Thursday, September 21, 2006

Quaker Renewal IV: Satan's Shifty Role

'Death' may not be the ideal name for what Stringfellow was talking about. "Not so very long ago," he writes, "the presence and power of death were recognized by men as the devil." [Free pg 69] Now, of course, we find the traditional image of the devil absurd, while death remains a bogey that all are taught to fear. But we have, if we attend to them, intuitions that death isn't quite what we've been told it was.

Anne & I once visited a friend in the hospital; we'd all been attempting Spanish so we brought a Mexican children's game, tiny cards with pictures and Spanish labels. When our friend drew the card for 'Death', he said: "That's my friend!" It was a statement of fact, not morbid or self-pitying, simply a recognition that his age and failing health had cost him the things he'd most loved--his piano and the generous hospitality he once enjoyed sharing with everyone. Now he was merely surviving, not complaining but with nothing left to cling to here.

The Bible says, quite clearly, that even concrete, physical death is a temporary condition that God can and will overcome.

Meanwhile, unless this is really a punishment for Adam getting caught in the Fruit Trap, something in the common Good-and-Evil Consciousness must make death appropriate to our needs, much as naps are deemed suitable for small children--not deemed suitable by them, but by everyone who has to live with them. Death, in itself, is unwanted, but if we understand it as an illusion, and see the alternative as endless suffering and stagnation--which we would otherwise fall into in our present mindset--there's no need to call it an evil.

Death is the enemy most directly overcome by the Resurrection. But the traditional designation, for the power that dominates human life in our historical experience, is 'Satan'. And the Christian Bible supports this. In the synoptic gospels, immediately after he meets John, Jesus goes out into the wilderness, where Satan comes to tempt him. Satan shows him the kingdoms of this world. "To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will." [Luke 4:6] The state of the world we share is evidence for that claim.

The few times he appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, "Satan" is one of God's heavenly entourage, "the Accuser," an angel who does inflict harm, but only with God's permission. Social Science Commentary on the Book of Revelations says that 'satan' "is a Persian word that relates to the role and function of a secret service agent whose task is to test loyalty to the king by putting forward probing questions and then reporting the disloyal to the king for punishment. The Greek name for this tester of loyalties is diabolos, from whence comes our devil, or 'accuser.' Originally this 'Satan' was simply one of the cosmic sky servants around the Throne of God, doing God's work (as in Job 1:6-12.) But the traditions of post-exilic Israel gave this title to a sky servant who was [said] to have led a 'palace revolution' against God and was subsequently thrown out of the sky to the earth with sky servant followers (as in Rev 12: 7-9)." [Bruce J. Malina & John J. Pilch, 2000 Augsburg Fortress pg54]

Walter Wink devotes a chapter of Unmasking the Powers to analyzing the Biblical references to "Satan", and comes to a similar description. Satan might have become rebellious through an excess of zeal, but he has a legitimate function. "So accustomed are most of us to thinking of Satan as purely evil," says Wink, "that we tend to read this interpretation into passages where there is nothing of the kind..."

Wink refers us to Luke [ 22:31-34] where Jesus tells Peter: "Satan demanded to have you [plural] that he might shift you [plural] like wheat, but I have prayed for you [singular] that your [singular] faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.' And he said to him, ' Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and death.' He said, 'I tell you, Peter, that the cock will not crow today, until you three times deny that you know me."

Satan, Wink says, "is God's sifter, the left hand of God, whose task it is to sift out the impurities in the disciples' commitment to God. Had Peter been fully conscious of his frailty and flightiness, he would never have responded with such bravado... Satan has made a legitimate request, that [the disciples] be put to the test. Jesus has to grant Satan's request. He does not pray that they be delivered from the test, but only that their faith may not fail through it. Satan is depicted here as being able to accomplish something that Jesus had not been able to achieve during his ministry. If we refuse to recognize our own evil, and take refuge, like Peter, in claims of righteousness, our own evil comes up to meet us through events triggered by our very unconsciousness..."

Wink finds several such New Testament passages, where Satan appears as an agent of repentance.

Ignorant of pain, Adam and Eve reached out and learned something new. We all understand, now, what the word "mistake" means. (There are many things we've needed to learn that way, and now we hope we've learned enough of them!) 'Satan,' so far as that means the process which manifests and punishes our capacity for evil, must be a necessary part of what enlightens us.

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