Really? The Devil Made Me Do It?

There’s a lot of demonizing these days?  Some paint President Obama as the devil incarnate; others say Romney.  Iran (formerly Persia) used to call the USA The Great Satan.  Fundamentalists of every stripe love to talk this way. Oh, and in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 8, Jesus calls Peter (yes, St. Peter) Satan.  What’s up with that?  Horns, pitchfork, and a tail?

First off, the word “devil” is not in the Bible.  “Devil” is an English word.  In the Old Testament the word was satan.  In the New Testament the word was “diabolos” as in diabolic.

In the Old Testament the word satan appears three times; and in all three cases satan is not the embodiment of evil and has nothing to do with hell.  It’s not even a proper name.  The satan was a job title, like butcher, baker or candlestick maker.  The most famous example is in the Book of Job.  The scene is a courtroom.  God is the judge.  Satan is the “adversary,” which is what the word satan meant.  A satan was a prosecuting attorney.  A satan was a lawyer!  And he/she worked for God.  He accuses Job of pretending to love God so God will give him the things he wants. See? The satan’s job was to expose hypocrites and bring them to trial.  So, in the Bible Jesus taught from, the satan was an adversary.  Think maybe that’s why Jesus called Peter satan, for being so adversarial?  Makes me wonder. If satan was really such a big deal don’t you think God would’ve mentioned it more than three times in Jesus’ Bible?

In the New Testament, written a generation after Jesus died, satan appears 33 times.  In many cases Satan has now become a supernatural enemy of God, the embodiment of evil, the Prince of Darkness.  What happened?  Where did this radically different idea of satan come from?

Biblical scholars point to the 500 years between the Old Testament and the New. In 539 B.C.E. the Persians conquered Babylon and let the Jews go home.  For the next 200 years they lived under the influence of the Persian Empire, Persian culture, and Persian religion.  In the ancient religion of Persia people believed in a good god above and an evil god below, caught in a cosmic battle to win human souls.  The bad god was responsible for all the sin and evil in the world.  Love it!  Now we have a way to avoid responsibility. “Gee, God, it wasn’t my fault; the devil made me do it.”

Over the next 2000 years devil mania grew and evolved, a witch’s brew of popular myths, legends and folklore.  In the Middle Ages the devil grew horns and a pointed tail.  In Southern Europe the devil was red; in the north he wore black.  In Eastern Europe he looked a lot like Dracula.  In the American colonies devil mania fueled the infamous witch-hunts in New England.  In 20th century America a revival of devil mania rode the wave of the new fundamentalist movement that spread like wildfire across the U.S.A.

And all along, for thousands of years, the rabbis have said people must not pass the buck.  Ditto, Jesus.  Ditto,Paul.  The devil didn’t bring sin into the world; we thought that up all by ourselves.

You and I know that sin and evil are very real.  We’ve all known a snake in the grass who wanted to lead us astray.  But we don’t believe everything we see on TV, radio, movies, tabloids, or the Internet, do we?  But whether it’s the end of the day or the day of days, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the letters of Paul, all attest that in the cross of Christ we already know the verdict.  Our attorney for the defense is Jesus Christ who took upon himself the sins of the whole world.  God’s perfect love, God’s amazing grace, God’s mercy, God’s power, and God’s victory, these, my friends, you will find all through the Bible and in every one of the Christian creeds.  It’s like what Paul said in Romans, “If God is for us, who is against us?”  What a great question.

In the name of our good God, and for the sake of not fanning flames,

david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin.  for more about faith church, click here.


When God Blesses America

I love my country and I’m proud to join my fellow Americans in honoring her this Independence Day.  But I do think  some aspects of America today are not quite what the Founders had in mind.  They believed the kind of democracy we have would depend upon the kind of people we are.  While the Founders were not all Christians, they were all godly people who understood that a good society is only possible when its citizens band together and help each other.  The critical word here is interdependence.  The Declaration of Independence established a political separation from England.  But when they set out to frame our constitution they cast our national vision in terms of interdependence.  Just look at the language of the Preamble: we the people (not just me and mine)…in order to form a more perfect union (us)…establish justice (for all)…insure domestic tranquility (between us)…promote the general (all) welfare…secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and all who come after us.

Whenever I hear people talk about freedom and what they believe it means to be an American, in many cases what I hear them describe is individualism.  I’m free to do whatever I want.  I take care of me and mine and the government should get out of my life.  But if all 300 million plus Americans are mainly interested in individual freedoms how in the world can we have a good society?

In the worldview of the Bible we are both individuals and members of community; real freedom grows in relation to both.  Here’s what the apostle Paul had to say on the matter:

It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.  If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?  (Galatians 5.13-15; The Message)

I believe Christians have an important role to play in rebuilding the social fabric of our society.  Sadly, at least as I see it, some Christians today are tearing us apart.  So little love; so much judgment and blame and condemnation.  O, that we could all hear and understand Paul’s wisdom: that God’s Word is fulfilled in one thing—love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s how God will bless America, when we the people learn and practice love of neighbor.  That’s what will bring a more perfect union, justice, tranquility, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty for all.  Christian people can and should be a blessing to America.  To do that we must stand beside her and guide her with the light from above.

All good things to you,

david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin.  for more about faith church, click here.

remembering well

Sun Setting on Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial was first proposed in 1867 not long after President Lincoln was assassinated by a white man.  We the people didn’t get it built until WW I.  As Lincoln was the great defender of democracy, the memorial was designed to remember the Parthenon and the birthplace of democracy.  The marble and granite chosen for the building came from the North, the South, the East, and the West—a symbol of our divided nation coming together, building something significant, something that would last.  We don’t remember well, do we?

On May 30, 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated.  A grateful nation celebrated the Great Emancipator with a great occasion.  50,000 people came, segregated by race.  The keynote speaker, Robert Moton, President of the Tuskegee Institute, an African-American, wasn’t allowed to sit on the speakers’ platform!!!!!!!  Makes me wonder if the monument was really meant to remember some other Lincoln, Lincoln Financial, for instance, or the inventor of the town car.

Memorial Day began in the wake of the Civil War as a day to honor Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in battle.  Union General John Logan chose May 30th precisely because it was not the anniversary of any battle.  After WW I Memorial Day became a day to honor all United States soldiers who’ve died in war.  Then in 1968 our Congress changed it to the last Monday in May so we could have a three-day weekend to shop, barbecue, and watch the Indianapolis 500.

I pray this Memorial Day that we will remember well what Abraham Lincoln said on November 19, 1863, as he stood up to dedicate a cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.  (Excerpt, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)

Right after Lincoln finished his speech he called it  a “flat failure.”  Seventeen months later, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln made another speech advocating voting rights for African-Americans.  Four days later he was shot dead.

This Memorial day I will remember with gratitude those who have died for our country and our freedoms.  And, I will remember Abraham Lincoln and under God offer my prayer “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In rememberance,

david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin.  for more about faith church, click here.