This article, War, Peace, Reconciliation, is by Glenda Taylor, who notes: “I wrote this in 1989, but amazingly, as I read it in the year 2018, it is as current today as ever it was then!”
Last month in our home town, a young man hanged himself. In another small town a few weeks later, a teenager shot his mother in the face with a rifle. And in a large city in another state, an adolescent slit his mother’s throat and then his own wrist. Police authorities say that in each of these otherwise unrelated instances, signs point to “devil worship,” to “Satanic cults.” According to the press, such cults are springing up independently all over the country. Religious fundamentalists are alarmed, ready now to do battle with Satan; this, they say, may be Armageddon at last.
Violence is, of course, nothing new in our culture. The “frontier society” has been armed and dangerous from the beginning, and it still is. A local police officer stated recently that sixty percent of the residents of the county where I live carry some sort of weapon, usually a gun, on their persons or in their cars.
However, we haven’t seriously heard much about satanic cults since the days of the witch hunts back in colonial times. Now, such cults are said to be widespread. Are they? Or is this belief the narrow-minded paranoia of those who label anything outside their own moral framework as Satanic? Are the fundamentalists, while preparing themselves to make war on evil, truly armed with righteousness, or are they in danger of succumbing once again to age-old patterns of judgment and violence against others, all in the name of their own high-minded views of morality?
On the other hand, are moral relativists, those so quick to judge the fundamentalists, actually dodging their own responsibilities in a culture marked by increasing violence, decadence, and loss of civility?
Many people in our country no longer consider themselves bound by old codes of morality.
They point out that even Jesus was accused by the legalistic people of his time of putting aside long established codes of right and wrong; Jesus himself, they say, was a moral relativist.
Ours is such a pluralistic society we may always find it difficult to agree upon a common code of ethics. Perhaps the Protestant will never agree that eating pork is wrong, and perhaps the Jew will never give up his love of dancing despite the moral outrage of others who believe that dancing is a sin. So how do we bridge this difference? Given our melting pot of values, how do we deal with violence and what is commonly called evil? How do we judge these cults and other manifestations of an illness in the cultural soul of our nation? Not easily, though many seem to think so, on both sides of the religious divide.
Our country, based upon freedom of religion, a freedom dearly bought in the blood of our ancestors, is now critically at risk, as one group after another reacts to the mounting moral crisis by attempting to establish its own views of right and wrong as the legal dominant.
Whether from the fundamentalists on the right or the relativists on the left, great are the dangers to our society in this present moment. I am deeply concerned that we may all rashly oversimplify this question of the nature of evil, thus magnifying rather than diminishing the difficulties we face.
Even the language itself, the choice of words we use to discuss these issues, is problematical. Take such expressions as “satanic powers,” “the powers of evil,” and “the powers of darkness.” Not everyone agrees as to what these mean, and most of us react automatically from within our own frames of reference. People of color, for example, raise the point that equating “darkness” with “evil” causes a false and dangerous projection onto those races with dark skin color. As for me, I usually hesitate to use the word evil at all, not because I don’t believe it exists, but because it means so many different things to so many different people that its use invariably promotes misunderstanding.
So I’m aware that in writing this newsletter, I’m venturing into murky, perhaps dangerous, territory. But I’m going ahead anyway because I feel strongly that by neglecting or refusing to clarify these concepts on a widespread cultural basis, we actually increase our danger. The psychologist C. G. Jung gave a speech in Europe shortly before Hitler’s rise to power. Jung warned that unless enough people in Germany and in the rest of Europe could grasp the “shadow” (his word) falling across the culture, disaster would surely ensue; in retrospect, we can see how prophetic he was. I feel strongly that if Jung were alive, he would be delivering a similar warning about the situation in the United States today. In my opinion, if we do not soon comprehend the deep roots of painful, neglected issues in our society–not least those of race, class, poverty, war, and religion–I fear for our collective and personal safety and sanity. For I believe that so-called satanic cults are only one manifestation of a larger, nightmarish danger in which we as a people are trapped and, apparently, from which we cannot or will not emerge. I fear that our society may be entering the crisis stage of a convulsive, collective trauma, one that has been developing for years. And somewhere at the core of these problems are fundamental questions, such as the question of evil: does it exist, what does it mean, and what are we to do about it?
