Christians Have Been Worshipping the Devil for Millennia: Lent calls us to change Gods

Empires[1]

Readings for First Sunday of Lent: Dt. 26: 4-10; Ps. 91: 1-2; 10-15; Rom. 10: 8-13; Lk. 4: 1-13. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/021713.cfm

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a time of renewal – of getting back to basics – to asking questions about what we really believe and what God we truly worship. Today’s liturgy of the word helps us to do both. Deuteronomy 26 directs us to the authentic faith of Jesus – in the God who liberates the enslaved. Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel calls us to worship that God rather than devil – the evil one that our culture and church (!) have been worshipping for centuries – ever since they first embraced imperialism in the 4th century C.E. Let me explain.

Start with that reading from Deuteronomy 26. It’s a key text if we want to understand the God in whom Jesus placed his faith. Jesus, remember, was a Jew, not a Christian. And Deuteronomy 26 provides us with the creedal statement that the Jewish Jesus accepted as did all Jews of his time. I mean, for them, Deuteronomy 26 functioned much like our Nicene Creed does for us each Sunday. It was a reminder of their basic belief. As such, it can be summarized in the passage’s seven points:

1. Our father (Abraham) was a wandering Aramean (a Syrian).
2. “Abraham” (i.e. his descendents) went down into Egypt.
3. There we became a great people.
4. But the Egyptians enslaved us.
5. We cried out to our God, Yahweh, who raised up the rebel prophet, Moses.
6. He led us out of Egypt, across the sea, through the desert, and to this land “flowing with milk and honey.”
7. This land is our gift from Yahweh; Thanks be to God!

That’s it! That was the faith that Jesus, the Jewish prophet, inherited from his ancestors. It was a tribal faith centered on the ownership of a God-given piece of land (Palestine) which (despite its dryness and desert character) the descendents of Jacob saw as rich and productive (flowing with milk and honey).

Notice that this Jewish faith had nothing to do with an afterlife, heaven or hell. (In fact, belief in the afterlife was a very late development among the Jews; it didn’t emerge even for debate until about 200 years before Jesus’ birth.) Instead, as among all hunter-gatherers, herds people and agriculturalists, Jewish faith was centered on land. Obviously then, it had little tolerance for colonial military forces like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks or Romans all of whom at various times occupied Palestine. Colonialism and foreign occupation contradicted Jewish faith in a fundamental way. It was intolerable.

That was true for Jesus too. As a prophet, his fundamental proclamation was not about himself or about a new religion. Much less was it about the after-life or “going to heaven.” Instead, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God.” That phrase referred to what the world would be like without empire – if Yahweh were king instead of Rome’s Caesar. In other words, “Kingdom of God” was a political image among a people unable and unwilling to distinguish between politics and religion.

In God’s Kingdom, everything would be reversed and guiding principles would be changed. The first would be last; the last would be first. The rich would weep, and the poor would laugh. Prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom, while the priests and “holy people” – all of them collaborators with Rome – would find themselves excluded. The world would belong not to the powerful, but to the “meek,” i.e. to the gentle, humble and non-violent. It would be governed not by force and “power over” but by compassion and gift (i.e. sharing).

The creedal account of Deuteronomy 26 sets the stage for today’s gospel narrative about Jesus’ temptations in the desert. (And it’s here that the devil-worship connected with empire enters the picture. Listen closely.) In a context of Roman occupation, Luke’s account raises the question of whom to worship. The choice he presents is stark: one can worship the devil the author of empire or Yahweh, the opponent of imperial power of all types.

That clear choice becomes apparent in Luke’s version of Jesus’ second temptation. From a high vantage point, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth. Then he says,

“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

Notice what’s happening here. The devil shows Jesus an empire infinitely larger than Rome’s – “all the kingdoms of the world.” Such empire, the devil claims, belongs to him: “It has been handed over to me.” This means that those who exercise imperial power do so because the devil has chosen to share his possession with them: “I may give it to whomever I wish.” The implication here is that Rome (and whoever exercises empire) is the devil’s agent. Finally, the tempter underlines what all of this means: devil-worship is the single prerequisite for empire’s possession and exercise: “All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

But Jesus responds,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”

Here Jesus quotes the Mosaic tradition summarized in Deuteronomy 26 to insist that empire and worship of Yahweh are incompatible. Put otherwise, at the beginning of his public life, Jesus declares his anti-imperial position in the strongest possible (i.e. scriptural) terms.

Now fast forward to the 4th century – 381 CE to be exact. In 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan had removed from Christianity the stigma of being a forbidden cult. From 313 on, it was legal. By 325 Constantine had become so involved in the life of the Christian church that he himself convoked the Council of Nicaea to determine the identity of Jesus. Who was Jesus after all – merely a man, or was he a God pretending to be a man, or perhaps a man who became a God? Was he equal to Yahweh or subordinate to him? If he was God, did he have to defecate and urinate? These were the questions.

However, my point is that by the early 4th century the emperor had a strong hand in determining the content of Christian theology. And as time passed, the imperial hand grew more influential by the day. In fact, by 381 under the emperor Theodosius Christianity had become not just legal, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. As such its job was to attest that God (not the devil) had given empire to Rome in exchange for worshipping him (not the devil)!

Do you get my point here? It’s the claim that in the 4th century, Rome presented church fathers with the same temptation that Jesus experienced in the desert. But whereas Jesus had refused empire as diabolical, the prevailing faction of 4th century church leadership embraced it as a gift from God. In so doing they also said “yes” to the devil worship as the necessary prerequisite to aspirations to control “all the kingdoms of the world.” Christians have been worshipping the devil ever since, while calling him “God.”

