With the tragedy of at Pulse Nightclub and the anniversary of Charleston hard upon each other, millions of us are shaken to the core. To address the issue, We Talk. We Listen. has asked for multiple authors – academics, pastors, and lay leaders – to contribute special commentaries in the coming days. A graduate of our Ph.D. program and rostered pastor of the ELCA, Robert Saler is our first feature who picks up a theme from a fantastic blog post from ELCA seminarian Lenny Duncan. So read, reflect, share, and let’s keep the conversation going. Lives depend on it.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
The tragedy at Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida taking place almost year after the Charleston Massacre creates a double edged volcanic eruption that has shaken many. Part of how we can respond to this was present in this excellent recent post, by ELCA seminarian Lenny Duncan, arguing that recovery of the rite of Christian exorcism is crucial for Lutherans who want to do justice to the sheer demonic force of structural evil and intersectional oppressions in our time. In this short essay, I want to agree with and amplify this point by suggesting that taking Luther’s own Augustinian heritage seriously gives Lutherans a chance to argue for a much more robustly demonological account of structural evil than what we have taken advantage of so far. And, moreover, it is precisely this sort of demonology that might help resource, from a Lutheran perspective, a theologically nuanced and humane response to the horrors on display in the last years, from Charleston to Orlando.
That might sound strange to say, given how pervasive references to the devil are within Luther’s own writings. As Heiko Obermann pointed out years ago, nowhere is Luther more medieval than in his conception of Satan as an ontological adversary who renders life as a borderline Manichean struggle between salvation and destruction for the believer; indeed, scholars such as Paul Hinlicky, Mark Edwards, and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda have also demonstrated how prone Luther himself was to literally “demonize” his opponents by accusing them of being minions of Satan on account of their theological errors. Both of these reasons – the fact that Luther had a strong account of ontological evil and the fact that he was so liable to abuse it by demonizing others – might make it seem like the last thing that Lutherans would want to do is to amplify Lutheran rhetoric about the demonic.
But there are three reasons why I propose that it would actually be salutary for Lutherans to make this move.
1). Global Lutheranism sits at a nexus in which some of the most vexing intersectional issues that play out on the global scene – womens’ rights, race, neoliberal economics, LGBTQI agency, etc. – cohere with stunning demographic vitality. If an alien landed on this planet and was presented with Lutheranism, she would have to conclude that Lutheranism is an Indonesian/Ethiopian/Latin American religion with some modest amount of European/North American expansion. However, as Monica Coleman and others have reminded us, many of these people live in a far less “disenchanted” world than the one that secular modernity (and even its postmodern celebration of immanence over transcendence) has bequeathed to us. If we are to walk the fine line between standing up for rights gained under the trajectory of the Enlightenment without repeating that era’s material and epistemological colonialism, then we need a constructive account of the sort of spirits at play within multiple economies – including spiritual economies.
2). The devil is “having a moment” right now in political theology precisely because, historically, demonology has been the repository of the interplay of material and psychic desires by which both oppression (e.g. the Salem witch trials) and liberation might occur. And, as Richard Beck has recently argued, sometimes progressive Christian politics need the devil precisely so that we are not tempted to follow Luther in reducing actual human beings to demonic forces – as liberation theology teaches, we are all always already in thrall.
3). To the main point of this essay: to the extent that Luther was an Augustinian, and we Lutherans tend to theologize in the train of Augustine, we sit at the center of a problematic that has impacted Lutheran ability to think well about events such as Orlando ever since the time of the Peasant Revolt, on up through the Third Reich. And that is the legacy of later Augustine’s struggle with Pelagius and the impact that later theologizing around original sin (especially as reified doctrinally in the second Council of Orange in 529) had upon Lutheran tendencies to downplay structural sin.
We tend to associate Pelagius erroneously with a kind of optimism regarding human nature; however, notwithstanding even the slightly dodgy textual veracity of what views can be assigned to Pelagius himself, any plain reading of Pelagian strands in the early church demonstrate that Pelagius himself was a severe enough virtuoso of Christian asceticism that he thought that very few Christians would actually be persistent enough in avoiding damnable sin to achieve salvation. This is precisely because of Pelagius’ strong sense of the persisting structures of sin across generations – even if humans are not corrupt at birth, they soon will be. In context, Augustine’s opting for inscrutable election of the unworthy, however liable to cause problems later, was the more democratic soteriological option.
Demons and the Spectacle of Empire
Because Luther was such a champion of later Augustine vis-à-vis what he saw as the semi-Pelagianism of his Roman opponents in the Reformation, it might be said that it has been difficult for many Lutheran theologians to theologize effectively about structural sin in subsequent centuries. But if Luther was such a proponent of demonology, then perhaps, as Beck suggests, demonology can be the hinge by which an account of the pervasiveness of structural evil – and also its character – in our time might take on distinctly Lutheran tones.
And indeed, it is precisely this that we find in Augustine, particularly his City of God and its first ten books (on the Roman deities). Augustine, in diagnosing the ontological AND ethical status of the pagan gods of the Roman Empire, understands them to be three things simultaneously:
1). Demons, or literal fallen angels at war with the purposes of heaven,
2). The repositories of human desire, in a kind of proto-Feuerbachean fashion, and
3). The results of desires shaped by the spectacles put on for political reasons by the Roman Empire – spectacles designed (as Chanon Ross has recently argued to great effect) to enhance the lust for domination on the part of individuals so that they become docile adherents – or, if needed, violent combatants on behalf of – the lust for domination of the Roman Empire.
When you take these three facets together, what do you get?
Demons, in a full Augustinian account, are indexed to two realities – spectacle that produces the lust to dominate, and imperial ambitions towards shaping citizens for political domination.
If we take that same demonological framework and apply it to the horrors of white supremacy on display in Charleston, the ghastly spectacle of treatment of LGBTQI individuals that pornographizes their humanity at one moment and slaughters their bodies the next, and the ongoing grind of oppression that renders small but cumulative violence of equal measure against oppressed groups on a daily basis, then is this not what we see? I am suggesting that we cannot theologize effectively about Charleston or Orlando if we do not comprehend the way in which the lust for domination now diffused among multiple currents of neoliberal material and economic violence directly breeds and capitalizes on intersectional violence – against sexual minorities, racial minorities, those whose abilities differ from the norms promoted by the spectacles, and so on.
But just as, for Luther and Augustine, the liberation of grace in Christ took on a multifaceted combative edge against all three of the demonic forces named above, so too a robust and intersectional demonology in our time might be what allows Lutherans to reclaim the deep political edges implied in spiritual combat in times of empire. Spiritual combat, after all, might be the aspect of theology that is far more powerful than the “thoughts and prayers” that have become synonymous with politically interested inaction on behalf of victims.