The question of evil: historical origins
As I begin, I must admit that I’ll have to use some of those troubling words, like darkness, evil, Satan, the devil, etc., while exploring their historical origins and current ramifications. Even some psychological jargon will be necessary. Bear with me. My own interpretation of these words will emerge as I carefully circle around this subject, watching for trip-wires as I go.
But let’s begin with Satanic cults, that is, with the word Satan itself. Satan is a word as common, at least in our culture, as is the word God. But Satan’s history is actually mysterious to most of us. There is much we can learn by reviewing ancient myths about Satan.
Generally speaking, Jews and Christians tend to speak of Satan as an entity, a being, a power personified as an individual, a fallen angel, out to do us all in, to infect us all with evil, to bring about our downfall. Scholars are clear, however, that Satan, as a personification of the power of that which is called evil, is a concept not originated by Hebrews or Christians. It was inherited from earlier cultures, such as the Babylonian, Egyptian, Sumerian. But as we will see, the interpretation of this power by those earlier cultures was somewhat different from that of our contemporary culture. Already, in those ancient cultures (long before the Hebrews coalesced as a tribal people, more than a thousand years before anything was ever written down in Hebrew), there was a full blown notion of the meaning of this power. The earliest recorded account is the Sumerian. (Writing was invented, as far as we know, in Sumeria in about the third millennium BC.)
In Sumerian mythology, it was said that in the very beginning of all beginnings, darkness existed, together with light, in a vast primeval sea. Then there was a separation, a division that resulted in the differentiation of various layers of being. (1) The Great Above (the sky, sun, stars, etc.), (2) the Earth, (3) the Great Below (a space of darkness lying between the Earth and the (4) Primeval Sea.
Again, in this most ancient of mythologies, one of the first events of creation is the separation of light from darkness. (Note, by the way, the similarity of this account to the later, derivative Hebrew account, which reads: “…In the beginning…was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep…God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light…and God divided light from darkness…” Genesis 1.1. Note also, interestingly, that in the Hebrew account, as in other early mythological accounts, darkness came first, light was secondary.)
There are further details of interest in the Sumerian account. It seems that after the separation of the “Great Above” from the “Great Below,” there appeared in the dark and watery space at the bottom of the “Great Below” a creature described as a huge serpent or dragon whose flailing around at times caused floods of chaotic waters to threaten the earth and sometimes even the heavens. The name given this creature was Kur.
The word Kur was occasionally used inclusively for all of the “Great Below,” but usually the Great Below was simply a nether world, a sort of limbo, not chaotic, where the shades of the dead went after death. Only occasionally did Kur stir things up so much that there was chaos.
But the Sumerians took Kur seriously.
Most of Sumerian mythology has to do with how one deals with the forces of darkness, violence, disorder, and unreason; their stories depict the means of bringing order out of chaos.
Kur is obviously the Sumerian personification of the power we are discussing.
However, (and this is important), various mythological accounts show that the Sumerians believed that the power of chaos and destruction (if we can simply call it that for now) is one natural, given side of reality, the degenerative, life-destroying side. There is another side, the creative, life-producing side, of course, but these two aspects of reality were seen as two sides of a coin; different but inseparable.
Again and again, the powers of light in the Great Above struggle with Kur, the serpent of chaos in the Great Below. Three different accounts tell of the “destruction” of Kur: once by the god of wisdom, Enki, once by the goddess Innanna, and once by Ninurta (the grandchild of the union of Heaven and Earth). Each of these is said to have “overcome” and “destroyed” Kur. But, significantly, Kur always reappears. What is clear in this, humanity’s earliest written religious account, is that Kur, as a personification of the power of degeneration or destruction, is never completely exterminated, but must be dealt with again and again.
Likewise, interestingly, in the later Hebrew account, God does not destroy Satan, but rather merely casts him out of heaven, out of the “world above,” to the “world below,” where, from time to time, God has dealings with Satan in one way or another (as for example, when God agrees to allow Satan to tempt and afflict Job to see if Job will remain righteous).
Nor does Jesus, in the Christian tradition, for all his power and wisdom, destroy Satan. Jesus talks to Satan, he struggles with Satan, he puts himself in safe relation to the powers of Satan, but he does not destroy Satan. Nor does he give any indication that the actual destruction of Satan is what the moral life is all about. Rather, dealing with Satan in a manner that recognizes Satan’s existence but keeps Satan in his place and us securely in ours, without our being “possessed” by Satan, seems to be what Jesus demonstrates (and what we, by and large, ignore at our peril).