No, today’s readings insist: all the kingdoms of the world belong only to God. They are God’s Kingdom to be governed not by “power over,” not by dominion and taking, but by love and gift which leave people like the liberated daughters and sons of Abraham free to live in control of their own God-given piece of earth. Or in the words of Jesus, the earth is meant to belong to those “meek” I mentioned – the gentle, humble, and non-violent.

All of this has implications for us as would-be followers of Jesus and as citizens of a country whose “leaders” (supported by their “Christian” counterparts) increasingly embrace empire as the inevitable and fitting destiny of the United States.

In fact, in 2003, then vice-president, Dick Cheney sent out a Christmas card on which was inscribed the words, “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Cheney’s implication was that the United States is God’s new chosen people. Empire as practiced by the United States represents God’s will.

Instead, today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us the opposite. Empires arise only with the devil’s aid.

Does this mean that faithful followers of Jesus must pray for the defeat of the United States in its imperial conquests? Must we discourage our sons and daughters from joining the military?
(Discussion follows)

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “Christians Have Been Worshipping the Devil for Millennia: Lent calls us to change Gods”

  1. I am really glad you invited me to your blog. There is so much here. Some of it resonates. A lot of it is stretching me further than I ever thought I would ever be able to understand.

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  2. I cant thank you enough for inviting me to your blog. This is more info in a small area than I ever thought possible. I love your clear writing.

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  3. Hi Mike

    “Does this mean that faithful followers of Jesus must pray for the defeat of the United States in its imperial conquests? Must we discourage our sons and daughters from joining the military?”

    I believe you have really stepped on a nest of hornets with this one!!!
    Its a little like asking a good friend if he has halitosis! .

    How about a just war? Answer me that. We do have rights – to defend our children, our property, right to bear Uzis, our freedom of religion – and above all our (Irish-)American way of life. Especially if we are white!
    Not forgetting defending our blah blah blah! or my new suede shoes.
    I remember we had a visit in Milton Seminary once from a starry eyed blond kid from the John Birch Society who told us all about the rights of the righteous. (I often wondered who let him in. Or who let him out!)
    Christian slaughtering-soldiers have been marching out to defend these rights since the beginning of time. 75% of Empire USA are made up of our Christian brothers. 33% are card-carrying Catholics. And our religion, more than any, support the “Apocalypse Now” spirit with our front line priests.
    Just as Cheney implied in your quote.
    BTW the same day I don’t know if you read Desmond Tutu’s remark about peremptory strikes in defense of more of our precious values. Quote:
    Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it.
    I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims. Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standing and your humanity. End quote.
    Your Joint Chiefs calls on our Joint Chief first thing they make a call to Rome. Leon Panetta just got back from reporting in on his term of office to Pope Benedict!
    By the way in your blog in the list of wishes for our new pope you forgot one wish that the papacy as it now stands shud be abolished. ABOLISHED!
    The church is doomed in this age of connectivity if it does not go back to the original intention – community elected and all bound by periodic reassessment. If they are not in tune with the community then they are out on their apostolic cans!
    If we have any ‘Vicar of Christ’ nostalgia problem why not make her/him like the emperor of Japan ( who by the way has also descended from god) or the president of Ireland whom we house in a huge vacant park, with domesticated deer, the Papal Embasssy and our National Zoo. Essentially he does what he is told. The fact we have a inept government is not his fault. One of the few institutions all Irish are proud of. Especially the recent women presidents.
    Could you imagine our having a pope called Tutu the First.
    But I wander off rant!
    The vast majority of today’s independent intellectuals, commonly called “false” prophets believe there is no such thing as a just war, at least for the last 500 years.
    The Mid-East war could be ended over morning-coffee if the US so wanted. But it doesn’t because it would effect their corporate interest and control reach. Just like WW 1 and 11. It is the same with North Korea. It was the US broke the Clinton promises. The US could fold that up over green tea and kimchi if it did not suit them to see North and South Korea at logger heads with themselves and with the US Area Sheriff, Japan. Again all for corporate consideration and fear of the China reality. The China piper just hasn’t started “calling the tune” yet.
    So lets elect Tutu for pope and he will figure out real fast whether we send our sons and daughters to war or not.
    Did you ever hear Tutu talking about love. Pronouncing the word l-o-v-e!
    It sounds different from “young people of Ireland I love you”. Did that pope act like he meant it. Will the present pope humbly “hide from the world in a life dedicated to prayer”. Or will he just hang out with Law and the Lads.
    Mike, your question is serious. Washington is already at war with Iran.
    Ahmadinejad never said he wants to take Israel off the map.
    O’Reilly-Beck and the neo-con morons concocted that.
    The vast majority of Israelis, like the vast majority (over 70% ) of Americans know it and want peace. The dogs in the street etc….
    For the moment however we are busy shopping for what we dont need.
    I heard a joke recently you might like. A kid was in court for knocking down an old man doing 60, wrong way in a one way street in a pink Corvette. The judge said….do you remember young man what gear you were in?
    The kid, after some thought said…not sure Your Honor – but I think the jacket was Boss and the slacks Armani.
    Jc

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    1. Dear JC, Great comment. So much in it. Pope Tutu I. I love it. All of your points are supported by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s new book, “The Untold Story of American History.” I have yet to see the video version. If you don’t mind, I may post this comment as another guest blog from you. Lots of people liked your last one. It got many hits. MR-S

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