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Society and Its Demons
”The cleverest trick of the Devil is to persuade you he does not exist.” – Charles Baudelaire, 1864
Over the past decade, it has become commonplace to observe that American society is more deeply divided than at any time in our history since the Civil War. Countless studies, surveys, and opinion pieces have been produced in the attempt to analyze and explain this sad state of affairs. Blame has been cast in any number of directions: the prevalence of disinformation, the manipulativeness of social media algorithms, the erosion of institutional trust, the epidemic of loneliness and isolation, the politicization of nearly every aspect of modern life.
There is certainly a good deal of truth in many such theories. But with that said, such theories can only go so far. Even the most profound cultural criticism of our day almost never penetrates to the spiritual level — and the spiritual level is the only level at which truth ultimately resides. The crisis facing our nation has many aspects, but nevertheless at its core remains undeniably spiritual in nature. Tragically, our society has declared spiritual things to be “off limits” for public life, and so has long ceased from any serious attempt to look there for answers. Even we Christians all too often fail to look for the truth spiritually when it isn’t Sunday morning.
And so when it comes to the question of the causes of our division, there is one answer which all the studies and surveys and opinion pieces in the world will almost certainly never even come close to giving — and yet which may well explain this tragic phenomenon more thoroughly than any other: we no longer believe in demons.
To most people, this answer will almost certainly sound more than a bit bizarre. But if we become willing to step outside the narrow bounds of our modern skepticism, I think it will begin to make more and more sense.
Throughout human history, the existence of evil spirits has been something so obvious that it is practically a universal constant across every known religion and civilization. Mankind has always sensed the presence of spiritual beings filled with malevolence and evil. And regardless of whether we modern men consider this universal human experience to have been shaped by groundless superstition or not, the fact remains that the experience is undeniable. We have felt the forces of evil lurking around us ever since the dawn of time.
And we continue to sense such evil today. In fact, despite all of our rationalistic skepticism, I think we sense it now more strongly than ever. Because only in modern times has the Myth of Progress taken hold so completely within the human heart; only now — bolstered by the technological miracles which multiply around us almost by the hour — has the utopian fantasy of establishing heaven on earth seemed so certainly within our grasp. But our conviction that Paradise might well be just around the corner only makes it more painfully obvious that we somehow have not quite rounded that corner yet. Although we are surrounded by seemingly irrefutable evidence that the world is manifestly destined to become ever more good and perfect and just, even so the undeniable presence all around us of malevolence and hatred and evil remains.
So how does modern man reconcile all this to himself? If the spiritual world is mere superstition, and the material world is mere matter, then where can the hidden forces of evil — powerful enough to delay (at least for a time) the otherwise inevitable March of Progress — possibly be found?
There can be only one answer: in people. In one another. In our brothers and sisters, our kinsmen and countrymen, our family and friends. If we reject the belief that our enemies are spiritual beings, then the only enemies remaining to be found are human beings. And so, when inevitably confronted by all the wickedness and tragedy and pain of life in this world, we blame it all on one another. The conservatives blame the liberals, and the liberals blame the conservatives; the Americans blame the Russians, and the Russians blame the Americans; the secularists blame the Christians, and the Christians blame the secularists. We disbelieve in demons, and so make demons out of one another. And the demons themselves rejoice.
Yes, we Christians are guilty of it too. Because although we may be more likely than others to acknowledge intellectually the existence of demons, most of us don’t actually live like we believe they are real — or at least, we don’t live like they have much of anything to do with our lives. We somehow gloss over the fact that Christ spends practically the entire Gospel doing battle with the devil and his minions. We somehow ignore the countless volumes upon volumes in which the Holy Fathers instruct us and warn us — at great length and in tremendous detail — of the many tricks and wiles of our spiritual foes. And so we too, like the unbelievers, somehow come to forget all about our true enemies, and to turn our ever-increasing anger and condemnation and scorn on one another instead.
How easily do we forget the words of St. Joseph of Optina: “Zeal that desires to uproot all evil is in fact the very worst evil.” How easily do we ignore the words of our Savior: “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil” (Matt. 5:39). How easily do our hearts cleave rather to the fantasy about which Solzhenitsyn warned us: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.”
How much of the human race now lives as though that fantasy were true!
But although a great man like Solzhenitsyn can expose the horrors that lurk behind our twisted way of thinking and perceiving the world, it is only the saints who can show us the way to overcome it: the way of true Christian love. And so I can think of no better prescription for the malady that ails us than the words of St. Porphyrios in Wounded by Love:
When someone injures us in whatever way, whether with slanders or with insults, we should think of him as our brother who has been taken hold of by the enemy. He has fallen victim to the enemy. Accordingly we need to have compassion for him and entreat God to have mercy both on us and on him, and God will help both. If, however, we are filled with anger against him, then the enemy will jump from him to us and make a mockery of us both. A person who condemns others does not love Christ. Our egotism is at fault. This is where condemnation of others stems from. Let me give you a little example.
Let’s suppose someone is all alone in the desert. Suddenly he hears a voice crying out in distress in the distance. He follows the sound and is confronted by a horrendous sight: a tiger has grabbed hold of a man and is savaging him with its claws. The man is desperately shouting for help. In a few minutes he will be torn to pieces. What can the person do to help? Can he run to his side? How? It’s impossible. Can he shout for help? Who will hear him? There is no one within earshot. Should he perhaps pick up a stone and throw it at the man to finish him off? ‘Certainly not,’ we would say. But that is exactly what can happen if we don’t realize that the other person who is acting badly towards us has been taken hold of by a tiger, the devil. We fail to realize that when we react to such a person without love it is as if we are throwing stones at his wounds and accordingly we are doing him great harm and the ‘tiger’ leaps onto us and we do the same as him and worse. What kind of love do we have then for our neighbor and, even more importantly, for God?
We should feel the malice of the other person as an illness which is tormenting him and which he is unable to shake off. And so we should regard our brethren with sympathy and behave with courtesy towards them, repeating in our hearts with simplicity the prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ [i.e. the Jesus Prayer], so that the grace of God may strengthen our soul and so that we don’t pass judgment on anyone. We should regard all people as saints. We all carry within us the same ‘old self’. Our neighbor, whoever he is, is ‘flesh of our flesh’; he is our brother and, according to Saint Paul, we owe no one anything, except to love one another (Rom. 13:8). We can never pass judgment on others, for no one ever hated his own flesh (Eph. 5:29)….
In the realm of the Spirit of God all things are different. Here one justifies all things in the behavior of others. Everything!… Inquire more deeply into everything and don’t regard things superficially.
May each of us take close heed to the words of this great and holy saint. May each of us take much care to remember that the true Christian has no enemies at all on this earth, but only brothers and sisters suffering from the same afflictions which also torture us. May each of us strive to live always according to the words of our Savior: “By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). Amen.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Eph. 6:12)