Sumerian and other ancient mythologies, including the Hebrew and Christian, teach us that the power of destruction or chaos is real, that we must take it into account and be prepared to deal with it. To misdirect our energies in a futile attempt to destroy evil may be the greatest danger of all.
Egyptian mythology shows this as well. Set or Seth is the Egyptian version of Kur. Set is the desert heat that kills the young plant. He is the drought and feverish thirst. He is the waning of the moon, the decrease of the waters of the Nile, and the setting of the sun. One of his many symbols is the serpent.
And yet, regardless of the terror which he inspired, Set was not originally seen as an evil demon. The Egyptians, like the Sumerians, understood that Set, personifying this force we are circling round, just is, and has been from the beginning, and will likely continue to be. Humans, in Egyptian mythology, were taught to take seriously the power of destruction or decay. They were taught to call it by its name, to know the right words, the right means, the right attitudes that would put themselves in right relation to it.
In other cultures, we find similar motifs.
In India, Kali is the force of decay, depicted as a goddess with serpents and skulls wrapped about her; she is Mother Nature who not only provides life, she also takes it away. In ancient Mexico, this destroying aspect of Mother Nature was called Coatlique, similarly depicted with snakes wrapped around her.
Ancient Babylonian mythology (a mix of Sumerian, Acadian, Assyrian, and Chaldean mythologies) also has an account of this power, called in Assyrian Tiamtu, meaning “the deep.” Tiamtu was represented as the serpent that beats the sea, the serpent of the night, the serpent of darkness. Painted on the side of one excavated Babylonian cylinder are two persons seated under a sacred tree (Babylonian mythology is full of accounts of the “tree of life”), with a serpent nearby. This, of course, makes one think of the Hebrew story, written much later, of Adam and Eve, who are cast out of the “garden of paradise” after taking the advice of the serpent to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in effect loosing evil into their lives and our own.
So, we might conclude that in these ancient views, what we call evil will come, sooner or later into each of our lives. It cannot be done away with. The serpent, the snake, that metaphor used by the ancients, has been around and still is around despite continuous efforts by humans to be rid of it.
But evil, like snakes, can be dealt with in a manner that may reduce its danger to us, and may allow our response to it to be more appropriate. We may learn its nature, that it can show itself dangerously at any time, and we may be on the alert to deal with it when it does.
It seems clear, in reviewing even this small bit of history, that what is satanic in our time, as in olden times, is actually the presence of an energy that is potentially destructive or chaotic, a sometimes violent energy that takes many forms, that acts in many ways. But what the ancients knew, what the Hebrews and the early Christians knew, and what we or the fundamentalist in his quest to do battle with Satan ignore at our peril, is that one does not, perhaps cannot, ultimately destroy this energy. It is a given aspect of being. How we deal with it, in ourselves and in the culture, is the issue I raise.
How Do We Think About This?
Put in psychological or spiritual terms, this may require us to admit that we cannot simply wipe out irrationality, or the human capacity for violence, or our own potential for evil. Trying to pretend otherwise, trying to be always absolutely pure or good or wise, doesn’t work. Expecting other people to do so doesn’t work. St. Paul said, “The good that I would do, I do not; the evil that I would not do, that I do.” We are all evil at times, have this satanic capacity. Trying to pretend otherwise is simply repressing this awareness from consciousness, and that does not help; it usually makes matters worse. Pretending that if we look the other way it will just go away doesn’t work.
Another counter-productive tendency is to be a ‘sponge,’ suffering seemingly endless anguish, anxiety, and depression because of all the various painful conditions always existing around us.
When this happens, we don’t know consciously where we end and the collective or the larger transpersonal world begins. We suffer simply because any suffering exists, just because evil itself exists. We don’t have in place a sort of psychological semi-permeable membrane that protects us from too much influx of pain or chaos. Or we may unconsciously practice what has been called ‘woundology,’ making suffering and ‘aint it awful’ stories our primary focus. In both cases, we fall over into the results of evil, giving too little attention to the fact that while there is always evil, there is also always good, beauty, joy, bliss, etc. This is being out of balance as much as is repression.
Neither does it help to project evil “out there” onto someone else, or onto some other group, deciding to exterminate evil by exterminating them.
