Interpreting the “Powers” Anthropologically

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” — Pogo, in a 1971 cartoon by Walt Kelly

I’ve come to see Mark 3:21-27 as one of the most important passages in the Bible. It is Mark’s — and thus the Gospel writers’ — first “parable.” It is the clearest example of Jesus reinterpreting a “higher power” in purely anthropological terms.

The worldview of ancient religions is largely that of a “polytheism,” a belief in the existence of a panoply of various deities and “spirits.” Even in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have continued a tendency to view entities such “Satan” or “Powers and principalities” as higher powers that have some sort of existence independent of human beings. We see Satan as some sort of higher power unto himself. Or, in modern worldviews, an example might be seeing the “free market” as some sort of benevolent natural force having independence from human interaction (see the earlier blog “Opposing Faiths: Free Market Vs. Easter”.)

Here’s why it is so important to recognize Jesus in a passage like today’s as demythologizing an entity like “Satan”: our human “polytheism” is part of the original sin of not taking responsibility for the consequences of our complex collective actions. That is, the things we do together in community that create higher powers are transcendent of us as individuals. Many of these are good. Participants in Alcoholic’s Anonymous, for example, experience the working of the healing Twelve Step community as a “higher power” that helps them defeat the higher power of alcohol in their lives.

According to Mimetic Theory, the Original higher power of human beings is the collective accusation and murder/expulsion of a scapegoat which grants the community an experience of temporary peace. It is a collective action that must be religiously repeated to maintain the peace. And as collective human actions evolve into human institutions and cultures, the collective accusation and murder/expulsion of a scapegoat is embedded as a structuring principle, a “Logos” which, as Heraclitus proposed, is the ‘father and king of everything.’ And the big payoff is this: by interpreting our collective violence as gods, we don’t have to accept responsibility. We collectively kill a human being on an altar and it’s because the gods commanded it.

It is only in light of the cross and resurrection that we can say with Pogo, “We have the enemy and he is us.” The Original higher power was good to the extent that it helped us to survive as a species, saving us from imploding by our own intra-species violence. But it is sinful in that it is still violence itself and blocks us from ever experiencing a lasting peace for the entire human household. In the terms of Jesus’ parable, we remain a house divided.

The Gospel unveiling of our mythology is exemplified by this first parable of Jesus. In a riddle, Jesus is exposing Satan as our own collective accusation and expulsion of those we label as an evil higher power. It’s what the scribes from Jerusalem have just done to Jesus, accusing him of being in league with Beelzebul — initiating a process of accusation and, eventually, a collective murder that will be completed on the cross. Jesus has come to expose our original sin, and this riddle about Satan casting out Satan is the first glimpse.

A crucial element of a New Reformation is to further demythologize our collective violence that remains as strong as ever in our institutions and cultures. (Once again, a good example is the myth of the “free market” addressed in the earlier blog.) Here are further comments/explication on this crucial passage:

Girard - The Scapegoat1. “The Parable of Satan Casting Out Satan” of Mark 3:23-27 is a pivotal text for Mimetic Theory. It is the first biblical text on which I heard René Girard speak (in the early 90’s); he first wrote on it in ch. 14 of The Scapegoat (1982). For those not familiar with Girard’s take: when Jesus asks, seemingly rhetorically, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”, Girard essentially answers, ‘It happens all the time. In fact, that’s what human culture is founded on. Our anthropology can be summarized by the phrase Satan casting out Satan.’

According to Mimetic Theory, our species survived because the satanic accusation and expulsion kept the peace when hominid groups were imploding through intra-community violence. The dominance hierarchies of other mammals were no longer keeping the peace among our ancestors. We were too embroiled in mimetic rivalries, and we were learning to use lethal weapons (clubs, rocks, etc.). The mechanism that entered the void is a “scapegoating mechanism,” an accusation turned into collective violence against an accused. The all-against-one violence brings peace to the majority. And the superhuman aura surrounding the victim (who was both blamed for the conflict and appears to have caused the peace) becomes the beginning of the experience of the sacred. The ensuing hierarchies of human culture are based on the dualism of sacred and profane and were religious from the very beginning of our species.

From earliest ancient near east sources, Satan is the Accuser. Subsequently, “Satan” also became a general name for the Evil One whom we want to cast out. So Satan the Accuser seeks to accuse and cast out Satan the Evil One. In short, “Satan casts out Satan” is the briefest description of a gospel anthropology unveiling the mechanism which has ordered human community since its beginnings. It describes the sinful ordering of our origins; it names our Original Sin.

2. In Mark’s account, there are two crucial clues to the truth of this reading. Mark introduces it with the first use in his Gospel of the word “parable,” which has the meaning of “riddle” in his portrayal of Jesus. “Can Satan cast out Satan?” is thus a riddle, not a straightforward rhetorical question.

