Sympathy for the Devil: What happens when Love turns into tolerance
Some years ago, The New Yorker ran a cartoon that perfectly lampooned the loopy ideology of “inclusion” that has come to characterize so much of the Christian world. It showed a neat and tidy church, filled with an attentive congregation. The pastor was at the podium, introducing a guest speaker. “In accordance with our policy of equal time,” he said, “I would like now to give our friend the opportunity to present an alternative point of view.” Sitting next to him, about to rise to speak, was the devil, dressed perfectly and tapping the pages of his prepared text on his knee.
I was put in mind of that cartoon when I read a sermon delivered recently by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Addressing a congregation in Curaçao, Venezuela, Bishop Jefferts Schori praised the beauty of (what else?) diversity, but lamented the fact that so many people are still frightened by what is other or different: “Human beings have a long history of discounting and devaluing difference, finding it offensive or even evil.” Now I suppose that if one were to make the right distinctions—differentiating between that which is simply unusual and that which is intrinsically bad—one might be able coherently to make this point.
But the Bishop moved, instead, in an astonishing direction, finding an example of the lamentable exclusivity she is talking about in the behavior of the Apostle Paul himself. In the 16th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we find the story of Paul’s first visit to the Greek town of Philippi. We are told that one day, while on his way to prayer, Paul was accosted by a slave girl “who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling” (Acts. 16:16). This demon-possessed child followed Paul and his companions up and down for several days, shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Having finally had enough of her, Paul turned to the young woman and addressed the wicked spirit within her, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (Acts. 16:18). And the demon, we are told, came out of her instantly.
Up until last month in Venezuela, the entire Christian interpretive tradition read that passage as an account of deliverance, as the story of the liberation of a young woman who had been enslaved both to dark spiritual powers and to the nefarious human beings who had exploited her. But Bishop Jefferts Schori reads it as a tale of patriarchal oppression and intolerance. She preaches, “But Paul is annoyed, perhaps, for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it.” The Bishop correctly points out that the girl was saying true things about Paul and his friends, but demons say true things all the time in the New Testament. Think of the dark spirits who consistently confess that Jesus is the Holy One of God. That a Christian bishop would characterize the demonic possession of a young girl as something “beautiful and holy” simply beggars belief. But things get even more bizarre. We are told in Acts that the girl’s owners are furious that Paul has effectively robbed them of their principal source of income and that they therefore stir up controversy and get him thrown in prison. But on the Bishop’s reading, Paul is just getting what he deserved: “That’s pretty much where he put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she too shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does—maybe more so!” She seems to rejoice that a mid-first-century Philippian version of the liberal thought police had the good sense to imprison the patriarchal Paul for his deep intolerance of fallen spirits! You see why this sermon reminded me of that New Yorker cartoon.
That night in prison, we are told, Paul and Silas sang hymns of praise to God and preached the Gospel to their jailors. Jefferts Schori reads this, strangely, as Paul coming to his senses at last, remembering God, dropping the annoyance he felt toward the girl, and embracing the spirit of compassion. Wouldn’t it be a lot simpler and clearer to say that Paul, who had never “forgotten God,” quite consistently showed compassion both toward the possessed girl and the unevangelized jailor, delivering the former and preaching the Gospel to the latter?
What is at the root of this deeply wrong-headed homily is a conflation of early 21st century values of inclusion and toleration with the great Biblical value of love. To love is to will the good of the other as other. As such, love can involve—indeed, must involve—a deep intolerance toward wickedness and a clear willingness to exclude certain forms of life, behavior, and thought. When inclusivity and toleration emerge as the supreme goods—as they have in much of our society today—then love devolves into something vague, sentimental and finally dangerous. How dangerous? Well, we might begin to see the devil himself as beautiful and holy.
Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the documentary series, "Catholicism," airing on PBS stations, CatholicTV and EWTN. The documentary has been awarded an esteemed Christopher for excellence. Learn more about the series at www.WordonFire.org