We’ve tried that, often enough. Hitler tried to exterminate the Jews, whom he considered evil; he exterminated millions of them. White Americans tried to exterminate Native Americans and blacks and other “vermin.” The inquisition exterminated half a million people, mostly women, who were killed after being tortured horribly in an attempt to get them to confess to being witches, to being “Satanic.” Most of them did not confess, but they were exterminated anyway. That did not, however, eliminate evil from our midst.
Oh, we have tried to make war on evil, as many people would like to do today. But in the end, the overly righteous warrior often becomes the one who is most evil of all. Those who demonize the ‘other,’–whether the other is viewed as politician, or cultist, or the enemy abroad, or the liberal, or the conservative, or the corporation, or the young, or the old, or whatever-put themselves and all of us in a very grave danger.
And make no mistake. We all do it, particularly whenever we start talking about “them.” (I myself must often ruefully admit, for example, that I am only bigoted about bigots.) But such projection of evil onto others while ignoring it in ourselves does not get rid of it.
Are there other ways to deal with it?
I have been told of a tradition in Native American culture that is instructive.
In the old days, when a member of a tribe became violent, so violent that he had, for example, killed another person, he immediately blackened his face, thus identifying himself, not necessarily as someone evil, for he might be considered heroic or brave, but as someone caught up in an energy that was potentially explosive, compulsive and dangerous. Then everyone who saw him knew that a violent energy, the “madness” of killing, had befallen him, and he had succumbed to it. Whether in an honorable self defense or in an aggressive assault, it made no difference. He carried this energy of violence, of killing. Native Americans in this tradition recognized the inevitability of this violent energy and believed that when it emerged, it must be immediately identified, contained, cleansed, and healed.
This was important not only for the killer, but also for other people around him, who could easily be infected by his energy. Violence is contagious. The rapid spread of hysteria and mob violence, of personal retribution, war, is a serious matter to be avoided if at all possible. And so they took precautions.
The violent person was taken by the medicine person of the tribe to a place outside the village, away from other people, where he remained isolated, in quarantine for a period of time, a week, two weeks, whatever time it took. He worked with the medicine person, going through rest, debriefing, cleansing and purification ceremonies, until at last the medicine person was convinced that the violent energy had gone out of the killer, and that he was a menace neither to himself nor others.
Then he was brought back into the village, and a ceremony of greeting and reentry was held. Food was prepared. The entire tribe turned out to welcome him back into their midst. If what he had done was considered heroic, it was extolled in song and dance. If what he had done was considered cowardly or a violation of laws of decency, speeches might be made to him by the tribal elders or his parents or the medicine person; the speeches would acknowledge both his offense and his time of purification. This ceremony let the killer know that he was clearly recognized for what he had done, but as a result of his purification, he was now back in a state of harmony and peace, within himself and within his tribe.
The legacy of Viet Nam and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s
I wonder, as I write this, what a Viet Nam veteran reading it would think. I have talked with many veterans of that war, done counseling with a few. None of the ones I know anything about had such an experience upon returning home from Viet Nam. Indeed, in my opinion, one of the most important reasons for the current “infection” of violence in our midst is the unhealed wounds of the l960’s. I feel so strongly about this I would like to elaborate on it at some length. (And perhaps I should say, at the outset, that I know that other cultures besides our own have these or similar or worse problems, their own issues with evil, and I should also say while I actually do feel that my country is in fact the best on earth, I nonetheless must speak of what I think is not good about my own culture.)
Viet Nam. Not all Viet Nam veterans, of course, killed anyone. But most of them experienced violence, horror, and a whole range of negative emotions. Numerous vets have attempted to describe these emotions to me, and I will try to summarize what I have been told. There was, among other things:
Fear. The on-going, never-ending, nagging unease, month in and month out, sometimes year in and year out, of knowing that at any time they could be hurt or killed. Periodically, in moments of combat, this fear escalated to stark, almost mindless terror.
Fatigue, confusion, and despair. The situation in Viet Nam was never neat or tidy; it was always shape-shifting, uncertain. Take a village today, lose it tomorrow. Wondering constantly, “Is that ‘gook’ over there an innocent old man or will he stab me when my back is turned? Is that innocent-looking six-year-old kid actually carrying an explosive to blow me away, as some other little kid blew away my buddy last week?”
Prolonged altered states of consciousness. The situation was so destabilizing to the morale of the Americans in Viet Nam that the use of alcohol and drugs to escape that awful reality was, according to some authorities, more the rule than the exception.
