Tales of the Demonic

Last year I was sitting in the backyard typing away on my laptop. It was one of those wonderful mornings where I'm working outside with a cup of coffee and the dog running around.

Suddenly, things got very bad. I was surprised to see a man let himself into my backyard. I was startled but saw he was wearing a hard hat, a tool belt and a florescent vest. He was from the electric company and he was looking for our electric box.

Feeling cheerful I said, "Well hello, checking the meter?"

He responded, "Ummm. No sir. I'm here to shut off the power."

Shocked, I sought clarification, "Turn off the electricity!?"

"Yes sir."

"But why?"

"Lack of payment."

Now I'm really alarmed and confused, "Lack of payment? We're set up on an automatic bank draft. How could there be lack of payment?"

The man looked worried, like I was about to totally go off on him. "Sir, I can't say. All I know is that I'm supposed to shut off the power. I'm just doing my job."

I took a deep breath...

Out at the prison where I help with a bible study we get to interact on first name basis with the inmates. But the guards remain strangers. Over time the inmates share stories about guards who are unfair and hostile. My fellow volunteers share stories about guards trying to thwart the bible study, from not turning on the air conditioning for the chapel to claiming they are too understaffed to allow the study to happen.

I come to realize that the guards are ciphers to me. Lacking a personal connection with them, like the one I have with the inmates, I notice how easy feelings can be projected onto them.

Walking to the chapel, Bob, the study leader, makes a comment as we pass scores of guards leaving the prison at the end of their workshift:

"I just feel for these guards," he says, "It's hot, hard work. Plus, most of them have a second job just to make ends meet."

Suddenly, the scales fall from my eyes. I see the guards walking past me in a whole new light. They transform from anonymous and antagonistic agents to very tired mothers and fathers working two jobs to put food on the table.
A student comes into my office. She is hot from walking from office to office all over campus. She is caught up in snarl of university bureaucracy that is preventing her from graduating in a few weeks. She's visited office after office. And while people are unfailingly nice (this is a Christian campus after all) no one can help her. They just pass her on with a "Sorry, we can't help you with that. Why don't you try talking to..." Her life has become the Higher Education version of a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Now here she sits in front of me, as one of our majors, wondering if the Department of Psychology can help. I'm tempted to say "I'm sorry I can't help. Have you tried talking to...?" to fulfill my role as a cog in the machine.
Tales of the demonic.

I guess that description might seem wildly overblown. But over the last few years, after engaging with the work of people like William Stringfellow, I've been thinking a great deal about how the bureaucratic structures of the world dehumanize us.

Consider the stories above. In each of the cases human beings are not interacting directly. We are, rather, interacting through the power structures of the world. I don't know the name of the man in my backyard about to turn off my electricity. And he doesn't know my name. Our relationship is, rather, defined by our locations in a bureaucratic power structure. He's an agent of the electric company. I'm an address on his work order. That is how our relationship is defined. A relationship stripped of its humanity. And as a consequence I have to work mightily to treat this man with respect. He isn't to blame. But everything about this dehumanized interaction makes me want to yell at him. To direct my anger at him.

As I think about the prison I begin to notice, given my closer association with the inmates, that I need to take care to monitor my feelings toward the guards. Given their anonymity I can let the impressions of the inmates begin to affect my impressions. If I'm not vigilant I slip into the dehumanizing dynamics of prison life, with "guards" on one side and "prisoners" on the other. Again, the relationships become defined by the roles within the power structure.

I think of that student caught up in the bureaucratic nightmare on my campus. Most of us can identify with her plight, being shuttled from office to office from bureaucrat to bureaucrat with no one being able to help. Each person you face is very nice and would like to help, but policies and procedures have everyone's hands tied. The tragedy of the student is that those policies and procedures come to define the student's relationship with the University. She finds herself up against a "system" that doesn't seem to care. True, the people in the system care. They would love to help. But they don't have the "power" to help. The system has tied their hands. Again, the relationships have been dehumanized. The student is interacting with "offices" on campus.

