Our everyday speech is peppered with devil speak: “The devil made me do it.” “Speak of the devil.” “He’s captive to his own demons.” But do we really believe in the devil? Is there such a thing?
The question reminds me of a T-Shirt I saw last December as the new Star Wars movie opened in theatres. “Come to the Dark Side,” it read. “We have cookies.” There is something deliciously enticing about the shadow, isn’t there? It’s a staple of popular entertainment: we are fascinated by the mystery of death and the abyss of human suffering. There’s a frightening, unfathomable allure to the devil.
The great German theologian Karl Barth was once asked by an eager journalist, “Do you believe in the devil?” A trick question, but Barth shot right back, “No. He lies!” Barth was being flippant but also making a point. The devil we have created, whether in Christian mythology or popular culture, is far too easy to discount. Both the red-tailed demon who tempts humans into moral transgressions and the sinister blackrobed emperor who manipulates their minds are far too predictably one-dimensional.
If evil exists, and it does, then the real danger is not the devil we know. It’s the one we do not see that we should fear. This one hides in our best intentions and counsels us with common sense and practicality: “Don’t get involved.” “Better to say nothing.” “They’ll handle it.”
Take what is going on in the United States as an example. There is a growing consensus that the current president is rolling back decades of well-constructed social policy and public diplomacy. By blurting out misogynistic and racist views, he gives credence to any number of rising shadows. For the most part, he works within a binary world view of us versus them — “the good people” against “the enemy.” “They” want to hurt “us,” undermine the economy and rob “us” of our freedoms. “They” must be stopped. And to that end, he has enacted a series of presidential orders to restrict travellers from certain countries (mostly Muslim) and to deport the disenfranchised and vulnerable in America, while favouring a minuscule wealthy elite. It is difficult to imagine a worse example of global leadership — it borders on demonic.
And that’s our problem. While we can and often do paint Trump as the devil, we let real evil off the hook. As the famous saying goes, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. Our preoccupation with Trump as evil personified, as satisfying as it can be, can make us lose sight of the obligation to examine our own lives. We miss the fact that the real devil in our society is how so many allow evil to happen. The devil is not in our action but in our inaction.
I have no doubt that a force for nonbeing is alive and active in this world. You can call it the devil if you like. The point is that we give it power if we do nothing. When we stand by silently — as our world edges toward nuclear war, as homeless people sleep on subway grates, as predators manipulate and abuse women in the privacy of their own power — then evil triumphs.
And that devil does not deserve our belief. It merits our active, concerted and constant rejection.
This story first appeared in The Observer‘s April 2018 edition with the title “Do we still believe in the devil?”