Shame and guilt. The atrocities committed by both sides in that conflict were everyday occurrences. Only now are we beginning to learn how widespread was the dark stain of atrocities committed by American soldiers on a routine basis. Whereas in the Second World War, most Americans believed they were fighting an honorable war for noble ends using methods no one would question, most Americans in Viet Nam knew they were fighting a messy war for questionable ends using what methods fell to hand, often methods they would not later be proud to discuss around the coffee table back home with Mom and Dad or the wife and kids.
Horror. “Horrible, horrible,” sobbed one veteran, sitting in my office years after Viet Nam, holding his hands over his face and shaking all over. “You can’t know. I can’t tell you how horrible it was. Horrible, horrible.”
“You can’t know. We can’t tell you.” That was the final destabilizing factor for the Viet Nam veteran. We here at home watched, in our own horror, the television news with its “body counts,” scenes of war brought off the battlefield and right into our living rooms, day after day, night after night, so that we too were infected with horror, terror, shame and despair to an extent that we in America had never known before. Yet, bad as it seemed on television, being there, being in it, was far, far worse, uglier, more atrocious, more violent.
Then, finally, all those Americans still alive in Viet Nam returned home. The war was ended. Not won, just ended. And the veteran returned, not to the usual hero’s welcome, but to a country in its own state of confusion, despair and violence.
Many Americans by now believed the war to have been a mistake, wrong, believed we should not have been in Viet Nam at all. And so, in general, Americans at home did not turn out to greet the returning Viet Nam veteran with honors, help, or even compassion. One veteran told me that an old lady in his hometown spit in his face the day he returned home in uniform. “An old lady! After all I had been through in Viet Nam, to return home to this…”
And the veteran returned to more than that. He returned home to a country altered forever from what he had left. Perhaps watching all those television news scenes of mutilated bodies night after night had desensitized us to violence. One movie made during that period showed a family at the dinner table, chatting about baseball and other ordinary experiences, as, all the while, across the room, the television was depicting the most gruesome battle scenes. The family paid no attention to these horrible scenes, simply kept on eating.
Perhaps we had no choice. No one could stay utterly sensitive to that kind of continuous onslaught of horror and remain sane. And so we ignored it, as best we could, came to think of violence and chaos as an ordinary, everyday occurrence. And, indeed, it became so, not only in Viet Nam, but right here in America.
The veteran returned to the aftermath of a series of bloody assassinations. John Kennedy. Robert Kennedy. Martin Luther King. Later John Lennon, who had sung songs about peace on earth. The country as a whole was still in shock over these lawless killings at the very time when the Viet Nam veteran was trying to make a safe reentry, to come “home.” Home, as he had known it, no longer existed.
The veteran returned to civil rights upheavals that had cities aflame and under martial law, with echoes of “burn, baby, burn,” with looting and other violations of law being condoned as “understandable” for people whose freedom had so long been violently curtailed. These people were now taking the law into their own hands to get what they had been denied within “the system.”
The Viet Nam veteran returned home in time to see Richard Nixon, the president of the country and the commander in chief of the armed forces, along with numerous other high political officials, on trial, on television, for a variety of illegal acts. The veteran returned to see college students illegally occupying dean’s offices, burning draft cards, or American flags.
Or their bras. The veteran also returned to women, changed forever, if not fully liberated, at least changed, never the same to any man again. Their long repressed anger at their unequal social status was now at the surface, anger constantly erupting, as they silently or overtly accused every man in sight of being a sexist villain.
In short, the returning veteran, so in need of something like the ancient ritual of the Native American, so in need of being able to “blacken his face” and to have fully acknowledged by a compassionate tribe all that he had experienced of horror, violence, guilt, and shame, so in need of a safe place and a ritual of debriefing, of telling his own story, all of the darks and lights of it, to a wise “medicine” person who could handle it and help him handle it, help him come to terms with it, be cleansed of it, be detoxified of this violent, satanic energy of Viet Nam, and then be returned to an understanding and compassionate community, found instead his community itself in a state of violent, toxic upheaval.
In this situation, no one wanted to hear from him. No one wanted to deal with him. Everyone wanted to put the war behind as quickly as possible. Forget it. Don’t talk about it. We’ve become desensitized. You can too. Let’s get on to something else. Be positive.
