Naming the Devils

By Robert Schmidt

Tho’ devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us
We tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still, scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none, He judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.

 

When Luther sang these words, the devils were not far away. They grimaced from the gargoyles; they haunted Dürer’s engravings. They were models for a Grünewald altarpiece. Luther knew them intimately. They attacked his conscience with terror. Luther knew them as master deceivers and liars who misled princes, commoners, and churchmen.

The devils had turned the world upside down. Augustine in the City of God had argued that God’s city of righteousness was something above and beyond the politics of empire and state. Cynically the devils had deceived the princes of the church to think that they were now the final rulers of God’s kingdom and other kingdoms as well. The pope had armies; bishops governed cities. Dissidents were tortured and reformers were burned at the stake. Because of the devils, the bride of Christ had become a whore favoring all who would pay her price.

Though Satan might still scowl fierce as he would, Luther stood defiant. In that great contest and battle over human destiny, Christ was the victor. Christ had not played the devil’s game. The victory was not with sword or spear. Christ’s seeming defeat on the cross was Satan’s undoing. The battle is finished. The devils have been defeated. They have only to raise their lying deceiving heads and they shall be crushed; one little word can fell them.

Can we name some of those devils today? We know that devils lie and deceive. They also love to torment consciences. Masters of propaganda, they sow their false values not only in department stores but also in church bodies. Never satisfied with ruining individuals and families, they use their power over societies and nations to murder, maim, and starve. Perhaps by naming some of these devils we can learn to recognize them and with one little word to fell them.

 

Blessing the Devils

At Luther’s time the church blessed the devils that tormented consciences, charged for forgiveness, and roasted reformers. In our own day many churches also have been seduced into blessing the devils.

While capitalism is simply an economic system with the capacity to do either good or evil, the devils attached a damming message, “Greed is Good.” From there it was not difficult to make the jump, “Greed is God.” Not only did this idolatry infect bankers and hedge funds on Wall Street, it also spread to car buyers and house hunters. If wages cannot keep up with desires, borrow more. Families need at least two jobs to make it. Now there is no time for the kids and certainly not for church meetings. The gospel according to greed is blared from every TV, web site, and bill board. The devils lied and deceived until they sprung the trap. Banks collapsed, houses foreclosed, and unemployed college graduates moved home with their parents.

Now the devils turned their attention to the churches. Would the religious community come out publicly against the new Baal worship? How could the churches do that when they were intimately caught up in the system? It takes money to run the 700 club and the new mega-churches. Even the struggling churches needed to watch their words lest they offend their more generous donors.

What happens, however, when idolatrous capitalism rewards only the rich and the majority of the people fall further behind? Won’t the people turn on the rich and upset the whole system? Admittedly, it is a big challenge.  However, the devils had a double strategy. First, they talked about “upward mobility.” Don’t be angry at the rich, regulate them and tax them. You too might get there. Yet, for the far majority of people, that has been but an empty promise.

The second strategy was even more diabolical. Have the churches reinforce the notion that wealth really was not that important. The important thing in life was righteousness. How should we define such righteousness?  That’s simple. Be against abortion and gay marriage. Stand with the social conservatives and you will be blessed. For middle class families who could get by economically, the message was well received. Of course wealth was not important. However, for those at the food banks, the medically untreated, and those with the cardboard signs at the freeway ramps, a little money would go a long way.

 

“Though Devils all the World Should Fill”

In the new synthesis between the power of corporations and the kind of religion that blesses them, the devils have taken over the world. Six corporations control most of the media in the United States. Corporations from the industrialized nations of the world literally make billions of dollars in supplying the arms that are funneled to rulers around the world, many of whom use them against their own people. Oil companies pollute the land and water in Nigeria and timber companies cut down the forests in the Amazon. With corporate advertising, the poor in Africa are seduced into buying a coke instead of an egg for their child. Unemployed young people from around the world seek jobs, but there are few to be found.

Will not good people work to challenge these demons? Ah! Their most significant temptation is within each of us. They ask, “Have you really done the best you can with regard to your standard of living? Are you not concerned about the economic welfare of your children? Don’t you care about the kind of house you live in or the car you drive? Maybe if you had done something else in your life, would you not now be more prosperous?” It was in his own conscience that Luther first met his devils. They accused him of being a dammed sinner. In is in our own conscience that we also meet our devils. They accuse us of being failures.

 

“One Little Word Can Fell Him”

What in the world did Luther mean when he sang, “One little word can fell him”? Luther was speaking about the word of the Gospel. God’s love, care, compassion, and forgiveness is there both for the sinner with Luther’s sensitive conscience and also for the millions, if not billions, of “failures” in our world. In this beautiful Gospel our righteousness and our rightness is but a gift from God. It is not there because we are straighter than gay, or richer than poor; it is there because of Christ. If wealth is the criteria, we sing, “Jesus, priceless treasure, fount of purest pleasure, truest friend to me.”

And as for the devils working in the world, Christ again is our Victor. When the devils cry, “Greed is God,” we speak of the Year of Jubilee, when the rich were to give back the land to the poor and debts would be forgiven. When they promise “upward mobility” we show pictures of God’s “plumb line” in Amos promising destruction on that kind of idolatry. Then we tell the story how in the time of Israel’s destruction the poor got their land back as the rich were taken into captivity.

With that little word, we keep alive the promises of the kingdom.  Sinners will be forgiven and the hungry will be fed. There will be water in the wilderness. The lame will leap, the deaf will hear, and the blind will see.  There will be a home and job for all as each will sit under their own vine and fig tree. Slaves and prisoners will be released. Instead of never ending war, there will be peace as they beat their swords into plowshares and not learn war any more.

Though Christ be the Victor, the battle will not be easy.

The Word they still shall let remain Nor any thanks have for it;
He’s by our side upon the plain With His good gifts and Spirit,
And take they our life, Goods fame, child and wife,
Let these all be gone, They yet have nothing won;
The Kingdom ours remaineth.

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