the woman and the adult perceived to be oppressing her.

With the brutality and cruelty of an Arpaio supporter, or an enthusiast for murdering refugees by thirst, or a Nazi enthusiast for gassing men, women, and children, there is some else happening: an eager, gloating, sadistic enjoyment of cruelty meted out to the weak. Apologetics for abortion seek to minimize the very existence of a victim: it’s just “fetal material”. The apologist does not salivate over the gruesome cruelty inflicted on the child. He ignores it. He doesn’t want to see it. He doesn’t want to think about it. He wants to argue that the good ends–“freedom” for the woman–justifies the means, and that we should pass over those means in silence and hurry on to the allegedly happy results.

With the racist enthusiast for murder by thirst, the concentration camp advocate, the Nazi marcher, the deportation sadist, things are different: they love to dwell on the videos of the agonized families torn to pieces and weeping farewell at the airport. They love the stories of Arpaio’s brutalities, they laugh at the videos of the border patrols gleefully pouring water on the ground in the hope that innocent men, women and children will die a cruel death in the desert. There is an intense, active love of evil because it is evil. There is a delight, not a shame, in transgression.

All this I regard as a sign of the presence of the diabolical, as frankly and openly anti-Christian as the Black Mass–and all the more so because, unlike with abortion typically, it is advocated by people who dare to baptize such evil as compatible with the Christian faith.

Nonetheless, that same faith is clear: I am absolutely required to distinguish the sin from the sinner, whether the sinner advocates abortion or the sadistic cruelties I describe above. More than that, I am absolutely required, not merely to forgive the sinner, but to love him.

To love him.

Damn, that’s hard. And I don’t know how to do it. There is nothing in me, nothing merely natural to me, that makes me want to. But the faith insists there is some supernatural in me that will help me if I’m willing: the Holy Spirit.

When I get stymied, sometimes go back to the people I trust, who have told me the truth in the past.  C.S. Lewis is one of these, and I find this helpful in his Mere Christianity:

“You are told to love your neighbour as yourself. How do you love yourself? When I look into my own mind, I find that I do not love myself by thinking myself a dear old chap or having affectionate feelings. I do not think that I love myself because I am particularly good, but just because I am myself and quite apart from my character. I might detest something which I have done. Nevertheless, I do not cease to love myself. In other words, that definite distinction that Christians make between hating sin and loving the sinner is one that you have been making in your own case since you were born. You dislike what you have done, but you don’t cease to love yourself. You may even think that you ought to be hanged. You may even think that you ought to go to the Police and own up and be hanged. Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”

God knoweth I say and do things I hate and am ashamed of. But I am trying to obey God within the often dim and confusing light I have. I seek light and love. And my enemies hate me and hope for my destruction instead of my salvation and reclamation instead of hoping and praying for my good. Some have actively gloated over my damnation which, they suppose, is imminent.

I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to be somebody who hopes for the failure and destruction of any person’s life. I can think of few ways more certain to ensure such a fate for myself while Jesus’ counsel to love even one’s enemies seems to me a particular powerful way to invite grace into one’s own life.

So that’s what I am at least hoping to do. I don’t really know how to do it, but I’m willing to give it a go.

I would appreciate your prayers. I’m bad at this stuff.

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