And so, we did not have or carry out any rituals for dealing with the negative energy unleashed in Viet Nam, brought into our homes on television and brought back in the persons of returning veterans who were, as they themselves knew, contagious. The negative energy of Viet Nam and of all the other disturbing aspects of the 60’s were not sufficiently named, contained, cleansed, or transformed. They were more often repressed, pushed underground.
But they did not go away. They were like a blackberry vine, chopped off above ground here, but coming up there, again and again, from its underground root, there, and there, and there, in different places, seemingly different plants but the same evil. That evil which was repressed, pressed underground in our collective consciousness, the same, the same power of destruction to which we as a society never had put ourselves in right relation, even from the beginning, rose up against us.
Perhaps the domestic violence committed against women and children that now seems to be at epidemic proportions is one offshoot of that unredeemed strain of contagious violence. Perhaps the sexual abuse by priests and others in authority now being reported is an offshoot. Perhaps the breakdown of trust in families, in government, in churches is an offshoot.
Do you notice these days that politicians talk freely about simply ‘destroying’ our enemy, no longer about ‘bringing them to justice?’ People in one group or another take it upon themselves to deny the religious or civil liberties of those they disagree with. Freedom of speech, never totally secure, seems particularly threatened these days. One of my Native American teachers said recently of a friend’s illness, “It isn’t her illness; it’s this culture’s illness that she is suffering.”
Often, when I see television, I am still, after all these years, thunder struck by the programming we as a people choose to show on television, choose to watch. Why, I wonder, haven’t we shown instead of the violence and ugliness, more uplifting, positive, encouraging, happy, even beautiful, certainly less violent programs? Why, I ask myself, do we insist on watching crime, murder, the worst of human nature, portrayed hour after hour, soaked into our psyches like a poison? Why do we subject ourselves and our children to this?
Then I remember, again, that what we repress from consciousness eventually possesses us in some form.
It will be dealt with, consciously or unconsciously. Water damned up behind a barrier will rise until it becomes vastly more destructive when it finally breaks through. Repressed evil in our society has been damned up behind walls of unconsciousness for a very long time. It did not begin with Viet Nam.
Who will speak of the unbelievable atrocities white people committed against Native Americans, white people calling themselves Christians and calling the Native Americans pagans? Who will speak of the atrocities of slavery of the black people in our history? Who will speak of the debasement of the proud Hispanic people of colonial Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, or of the incarceration of Japanese Americans into concentration camps right here in America during World War II, or of the responsibility of America for the horrors of Hiroshima? Who will speak of the rape of the natural environment, of the rivers and lakes and air and atmosphere, of smog and acid rain? Who will speak of evil itself?
The fundamentalist will speak of it, if the rest of us won’t. But the fundamentalist says it’s caused by a force outside themselves, by Satan, and they are ready to take up arms against him (or, perhaps, against anyone they decide is Satanic, anyone they decide to demonize).
My fear is that they, we, all of us, will look in the wrong place, will underestimate Satan, if you will. If we target these mindless youngsters in cults, or some foreign enemy, or the government, or the liberals, or people with a weird religion, or people with brown eyes, or anyone at all, any other at all, then my fear is that we will think that by rooting out these cults, by destroying these others, by making war on evil, we will have solved the problem. But it’s just not going to happen!
We are going to have to face, as a culture and as individuals, the issues of poverty, race, environment, global community, multi-ethnic morality, and many other problems. Will we, can we, face these huge issues? Can we, in effect, reinvent our world and ourselves? We had better.
Young people today, those in satanic cults and many other young people, wear black. “Wearing black is just the style these days,” said one teenager to me when I questioned her about all the black clothing I was seeing. Do these young people unconsciously wear black, unconsciously carry out the ritual of blackening themselves, as the Native American did consciously, to announce the presence of grief, of grievous evil in our midst, not necessarily in themselves, but in all of us, in those of us who won’t wear black, who won’t acknowledge the evil, who would rather pretend to a moral relativism that says there is no evil, no right or wrong, only situational ethics, and so we in a ‘free society’ can all be individualists who can do anything that feels good to us?