The point of all this is that I'm coming to the conclusion that one of the demonic forces in modern life is how we are increasingly interacting with each other through bureaucratic systems. When I find myself yelling at the person in front of me it is very likely that I'm not really mad at this particular person. Rather, I'm yelling at an agent of the system. An agent who, after work is over, will go home to his or her family for dinner. And maybe he will stop off at a liquor store to get a drink to take the edge off. It was a bad day after all. Particularly that guy who was yelling and rude because his electricity got turned off...

Everyday we are in a battle to hold on to our humanity within a system that is dehumanizing us. Can we crack through the bureaucratic fog to see the flesh and blood people standing in front of us? The waiter. The manager. The return clerk. The bank teller. The secretary. The umpire/referee. The police officer. The bag boy. The financial aid officer. The tax agent. The coach. The school principal. The church staff member. The guy shutting your electricity off...

On and on it goes. If we are not careful, if we are not vigilant, if we are not prayerful modern life will dehumanize us. It is a demonic force that must be resisted. I keep going back to something William Stringfellow said, we must struggle to live humanely in the midst of the Fall.

To live humanely in the midst of the Fall. Because our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers in the heavenly realms. Against those forces of dehumanization that run the show but can never be localized in time or space. I can't have a heart to heart with the electric company. I'll only be able to interact with the electric company through its bureaucratic channels and agents. In the meantime, the power behind it all sits unmoved and untouched while I yell at the guy in my backyard.

Last week I ended my part of the prison bible study with these words:
There was this kid who came from a poor family. He had no good options in life so he signed up for the military. After a few years he was deployed to a conflict infested, god-forsaken desert outpost. It was the worst tour of duty he could have been assigned. It was going to be hot and dangerous. Everyday he had to live with a hostile populace who hated his presence and the very sight of his uniform. Plus, the place was swarming with insurgents and terrorists.

Anyhow, one morning the solider goes to work and finds that he's been assigned that day to a detail that is supposed to oversee the execution of three convicted insurgents. The solider shakes his head. He didn't sign up for this. His life just totally sucks. "They don't pay me enough," he thinks, "for the shit I have to do."

He doesn't know he's going to be executing the Son of God that day. He's just going to work, punching the time clock, keeping his head down. He's just trying to stay alive, get through the day, and send some money back home to Rome.

And this is why, I think, Jesus prays, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Few of us do.

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34 thoughts on “Tales of the Demonic”

  1. yep:
    my kids:WELFARE STATE WILL TAKE OF THEM(public school system)
    not a problem
    gee whiz what a wonderful life
    Antinomianism rich how does that word work...

  2. I don't think 'demonic' is too strong at all.  Racism, sexism, all types of prejudice and abuse of power have their roots in dehumanising behaviour motivated by power inequality and self-interest.  The gospel, for me, is about acknowledging my own propensity for this behaviour.

    In contrast, 'humanising' is a defining characteristic of Jesus' life and ministry.  He was always encountering people who were treated as 'types' by those around him - the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector, the sinner...  And every time, he treated each one as an individual.

  3. I agree, Andrew. The more I think about Jesus' life and teachings, and how he summed up the commandments into two primaries, and noted that love would be the defining characteristic of his followers, the more it contrasts with all things considered "Christian," which are primarily argued doctrinal positions that are void of heart, mind, soul and strength.

  4. Rich,

    I just have to say that your posts in the last few weeks have been especially premium.  This one and the last prison bible study report (about the beatitudes) have hit home, and I really appreciate your blog. 


  5. As someone who knows nothing about psychology except what he reads on this blog and wikipedia...I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the Stanford Prison Experiment in the context of this "dehumanizing" post.

    I see two basic Christian possibilities:
    1. Maintaining vigilance over our emotions and feelings to resist dehumanizing others (like you with the electric worker)
    2. Working to change the "machines." Is that even possible for us? Desirable? How?