Second, and even more important, the context itself is a classic instance of Satan casting out Satan. The scribes from Jerusalem are accusing Jesus of being in league with Beelzebul. They, of course, think they are doing God’s work of accusing an evil one and then working to cast him out (which they will eventually succeed in doing). But Jesus’ riddle names them as doing satanic work by virtue of their accusing. Their actions comprise an instance of ‘Satan casting out Satan,’ not God casting out Satan.

The truth that Jesus means for us to see, then, is in the stated consequences: a house divided against itself cannot stand. The human way of trying to keep a house together will never ultimately work because it always relies on expelling someone, on being over against someone. Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom — the household — of God, which will build a household on the stone the builders rejected. Jesus will let himself be cast out under the satanic accusation and build God’s household on forgiveness. Jesus concludes, “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Satan’s reign is at an end precisely because his age-old game is that of Satan casting out Satan, resulting in a house divided that cannot stand.

3. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has recognized the key role of Satan in the Gospels. In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright dedicates a significant section on “the Satan” at a crucial point in his argument (section entitled “The Real Enemy Identified: not Rome, but the Satan,” pp. 451-463). Jesus cannot be seen as the victorious Messiah unless we know who is the enemy defeated.

Yet Wright’s analysis of “the Satan” is still somewhat underdeveloped in light of its centrality to his argument. What kind of power and authority does Satan have? Girard’s answer is swift and clear: Satan’s power is anthropological — that is, it derives from the ways in which human beings organize themselves into community and culture. If we were to organize differently, Satan’s power would disappear. Jesus came inaugurating that different way of organizing, around forgiveness rather than accusation, and his unveiling of the satanic powers have dealt them a death blow. Satan is losing his transcendent powers; he has fallen from heaven like lightning. Thus, Girard’s anthropology of grace can greatly enhance our understanding of Satan in the Gospels — especially the book in which he makes it central, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.

Girard - I See Satan4. There are important ontological matters at issue here. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, chapter 3 on “Satan” is crucial, but there is another important passage (at the end of ch. 5 on “Mythology”) that speaks to the ontology of Satan:

Why do the Gospels, in their most complete definition of the mimetic cycle, have recourse to a figure named Satan or the devil rather than to an impersonal principle? I think the principal reason is that the human subjects as individuals are not aware of the circular process in which they are trapped; the real manipulator of the process is mimetic contagion itself. There is no real subject within this mimetic contagion, and that is finally the meaning of the title “prince of this world,” if it is recognized that Satan is the absence of being.

Satan is not at all divine, but in naming him we allude to something essential that I mentioned briefly in my chapter about him [ch. 3], a matter of great interest in this book: the origin of primitive and pagan gods. Even if Satan’’s transcendence is false, totally without reality in a religious sense, on the worldly plane his works are undeniable and formidable. Satan is the absent subject of structures of disorder and order, which stem from rivalistic relations among humans. When it’’s all said and done, these rivalries both organize and disorganize human relations.

Satan is mimetic contagion as its most secret power, the creation of the false gods out of the midst of which Christianity emerged. To speak of the mimetic cycle in terms of Satan enables the Gospels to say or to suggest many things about the religions perceived by Christianity as false, deceptive, and illusory that they could not say in the language of scandal, the reconciling power of unanimous violence.

The peoples of the world do not invent their gods. They deify their victims. What prevents researchers from discovering this truth is their refusal to grasp the real violence behind the texts that represent it. The refusal of the real is the number one dogma of our time. It is the prolongation and perpetuation of the original mythic illusion. [Girard uses “myth” in the specialized sense of telling a story of reality from the perspective of perpetrators of scapegoating violence. Conversely, “Gospel” is telling the story of reality from the perspective of the Forgiving Victim of scapegoating violence.] (pp. 69-70)

Girard is saying that Satan has no real substance outside of our human relations. He is the name ancient peoples gave to those structures of human relations themselves. So when modern people declare the gods of ancient peoples to be unreal they throw the baby out with the bathwater. We no longer name those structures as real, as “satanic,” as having to do fundamentally with accusing and expelling. Jesus in this passage shows that he understood the anthropology behind the name Satan and continued to use the name in order to speak to the thinking of his time. We may choose to use other nomenclatures for the anthropological reality, but we must not throw out the anthropological insight or we risk perpetuating the perpetrators’ mythic version of reality.