Are some of our young people unconsciously acting out the forces we have failed to acknowledge? Are they now swept away by the forces that we repressed behind a dam of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil?” Has this unseen, unspoken, undifferentiated, under-estimated force in our culture gathered so much power it comes out at last in our children, who have not yet barricaded themselves against it? Have we, in our obstinate neglect, unconsciously sacrificed not only ourselves, the best in our culture, and now our children, by forcing them to live in such a violent world, so lacking in understanding and compassion? Are our young people inevitably infected by this energy so that now they turn, some of them, to slit our throats as well as their own?
Who is at fault? Who? A disembodied Satan, or any of those ‘others,’ individuals or groups out there, that we can make war on? Or is it we ourselves, all of us in our culture, who have refused the challenge of admitting our own roles and responsibilities in allowing this long-existing, negative, destructive energy to go unacknowledged, unhealed?
Satanic cults are perhaps symptomatic; they are not a phenomenon to be dealt with in isolation. The young people in these cults perhaps unconsciously enact the madness that lies beneath the surface of the skin of our culture. Let us have pity upon any unfortunate children (and all of the adults) who are overtaken by this madness. Let us help to heal them by taking back from them the burden of our own part of this evil that they are carrying for all of us.
I feel like an Old Testament prophet, writing this, as though I were saying, to anyone who would listen, “Put on sack cloth and ashes! Blacken your face! Sodom and Gomorrah are doomed!” Or, as Jesus said, repeatedly, to anyone who would listen, while walking the dusty paths and roads in another decadent society: “Repent! Repent!” As the hymns admonish us, “Fall on your knees.”
But let us fall on our own knees, for heaven’s sake; blacken our own faces. There are few innocents left here justly to accuse others. In Sodom and Gomorrah there was only a handful, out of a whole society. Are you so pure, am I, that we can forget the injunction, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone?”
What shall we do?
Satan will not be destroyed because we go on a witch hunt after those involved in satanic cults. But evil can be dealt with, as Jesus demonstrated, and as countless others have discovered. The spread of evil can be contained. Forgiveness and reconciliation are possible, if we are prepared to be honest at last, to admit the full extent of the evil we have been living with for so long in our culture. What then would I have us do? I would have us follow the advice of the spiritual teachers of all time. At its core, not in its dogma, it is all the same.
Quetzalcoatl, in Mayan culture, taught self-awareness. He was said to be the wise leader of the Mayan people. He originally, it was said, thought of himself as pure, holy, innocent. Until one day his brother (who is the Kur or Satanic figure in this mythology) held up a mirror in front of Quetzalcoatl’s face, and in that mirror, Quetzalcoatl saw his own duality, his own ugliness right there alongside his own beauty. We can learn from Quetzalcoatl, if we are brave enough to look into the mirror and see our own ugliness, as well as we see that of some youngster in a satanic cult or someone else we disagree with strongly.
Osiris, in Egypt, taught self-sacrifice. Osiris, too, was good and pure and holy, helping the people in many ways. Until his dark brother, Set, dismembered him, tore him apart, so that when he was put back together again, he came to be worshipped as the god of resurrection, the symbol of the truth that the goodness of life arises, again and again, always, in spite of death and decay. Osiris’ self sacrifice, like that of Jesus after him, was for “the sins of the whole world.” In short, these and other great spiritual teachers remind us to begin with our selves on the long road to dealing with what we call evil.
Let us acknowledge consciously, with St. Paul, that we have all fallen short of the glory of God, that we have all missed the mark, that we all know evil intimately within ourselves. Before we attempt to take the speck out of the eye of some young cultist, let us look at the enormous beam in our own eyes. Before we make war on another country for their evil ways, let us attend to our own.
Then let us move on to the next steps: cleansing, purification, and reconciliation within our communities.
There is nothing that happened in Viet Nam, nothing that happened in anyone’s sick, dysfunctional family, nothing that happened in our checkered history, nothing that happens in our fantasies, nothing that happened in our own lives, nothing, ever, anywhere, nothing, that cannot be named, owned and accepted, not as right, but as something that is. Just is! God help us, what is called evil is a part of reality. But it can be healed, it can change. However atrocious, horrible, anguishing, shameful, it can come out, like a poison out of the bloodstream, or a puss out of a boil, if we attend to it, personally and culturally.
When one person does his or her own inner work, dealing with the Satan within himself or herself, this helps to heal the whole culture. As one person turns to another person, looks that other person straight in the eyes and, fully acknowledging the harmfulness that exists in them both, reaches out in love to forgive and embrace the other, the whole society begins to be healed.