    Thanks for making me think!

  6. Richard: I agree that social roles can put us directly into conflict.  The union shop steward and the low level management employee are locked into a struggle that is beyond them.  I am particularly familiar with one form of conflict, because I am a lawyer.  In effect, my job is to defeat the other guy wearing a suit; to maximize the recovery of one party (frequently) at the expense of another.  Depending on which side I’m on, my task might be to present you in a good light, or to use your own words to expose your mistakes and falsehoods mercilessly, creating the impression that you are a worse person than you are.  Two or more attorneys doing this for different sides results in, at best, a very rough approximation of justice.  Also, there are rules limiting how far lawyers can push the envelop.  We can’t contact the other party behind his lawyer’s back and take advantage of him.

    While social structures can be dehumanizing and hierarchies can desensitize us, it seems to me that they frequently serve a useful function.  The natural state of fallen man is utterly selfish.  You would not enjoy living where anarchy reigns.  Well recognized social obligations ameliorate this selfishness to some extent.  The Pharisees may have measured their obligations to microscopic limits, but the Law compelled some modicum of social responsibility.  

    So the problem is that life is brutish without the system, and every system has points which can be manipulated to exploit others.  In a lot of case, the best we can do is bring a little humanity into the situation.

  7. Rod, I think you make a great point that there is usefulness to the system.  Anyone trying to deny that fact would be rather oblivious. Furthermore I would agree that without the system, and man left to his own devices as such, we would be worse off.

    However, if I understand the gist of Richard's thought in this post, perhaps the next step is figuring out how to take the bureaucracy out of systems, effectively reducing the amount of "powers and principalities" inherent in interactions while trying to bring forth a radically relational way ordering society.  Obviously I have no idea how such a thing would be implemented or even what this would look like, but I also think it's safe to say that this is one of the goals towards which Jesus' ministry (ergo the whole NT) aims.  

    While I would agree that no system is perfect (or ever will be in our present situation), I think it a false dichotomy to assume that we must always accept either a conciliatory position when it comes to the way things are or surrender to anarchy.  Perhaps you didn't intend to set up that kind of necessary dyad, but I feel like that's something I run into a lot - the thought of, "well, it could be worse, and so we do what we can."  To be sure, we do have to do what we can with what we have, but, at the same time, do we not live up to the expectations we set for ourselves?

    Lest you think I'm urging towards a belief that we can actualize utopia, I'm not, but I do believe the person of Christ and the new ontological reality he ushered in is more dynamic than such a conciliatory posture.  I'm reminded of a car commercial that ran years ago that ended on a thought pertaining to inventions and innovations that went something like this: "If everyone settled for 'good enough', would anything really be good enough?"  Despite the usefulness of the present bureaucracy, I cannot help but wonder how much different our world would be if it was, in fact, ordered around the radical relationality presented through the actions of Jesus.

    In the end, though, I guess I'm full of meaningless pontification because I also believe that our world as we know it would come to a screeching halt if we were actualize Jesus' vision.  I have no answers, but I guess I'm willing to believe that somehow, some way, Jesus brought forth new possibilities.

  8. Please don't get the idea from my following comment that I missed the point of your post ... but just to add a little extra, I want to tell you about a prison guard I know (he works the night shift and not at a local Abilene unit, so I doubt he is one that you have ever seen on duty) ...

    He was the sweetest baby. When he was born, he had a big hematoma on his head where he had been pressed up against my tailbone for hours ... 

    At age 5, he went to the altar all by himself and prayed to ask Jesus come into his heart ...

    He was always for the underdog, took up for the kids that others were picking on, and was the kid that fixed other kids' broken GI Joes ...

    He has always been an avid reader but hated school ... he's been known to read the copy of the Bible left in the guard room while sitting suicide watch with a prisoner ...

    He took the job to support his wife and baby, and endured the agony of his wife abandoning him and taking the baby with her, during his first year on the job ...

