We Have Met the Devil

Recently I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room – there for my routine annual physical when, as I gazed around the waiting area, it crossed my mind that someone could come in through the door and open fire, shooting us all like sitting ducks. Seriously, that occurred to me. First time a thought like that had come to me as a typical day opened in my life. Curious … interesting … and somehow telling of our current lives in this American culture.

A couple of weeks ago I ran across an article in the April 20 New York Times titled “Amid Fears That Evil Is Winning, Learning To cast Out il Diavolo.”* The writer, Jason Horowitz, describes the goings-on at a recent conference held at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum in Rome – run by the conservative Legionaries of Christ religious order. The conference itself, attended mostly by clergy who wanted to learn about the “gift of exorcism” to banish Satan from persons and places (see lead photo), was sponsored by a number of conservative Catholic groups who have become increasingly concerned about the Church’s leftward drift under Pope Francis. Horowitz writes, “The would-be exorcists blamed the internet and atheism for what they see as a spike in evil, but the urgency evident in the course also seemed to have something to do with a growing conservative view that the church has gone astray under Pope Francis, and that end times had drawn nigh.”

Now I don’t know if I’ve ever practiced an exorcism. But the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and Book of Occasional Services (second photo below) do provide a liturgy and prayer if such a need might arise in pastoral practice. For example, I have done many house blessings – usually just a joyous time to move from room to room with friends of the home owner, saying prayers over each room, and asking God’s blessing on those who dine at this table, prepare food in this kitchen, enjoy fellowship in this living room, etc. But right at the beginning of what’s called “Celebration for a Home,” the clergy leading the blessing ceremony is provided with an “invocation” to use “when appropriate.” It reads, “Let the mighty power of the Holy God be present in this place to banish from it every unclean spirit, to cleanse it from every residue of evil, and to make it a secure habitation for those who dwell in it …”

Now, not to get into all this right now, it is patently clear every time I open the morning papers that evil is real and permeates our lives. So I have usually included that prayer when I house-bless. However, I am too ingrained as a psychologist to reify evil as Diavolo – as the Devil. But that “devil” within? Oh yes … all the way down to our evolutionary roots. And that “devil” within stains our schools, our streets, our government, our neighborhoods, and yes, even sometimes, our homes.

Here is where I’m going to focus on a particular instrument of evil that is much in the press these days. And – spoiler alert! – I want to give you, dear reader, a heads-up now. Because you have been a faithful follower of these postings, I want to make clear: if you are a gun enthusiast, if you are an NRA member, if you are a very strong Second Amendment rights advocate, you may want to just skip over most, if not all, of this particular posting. (But please don’t go too far, because I rarely get so political in these think pieces.)

At about the time I read the Times article about the exorcism conference, I also read a piece in The Christian Century titled “Sinner-saints with Guns” by Steve Thorngate (April 25, 2018). (Third photo.) Thorngate states what many of us already know: “The United States has more guns than people. Its civilians own nearly as many guns as the rest of the world’s civilians combined. … Researchers have found a strong [positive] correlation between gun ownership rates and homicide rates. … Yes, this specific gun owner or that one will probably stay safe and responsible. But in the aggregate, more guns always means more people killed.” For example, Massachusetts has a relatively low rate of gun ownership. It also has the lowest gun death rate in the country: 3.5 people killed per 100,000, versus Tennessee’s at nearly five times the kill rate: 17.3 people killed by guns for every 100,000. The relatively low gun ownership and death rate in Massachusetts may, in fact, be because during the past two decades that state passed gun licensing requirements for hand guns, shotguns, and long guns, where gun licenses have to be renewed like driver’s licenses.

Since the Parkland school shooting in Florida, little has actually been done to curb gun violence. Ideas get floated and debated: arming teachers (“good guys with guns”), stricter age limits, more mental health support in the community, stronger background checks. But these are small steps and unlikely to make much of a dent in the fact that there are 357 million guns floating around our country, and some are used every day to wound and murder innocent victims.

We all know the arguments offered by NRA folks: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and, “It’s a sin problem, not a gun problem.” Okay, let’s talk about sin for a minute. Or if you prefer, let’s talk about the evolutionary roots of violence passed along in our very genes. In terms of sin, St. Paul famously wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. It is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Who hasn’t wondered in amazement about his or her own rash actions after a rage tantrum, of harsh words thrown out that wounded another soul. I think all of us have at least a sense of what Paul is referring to here.

Or in evolutionary terms – as I have pointed out in my recent books and in a blog some time back – the fact is that you and I have within us aggressive emotions and action tendencies which, if triggered, will cause us to lash out. (Call that sin if you will.) Whether you lash out or not is in part a matter of temperament, and also in part a matter of our individual shaping by family and culture. But make no mistake about it: from our earliest, proto-human days while still living in caves, homo sapiens learned to band together with their own tribe and fight to the death the threatening Other that menaced their well-being. So I don’t care whether you want to talk sin or evolution. The “devil” is real and lies within us all.

So back to guns. In The Christian Century article, Thorngate points out – since there is a strong positive correlation between numbers of guns out there and gun-related deaths: in order to achieve real progress in bringing the number of gun deaths down, more stringent action needs to be taken. For example, he says we not only should reinstate the federal ban on the manufacture of certain semiautomatic weapons for civilian use, what also is needed is “a large-scale ban and buyback program along the lines other countries – like Australia – have instituted. Because the numbers clearly show that more guns means more deaths. Thorngate ends his piece thus:

Let’s be clear about what we face. The American epidemic of gun violence is both a sin problem and a gun problem; the question is which problem we have the ability to solve [emphasis added]. Sin is a power much stronger than us or our individual efforts. Defeating it is an ongoing cosmic project initiated by one greater than us who will complete it, but not on our timetable. Our task is to deal with the other problem: the physical instruments of death that sin has at its disposal. We can’t just keep them away from the bad people, because the bad people might well be us.
As I said, we have met the devil … and he is us.


* As you will note if you scroll to the bottom of the article, the Times apparently has a practice of renaming their print articles for their website. You may have noticed this practice if you’ve clicked on the links to Times articles I’ve referenced in recent blogs. I don’t know their reasons for doing so – it only causes confusion when trying to share print articles with readers of the website – but there you go.