We may never understand the “whys,” such as “why God allows evil.” We might as well call it mystery, for we may never get to the bottom of it, or to the top of it, or to understand it completely. The whole thrust of the Fellowship of Comparative Religion, like that of all churches and religions, is to help us more and more, over a life-time, to become wiser in this regard. But even if we don’t understand the “whys,” we must begin, anyway, now, to take courage, to think, to act, to heal.
The problems in our culture are great and demanding. Their solution will require imagination, invention, discipline, courage, patience, humility, passion, faith, forgiveness, and perhaps most of all a spirit of tolerant reconciliation. Let us remember what the Chinese knew; in their language the symbol for crisis also stands for opportunity. What wondrous new world can we create together if we first allow the sin of the old to be healed? Let us remember that the original meaning of the word we translate as sin merely meant “missing the mark,” and that the word repent meant merely “turn around and go another way.” This is what all the great teachers, Jesus included, encourage us to recognize.
Healing is Possible
After discussing all these challenges, I should now emphasize hope. Much is good about our culture and about each of us. Not least is our willingness to change. Our culture’s chief characteristic has always been a restless, questing, adventurous, changeable spirit. Change is not as frightening to us as a people as to other, older cultures. We often, in fact, relish change and challenge. We want to be good and do well, to be loving, really we do.
The writer Ursula LeGuin makes a powerful statement about all this in the conclusion of her science-fiction novel A Wizard of Earthsea. In this novel, Ged, a man struggling to learn to live his life, first runs away from what he fears, from the “shadow” of the power of darkness. But it pursues Ged everywhere, threatening him constantly but then eluding him. Ged is told by his teacher to face this darkness. At last, Ged finds and, though terrified, faces this power. LeGuin writes:
“…the thing came toward Ged. It drew together and shrank and blackened…but still it came forward, lifting up to (Ged) a blind unformed snout without lips or ears or eyes. As they came right together it became utterly black…and it heaved itself upright. In silence, man and shadow met face to face, and stopped.
“Aloud and clearly, breaking the old silence, Ged spoke the shadow’s name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: “Ged.” And the two voices were one voice.
“Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined and were one…”
Ged said, “Look, it is done. It is over.’ He laughed. ‘The wound is healed,’ he said, ‘I am whole, I am free.”
And Ged’s friend, who had traveled with him in search of the shadow, began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and his life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.”
Am I able to do this in my own life? Sometimes. I do try. I am, of course, constantly capable of evil, as is the next person. I have, from time to time, experienced the symbolic ritual of “blackening” my face as I have dealt with my own anguish, my own violence, my own destructiveness. My Native American name is Little Hawk. It reminds me that I am little, small. Sometimes very little. Very small. However much I have learned through the years, however much I have gotten in touch with my own innate nobility, I am all the more reminded of my own capabilities of doing great harm. And so I am not able to get on a mountain top and say, self-righteously, to you, to our society, “Do as I do!”
Except in this. Oh, please, while carrying out your own renewal, be gentle with yourself. Forgive yourself. Love yourself. As I am trying to do. Let us all come to a place of commitment and courage, so that we, like Ged, take up our wholeness and begin to change and heal our world.
Then we can each, perhaps, turn to others, to a Viet Nam veteran, or to the last person who angered or hurt us, perhaps, with arms open, with hearts open. Loving our neighbor as ourselves, no matter who he or she is, of whatever race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, or whatever, we can give to him and her, to them and theirs, our compassion and our healing love. We can find out why they rage, what they need, and we can meet them, in earnestness and in love.
Love is, after all, the mysterious presence that permeates the whole of creation, and this vast, all-encompassing Love is not destroyed by the presence of what we consider to be evil. Let us love one another.
I stand in need of your love, as I know you stand in need of mine. And I do love you, my friend.
Be well. Be whole. Be healed. I carry you, as always, in my heart.
Kali by Raja Ravi Varma, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.com
Double headed serpent image via Pixabay.com, reproduced from the original by Mark Holsapple of Primal Images, the original created by Mixtec craftsmen about a century before Cortez’s arrival in the Americas.
Ted Tenorio, Native American Veterans Association president and Army Vietnam veteran participates in the gourd dance during the Native American Veterans Association’s annual Veterans Appreciation and Heritage Day Pow Wow in South Gate, Calif., Nov. 8 and 9. DoD photo by Marvin Lynchard