    He says, "Mom, my job is just like babysitting a bunch of 12-year-olds." He is only 23. 

    Nope, he's not an angel. My heart twists when I see him with that cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He has already made serious mistakes that he is going to have to live with for many years. His dad and I would have put him through college, but for some reason mysterious to us, he dropped out with less than a year under his belt. 

    But he's still my baby ... and I'm totally OK with the inmates not knowing that about him. I want him to be safe, and I think it's part of their training that "safe" means to a certain extent "aloof" and "tough."

  9. Hi Kim,
    I appreciate this. It helps make the point so very well.

    As I try to live out the stuff I write about in this post I have a little trick I use. When I interact with someone I think to myself, "This is someone's father, mother, son, or daughter." Or, as you say it, "This is someone's baby."

    Such thoughts might not help everyone, but they help me. 

  10. Hi Matthew,
    Oh, I think the Sanford Prison Study has tons to say about all this. As well as the Milgram Obedience studies. Both are examples of where the power structure caused the participants to behave in evil ways.

    And I agree with both the possibilities you cite. Trying to change dehumanizing structures as best we can (e.g., the American Civil Rights movement) and living humanely within existing structures.

  11. Hi Rod,
    I'd echo a lot of what AJ has written. 

    I don't disagree with you much at all, if any. I guess all I'd add by way of clarification is this:

    1. Yes, these power structures are useful (and perhaps ordained by God), but as fallen power structures not yet under the Lordship of Christ we should treat them with great suspicion. My take is that Christians aren't suspicous enough.

    2. Agreed, oftentimes the best we can do is bring a little humanity into the situation. But I also think Christians are called, at times, to actually change the system or, at the very least, to resist the system. I'm reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's analysis of the relationship between the church and the state: "We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels
    of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself."

    3. Finally, the church needs to incarnate the "new humanity" where human relationships are freed from the principalities and powers.

  12. Richard:  In reply to both you and A.J., I agree that we are called both to change the system and to bring humanity as we live within it.  If I sounded too willing to "throw in the towel" on change, it was just because I wanted to underscore the complicated nature of our relationship with "the system."

    Each social/economic system distorts God's will in its own way.  One weakness of a relatively pure Communist system is a tendency to slacking and not contributing a fair share to society.  (There are manifest others.)  A weakness of Capitalism is obsession with material goods as tokens of personal value, and a self justifying indifference to the suffering of those who have not, for whatever reason, been able to work the system sufficiently to take care of their material needs.  We need to be suspicious of all social structures, but I believe, most suspicious of the dominant paradigm under which we live.  It is easiest to be blind to the way our own society thwarts the call of the Cross.

    How our role in the system shapes our view, which you touched on, is for me a fascinating question.  To stick with lawyers, every criminal defense attorney I know thinks the Miranda Rule is a central bulwark of our freedoms.  Every prosecutor is convinced it is a useless escape hatch for the guilty.  The problem is that we internalize our roles all too well.

  13. Just a very small twist (I'm coming from a Lutheran theology) - those power structures are under the Lordship of Christ, just not immediately.  His rule is mediated through us and our warped timber (and through the demonic powers and principalities?) 

    That helps me at least see hope.  If it is just up to me to bring humanity, well, that game is over way too soon.  But it's not.  God doesn't abandon his realms.  He sends his Spirit.  He sends his people endowed with the Spirit.

  14. These words have blessed me.  Reading this blog helps me to stay focused on my humanity, and that of others, in a relentlessly dehumanizing (fallen) world.  So grateful that you are one who uses your powers (reason/intellect and faith) for good, and that I stumbled onto this blog!

  15. The idea of thinking of that person in front of you as "someone's father, wife, daughter..." is for sure a key to being the human intervention in an inhuman--and often inhumane-- system.  And it's not easy to do.  The easy thing is to just go on and be the next cog in the turning wheel;  it's a battle I fight every day as students show up in my office needing help.