5. There is ontological danger which an underdevelopment of “Satan” risks. If we don’t carefully define Satan’s power anthropologically, the danger is Manichaeism, or some brand of cosmology where the powers of evil have some form of ultimacy to rival God’s power of good. I think that N.T. Wright, in his more recent book Simply Jesus, walks the tightrope of this danger. I couldn’t agree more with his overall point and the move he makes to get there, when, at the end of the chapter on the cross, he once again gets to the crucial question. He writes:

Somehow, Jesus’’s death was seen by Jesus himself, and then by those who told and ultimately wrote his story, as the ultimate means by which God’’s kingdom was established. The crucifixion was the shocking answer to the prayer that God’’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. It was the ultimate Exodus event through which the tyrant was defeated, God’’s people were set free and given their fresh vocation, and God’’s presence was established in their midst in a completely new way for which the Temple itself was just an advance pointer. That is why, in John’’s gospel, the “glory of God” — with all the echoes of the anticipated return of YHWH to Zion —is revealed in and through Jesus, throughout his public career, in the “signs” he performed, but fully and finally as he is “lifted up” on the cross.

How can this be? How can the horrible, ugly, and brutal execution of a young prophet be the means of establishing God’’s kingdom? What does it mean to say, as we have done throughout this book, that the point of the story is that God is now in charge, if the means by which that is accomplished is the death of the one who had gone about making it happen?

There is of course much more that could be said on this subject. But, trying to boil it down and keep it simple, I think we can and must say at least this. In Jesus’’s own understanding of the battle he was fighting, Rome was not the real enemy. Rome provided the great gale, and the distorted ambitions of Israel the high-pressure system, but the real enemy, to be met head-on by the power and love of God, was the anti-creation power, the power of death and destruction, the force of accusation, the Accuser who lays a charge against the whole human race and the world itself that all are corrupt and decaying, that all humans have contributed to this by their own idolatry and sin. The terrible thing is that this charge is true. All humans have indeed worshiped what is not divine and so have failed to reflect God’’s image into the world. They, and creation, are therefore subject to corruption and death. (pp. 185-86)

I suggest that the “much more that could be said on this subject” needs to be anthropology, namely, Mimetic Theory, which makes accusation and the Accuser central to our understanding of what generates and underlies all human culture. Otherwise, phrases like “anti-creation power” can be read like the Dark Side of the Force in the Star Wars saga. The following passage is so close to how a Girardian might speak of the cross, as Wright amplifies his own image of the Perfect Storm:

In addition to the gale of Rome, the high-pressure system of Israel’’s distorted ambitions, and the cyclone of the returning purposes of God, we perhaps need a downward vortex, a giant whirlpool, that threatens to suck down into the black depths all who sail too close to it. One might even tie the themes together and suggest that the gale and the pressure system are themselves driven by the same forces that are dragging down the dark waters: Rome and rebel Israel are the unwitting tools of the Satan, the Accuser, the great force of anti-creation.

And one might suggest that Jesus, precisely because he believed that in his public career “the time was fulfilled,” believed too that all these powers of evil were gathering themselves for one last battle, one last attempt to thwart the good purposes of the creator God, to pull the cosmos and the human race down into the depths. The only way, he believed, by which this great anti-creation power could be stopped and defeated would be for him, Jesus, anointed with God’’s Spirit to fight the real battle against the real enemy, to take the full power of evil and accusation upon himself, to let it do its worst to him, so that it would thereby be exhausted, its main force spent. (pp. 187-88)

It is so close to the insight of MT’s anthropology, and yet the last line also teeters dangerously on the brink of Manichaeism. The way in which to avoid giving evil an ontological status that rivals God is to give it an anthropological one. We interpret the powers and principalities as embedded in the social DNA of our species, that is to say, as embedded in the way we have always organized ourselves into community based on accusations against scapegoats. That is why Satan is the Accuser with a capital “A.”

But, on the other hand, it is also why Satan has no firm ontology. Satan disappears if human beings come to organize themselves in another way — for example, the alternative way that Jesus has come to offer us by letting himself become the one accused and cast out. Jesus is the Forgiving Victim who is now the new basis for human community and culture. As such he is the inaugurator of God’s Kingdom, God’s new culture. He is the first born of a new anthropology, the Son of Man, the New Human Being. He rescues us from the deadly and sinful powers of the old anthropology and offers us a new way to be human, a new anthropology, a life lived in the Spirit instead of in the flesh. Just as we discover ourselves as the enemy, we are graciously invited to join God’s Way of becoming more truly human, a Way of flourishing rather than thwarting our own lives.

(P.S.–I believe that an example of falling into the trap of not anthropologically demythologizing the satanic powers is Gregory Boyd‘s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, especially Part VI, “The Principle of Cosmic Conflict,” which allows for many powers in the Bible without performing Jesus’ anthropological reading. It’s an enormously important book, as an evangelical pastor demythologizes divine violence through the lens of the cross — perhaps the most crucial element of a New Reformation. But such a huge project will not be fully completed without a demythologization that finds an anthropological interpretation of the Satanic powers. Human responsibility will once again be let off the hook.)

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