It’s three in the afternoon, and nothing notable has happened in my hometown of Ada, Oklahoma, where I’ve been staying for my winter break. It is cloudy, rainy, quiet. I’m working online, which includes posting articles to Facebook and Twitter. The war zone of bite-backs and hot takes is suddenly rampant, overwhelming the senses. And suddenly the stories are gushing forth in digital torrent – chaos at the Capitol.
It is easy, natural even, during times of social and political unrest to try and pinpoint who to blame for it all. Nothing comes more easily to fallen humanity than the dynamic of scapegoating. Yet the violence and chaos from extremists of all stripes unwittingly points to a deeper, biblical reality that, in our tribal passions, we tend to miss – human beings are not the enemy.
A deep dive into New Testament cosmology shows us that the only way to adequately make sense of human evil is to identify its origins in spiritual principalities and powers. Just as the swirling waters at the foot of Niagara must be traced back to the torrents of the waterfall itself, so we must follow this social agitation and division to its demonic source. The “prince of the air” which the Apostle Paul speaks of in his epistle, and who Jesus calls the “ruler of this world,” is the ultimate perpetrator of all the chaos and division we are seeing unfold today and throughout world history. Evil started with an envy for divine prerogatives and power and morphed into a naked couple eating the fruit of omniscience, (Genesis 3) to the first murder (Genesis 4), the erection of Babel, (Genesis 11), the dispersion of nations, and finally to a competitive world system that seeks violence, power, and coercion in a desperate attempt to harness the control that only God, in His goodness, can rightly wield. It is fascinating to look back over time and see how the “world systems” of empires, nations, and dominions have always involved these self-destructive campaigns. They have risen and fallen, and we keep putting our trust in them. We live as though our lives and souls depended on the success of the nation, or the survival of the party, or the champion of the NBA finals, or the rise and fall of the stock market, or even the outcome of our children’s pee-wee ball games. But why?
I recently finished a book by philosopher Peter Kreeft on the worldview behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In it, Kreeft discusses how the evil ruler, Sauron, “poured himself” into the Ring of Power, identifying with it to the degree that his very fate depended on this little piece of metal. Gollum, a creature who was cursed with the Ring for centuries, became so obsessed with the object of power and deception that he could no longer understand himself apart from it. He “loved and hated the Ring, as he loved and hated himself.” In investing his very life into the Ring, he lost the ability to discern his own person apart from its malicious sway. His fate became “bound up with it.” Kreeft likens Gollum to the typical addict. The addicted person can’t imagine a life without the substance, or the romantic partner, or the political party. He is “hooked” on a feeling, particularly the feeling of being in control.
Likewise, people “pour themselves into” anything they idolize, losing themselves and their relationships with each other in the process. Political idolatry happens when I identify fanatically with a certain political party to the extent that my “life” either goes down with its ship in defeat or inflates over an election victory. The idol either gets trampled or exalted, and my fate seems to be implicated.
Spiritual director David Torkington writes of something similar in his book The Hermit. He discusses the various salvation schemes society has adopted over the years, including “continental theology,” the “social gospel,” psychotherapy and self-discovery, progressive visions of “Utopia” and “education.” These may be worthy goals to work towards, but none of them is big enough to save. Torkington writes,
The only drink that can slake our burning inner thirst is the living water of uncreated love. It is only under the influence of this intoxicating draft, that we will be able to see ourselves, not only as the psychiatrist sees us as we are, but as are meant to be.
Seeking to satiate that “inner thirst” with anything besides the unconditional love of Jesus will only leave us beached and dry, wondering where we went wrong. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that if we wanted to follow Him, we must lose our lives for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
It also seems likely that He was not commanding his followers to lose themselves, but describing a basic, unescapable reality – we all lose our lives to something. It could be cocaine, or it could be a “righteous cause.” As David Foster Wallace wrote in Infinite Jest, addictions vary from hard drugs to yoga. Douglas Johnson of Touchstone magazine spells out a corollary to this: “[Satan] only means to separate us from our Lord, and he doesn’t give a whit which distractions we indulge in to bring that about.” So, whether we become rioters or hermit gardeners, if we are distracted away from God, we are all awash on the same desolate beaches. Only when we lose our lives to Jesus do our souls resurface, like ships made to sail, no longer ruined and unmoored. No longer enslaved. We need the Church to herald this reality and to model another way of life for the world to see. Submitting to the real King does have massive political effects – which, as they begin in our personal lives, may look more like surrender than like insurrection.
I am praying that God would continue to free me from the things I’m possessed by – reputation, lust, power, comfort, legalism, self-righteousness, and fear of the “other.” The world’s systems are damaged by the influence of a crafty serpent set on separating us from God and each other. Any control we can rightly exercise in this life begins in every act of the will by which we make clear who we will serve. Let us not permit evil any authority in our lives, but abide in Jesus, remember His victory over the principalities and powers through the Cross, and delight in the encouragement of His teaching: “In this life you will have trouble, but fear not, for I have overcome the world.”
Peter Biles is an editorial assistant for Touchstone and Salvo Magazines. In addition, he is pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He’s interested in literature, philosophy, and theology.