  16. Powerful reflections, thanks for this.  Its reminiscent (but from a different angle) of Wink's work on the Powers. 

  17. Loved the twist at the end. I'm wondering if you've seen the play 'Jesus Hopped The A Train'. I think you'd like it.


  18. Richard and others,

    It seems to me that Wink has echoed Jesus and offered hope when he wrote (and spoke) of redeeming the powers.  Humanizing ourselves and others is both individual and communal, involving the very enfleshed Lord and Maker of the universe.


  19. I just cited your blog in my own post, and titled it 'Human Eyes' which I thought was a slightly clever pun, so I'm repeating it here.

  20. We live in a cruel and dehumanizing world, one in which accountability is shunned, responsibility is pushed off, and service to one another has been taken over by phone tiers, out-sourcing and corporate loop-holes.  Conversely, there is delicacy and beauty in the chaos, when one seeks to look just above the common denominator, when you take just a second to meet another's eyes, when you take upon yourself the characteristics of Christ and seek to help another in whatever way you can.  That is why we're here - to see and feel deeply for others, to reach that level of love and charity, to overcome the world and all it's blinders.

  21. Very interesting, I worked in an institution, just one story among thousands in the many years I worked there. I wont go into how my faith community saw this, well the word you used "demonic" not the institution  that was efficient, but the person, always the person "demonic. This young lady I took are of had many developmental disabilities, she was not faking it to get a free ride from the state, trust me it was not a free ride. She was not a liberal trying to pull one over on the "man" (government). She was disabled, she use to do things like rip her hair out down to the scalp and when that was not enough she would dig down to the scull bone. I know I prayed, (probably did not have enough faith, something pointed out to me many times in my Christian life), but she still dug down to the bone, literally. When that was not enough she would bite herself, rip the flesh, literally off her arms. 

    One of the most horrendous events was when she went after her good eye with a fork she grabbed. I was able to get my hand in the way before she took out her last remaining eye, she planted that puppy close to the bone in my hand. You see she had taken out her other eye the same way. Finally when several PHd's got together and developed an intervention plan which included medication, psychological and behavioral intervention did she get better. Now in the evangelical faith psychological and behavioral intervention is of Satan and she needs to repent of her sins. I often prayed, granted I did not have enough faith, again something I was reminded of, usually daily, but it did nothing what so ever. 

    My point, spend time on a psych ward, an Alzheimer ward, with Juvenal oncology kids or God help me with babies on a developmentally disabled unit. From my experience as a Christian this should all be water off a ducks back kind of stuff. I never quite got that point. As for dehumanizing live on a psych unit, in a Convalescence hospital, in a prison, in a battered women's shelter etc. I have spent much of my Christian life among these groups. I tried, and in many cases failed. But I tried. 

  22. I loved this post.  I truly believe demonic is a great term for what bureaucratic structures do to dehumanize people.  

    I'm reading through "The Shack" by William P. Young and see a similar theme come out.  I came to pages 105-108 talk about how God feels about these hierarchical systems.  God (an African American woman who loves to cook and sing) is talking to the main character, Mack.  She says: 

    "Creation has been taken down a very different path than we desired.  In your world, the value of the individual is constantly weighed against the survival of the system, whether political, economic, social, or religious--any system actually.  First, one person, aand then a few, and finally even many are easily sacrificed for the good and ongoing existence of that system.  In one form or another this lies behind every struggle for power, every prejudice, every war, and every abuse of relationship."  

    The whole conversation of these pages are interesting, and worth looking at on this subject.  

    Thanks for your insight on this.

  23. Reviewing Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, his chapter on "The Demons and the Philosophers" he points to a kind of mechanical efficiency, void of poetry, in an exacting society, just like the bureaucracies of today. Chesterton asserts that a pushback against such a demon-based society brought together two unlikely allies, resulting in the set-up in which Christ would enter the world.

