Blaming the Devil: Empathy and Responsibility

Interviews I've given regarding my new book Reviving Old Scratch are continuing to appear online. Let me point you to two different ones as each one gets into issues and topics related to the book that prior interviews didn't explore.

The first is a podcast interview with Todd Littleton for his Patheological podcast. Among other things, Todd and I got into my claim in the book that "standing around and drinking bad coffee is saving the world."

The other is an interview with Josh de Keijzer at the online magazine HelloChristian.

In that interview with Josh I raise a point from the book about how a recovery of spiritual warfare can help us become more peaceable. As I describe very briefly with Josh, but give a fuller treatment in Reviving Old Scratch, when our struggle against evil is wholly disenchanted all that is left on the stage of moral drama are human beings. Moral action then becomes "the good guys" taking control of the world away from "the bad guys." In that disenchanted moral struggle our battle reduces to a battle against flesh and blood.

When Jesus faced that flesh-on-flesh conflict in the gospels--the violent antagonism between Roman and Jew--he deflected the hostilities of each group away from flesh and blood toward a common enemy, the Satan. Spiritual warfare became about establishing the kingdom of God in our midst, a uniquely spiritual and political struggle to lift up the least of these while embodying enemy love.

All that is just one point I make in Reviving Old Scratch about why we might want to recover a vision of spiritual warfare.

However, one bit of pushback I've gotten along these lines is nicely summarized by Kyle Roberts in his post "Richard Beck Wants to Bring the Devil Back (Sort of)."

Kyle writes:
The problem with that isn’t so much that we minimize human responsibility for evil acts (regardless of our metaphysics of evil, we’re pretty good at demonizing people and punishing them for bad deeds). Instead, the problem may be that, if we lay the blame on evil, supernatural agents, we may not take the time and effort to understand, from the natural side of things, why it is that we do bad things. What are the systemic, social, psychological–which is to say, natural–causes the lead up to evil acts? The answer can’t simply be, “the devil made me do it.”
I think Kyle is right. Two quick thoughts.

First, when it comes to spiritual warfare, the devil and demons in particular, it's really, really hard to keep the conversation situated in a healthy middle ground. Theologically, this subject seems really prone to excesses. The two extremes I mainly deal with in Reviving Old Scratch are the extreme progressive/liberal position that finds any talk about the devil or demons completely awkward, dangerous or superstitious versus the extreme Pentecostal, charismatic position that sees a demon under every rock. If we could attend closely to the Bible there is a huge, largely unexplored, middle ground between these two views. Reviving Old Scratch tries to cultivate something in this middle ground.

Kyle points to a different extreme that I don't go a whole lot into in the book. So a thought about that here.

On the one hand you have the view I'm concerned with, a wholly disenchanted political struggle to bring about the kingdom of God that effectively reduces social justice to a Nietzschean "will to power." As I point out in Reviving Old Scratch, Satan made Jesus that exact offer, and Jesus declined. A point many social justice minded Christians seem to forget.

But if we swing the pendulum too far the other way, we can radically weaken human moral agency, giving too much weight to the influence of the devil and demons. We wind up with "the devil made me do it."

So how do we navigate that middle ground?

One way is to make a distinction between the first- and third-person.

When I talk about this issue in Reviving Old Scratch I'm mainly talking about the third-person, extending grace and mercy to other people. As I argue it, we find empathy for each other when we come to realize "There, but for the grace of God, go I." We recognize how fragile virtue can be in the face of formidable--psychological, social, political, economic, world-historical--forces. True, there are moral heroes out there. But they are heroes because they are rare.

All that to say, attending to the power of these forces creates a capacity for empathy when we observe moral failure in others. The devil works in the third-person. The devil made you do it.

But the devil made me do it? The devil doesn't work as well in the first-person as it absolves us of moral culpability and responsibility.

The issue is this. Our virtue is walking upwind. Love isn't easy, especially not the cruciform love of Jesus. We recognize the force of these very real winds. So when we see others falter and fail we get it. People get blown off their feet. So we extend them grace and lend them a hand.

So the winds are real, but we're called to stand and fight. The problem with the appeal "the devil made me do it" isn't that you've invoked the devil, it's that you've laid down and abandoned the fight. You've let the winds take you. And that's the exact opposite of spiritual warfare.

Spiritual warfare isn't blaming the devil.

Spiritual warfare is the fight.

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