This past December, we attended a Christmas Eve service at a church in Southeast Asia. In the midst of the singing and preaching, they presented a drama featuring Herod and his court as he dealt with reports from the Wise Men that a troublesome baby was on the way. As the Herod character strode the stage amidst his court, all of them dressed in red and purple, a kid, draped in black and wearing dark sunglasses, stalked him closely from behind, arms raised menacingly, mantis-style. Best I could tell, the stalker was more than a metaphor for the dark counsel of Herod’s mind and heart. Rather, she stood in for a person or persons — not human, but satanic — whispering, as it were, in his ear. Of course, this was the sort of naively convictional theater you’d expect in a corner of the developing world.
Those familiar with the Matthew 2 passage recall that Herod commissioned the “slaughter of the innocents” in an attempt to erase the threat to his honor and prerogatives. It would be one thing for him to hunt down and neutralize revolutionary zealots, seeking to overthrow his puppet rule under Rome; it was quite another to massacre baby boys under 2 near Bethlehem who might give him trouble down the way. Which brings me to the three 9-year-olds (Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney) gunned down in Nashville’s Covenant School. What kind of monster would effect this abomination?
Speculation proceeds apace, with blame directed (from various competing perspectives) at intolerant Republicans for outlawing transexual performances and medical procedures for children; the shooter’s parents, who forced her to attend a transphobic school and then didn’t sufficiently monitor their child’s behavior; gun purveyors who show callous disregard for the convenient lethality of their equipment; evangelicals and other insensitive moralizers who stigmatize deviant sexuality; counselors who misdiagnosed the depth of the shooter’s bentness or failed to report the dangers they perceived; the savage spirit of the shooter herself. And so on.
At the risk of sounding pathetically and even deplorably medieval, let me join with those backward, Asian, Christmas dramatists and suggest we’re leaving a big player out of the picture, Satan. And I don’t mean to excuse the murderer. She played a huge part in the crime. It was utterly appropriate that (trigger warning: no pun intended) the police shot her dead. There’s no place for a breezy, Flip Wilson trope, “The devil made her do it.” Rather, it’s a plea that we recognize the substantial biblical witness to satanic agency at work relentlessly and powerfully around us.
Let’s review briefly: Ephesians 6:12 reminds us that, ultimately, our “battle is not against flesh and blood, but … against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens”; in Luke 22:3, we read that “Satan entered Judas” that he might betray Jesus; Matthew 16:23 shows Jesus rebuking a Petrine declaration with “Get behind Me, Satan!”; and then Matthew 12:43-45 tells us an unclean spirit leaves a person only to return and find him spiritually empty, available for fresh occupation by a bunch of unclean spirits.
No, I’m not doing a William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist), who brought us a demon-possessed Regan (Linda Blair) with a spinning head. And, again, I’m not exonerating the shooter. I’ve recently retired from teaching at a seminary whose doctrinal statement says that lost man is “corrupt in his nature and wholly opposed to God and His law.” This echoes the theological concept of “total depravity,” whereby all our capacities are flawed, whether intellect, emotions, will, or physicality. We’re all big messes needing big redemption.
Ah, but don’t we know that biblical talk of Satan and his minions has been thoughtfully supplanted by “psychoses,” “neuroses,” “syndromes,” and such. Well, of course, we’re embodied creatures, susceptible to chemical, physiological, and social maladies and palliatives. But the reductionists who teach us that these earthly phenomena are properly and strictly within the ken and under the purview of secular clinicians are as primitive as those who rely on shamans. For to “counsel” apart from or with contempt for the Bible is analogous to applying leeches to the soul.
Borrowing a grad school illustration from a Kant lecture, I ask you to imagine a preemie in an incubator, a rig whose plexiglass cover is a two-way mirror. The adults can see in, but the newborn can’t see out. All he knows is the reflective dome and the fact that some rubber gloves spring to life now and then to monkey with him before falling limp once again. (Or, to continue philosophically, think of prisoners in Plato’s Cave.) To sort out crackups and crimes absent a biblical understanding of God and Satan is an act of delusion.
A big part of the aforementioned depravity manifests itself by our leaving our spiritual car doors unlocked, the driver’s seat open, and the car running, available to whoever wants to take it for a joy (or misery) ride. So, Satan is free to hop right in and tool about town before escaping from the fiery crash destroying others.
Echoing the notion of an empty house, we’ve so cleansed ourselves of God-given common sense, the counsel of scripture, and the testimony of his creation order that we’re open to anything. We’ve become so “open-minded” that our brains have fallen out. We’re taken by mad, linguistic hyperbole — that silence and criticism are “violence,” that without “safe spaces,” we can’t “survive.” Those looking for an excuse to maim can parrot and parade these conceits.
We’re seeing godless blandishments, incursions, and ruination on the rise in our nation. Stats reveal a big dropoff in religious conviction and a corresponding surge in the number of “nones” (those who have no faith in God). So, the adepts among us provide an open invitation to the ancient author of madness, the Old Deluder. Of course, individual churchmen and atheists do good and bad things, but the center of mass is sliding away from the fear and love of the Lord.
It takes a special kind of evil to drive a disoriented, jittery, depressed, and/or bitter person past suicide and revenge to the slaughter of children. Herod accommodated it. So did the Nashville shooter. She did willingly what she wanted to do with her corrupted “want to’s” informing both her sexuality and (ir)religiosity.
A number of denominations (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican) count those 1st-century slaughtered baby boys as martyrs, and, arguably, so they are. Not for what they affirmed or denied, but for what they sacrificed by standing in the way of anti-Christ evil. By this standard, I think we may also speak of the martyrdom of Evelyn, Hallie, and William, whose personal potential and associations were revolting to the woman who took their lives this past week in Nashville.