    "The civilisation that centered in Tyre and Sidon was above all things practical. It has left little in the way of art and nothing in the way of poetry. But it prided itself upon being very efficient; and it followed in its philosophy and religion that strange and sometimes secret train of thought which we have already noted in those who look for immediate effects. There is always in such a mentality an idea that there is a short cut to the secret of all success; something that would shock the world by this sort of shameless thoroughness. They believed, in the appropriate modern phrase, in people who delivered the goods. In their dealings with their god Moloch, they themselves were always careful to deliver the goods. It was an interesting transaction, upon which we shall have to touch more than once in the rest of the narrative; it is enough to say here that it involved the theory I have suggested, about a certain attitude towards children. This was what called up against it in simultaneous fury the servant of one God in Palestine and the guardians of all the household gods in Rome This is what challenged two things naturally so much divided by every sort of distance and disunion, whose union was to save the world. "

  24. Too often we underestimate the reality and power of the demonic. It hides itself so well in what has come to be normal and accepted. 

    "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls
    around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
    Resist him, firm in your faith."    1 Peter 5:8-9a

  25. Where and with whom does the dehumanization start? Is it with an over-ambitious politician trying to fulfil an election promise to lower college fees, only to find that the last administration has left the cupboard bare. Is it with the ensuing round of cost-cutting measures that makes everyone in that system less likely to help that poor student?

    Perhaps it's the analytical approach to service: one that divides, rather than treating the individual holistically.

    In relation to consumer goods, the drive towards global mass production in the last century sacrificed individual expressions of skill and personalisation of demand to the idea of a consistentlly represented global brand. Mass marketing is used to build awareness and conform our aspirations to a product matrix.

    Public services are also under pressure to apply these industrial methods to achieve ever greater efficiency and economies of scale with limited funds and still meet the needs of an expanding market. The difference is that they're dealing with humans and not raw materials.

    I think of the Phillippian jailer in Acts, another public servant, ready to take his own life, rather than face execution for the loss of his prisoners (even though it was a result of a force majeure). The consequences are not as dire today, but there is a similar climate of fear that pervades our public services culture. The fear that superiors won't understand why we felt compelled to apply sensitivity to a situation when the employee handbook rules out discretion on pain of a disciplinary. We want to fulfil our role in the big machine and earn the pay-off (pension annuity and mortgage paid).

    The small cogs are only meant to turn at the required speed and engage in prescribed patterns. Hey, in time, you might even become a bigger cog, but you never question your prescribed patterns because didn't you know? They can always find another cog.

  26. I worked for several years in a Juvenile Corrections facility.  Some of the guards were so pro-Christian that they "motivated" youth to participate in voluntary religious programs.  Others moaned because a great deal of contraband entered the facility through the chapel programs.  Many were jaded because the evangelical visitors celebrated conversions but didn't live with the routine verbal (sometimes physical) assaults by the same youth upon staff and other youth.  But many staff volunteered to help with providing required support for programs like the institutional version of Walk to Emmaus.  A lot of visitors did not understand that our role was to protect both them and the youth rather than participate.

  27. I really appreciate this post.  Currently I am a worship pastor at my church, but our pastor recently left, and now I am in the process of candidating for the pastor position.  I felt myself getting so frustrated at a couple of the elders because they refused to talk to me about vision and helping to mentor me.  My desire was that they would be honest with me and use this time to help mold me and work with me.  If they didn't see me as pastor material, then just tell me!  However, since the search committee has been meeting, a couple of the elders have basically given me the silent treatment, ignoring my requests to get together.  One of them said that it's because he was on the search committee and is being sequestered.  I've been wondering why I'm so frustrated, and I think your post absolutely summed it up.  In the small church that we have, we have created a bureaucracy, and I'm not sure it's the healthiest one.  I'm not sure how I would do it differently, or if there is a different option, but I think we have tied our hands to a bureaucratic system and sacrificed honesty, openness, mentoring relationships, and growth to a process like we might see as part of our government. 

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