Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Friends and the Spiritual Forces of Evil

I tried to talk with a group of Quakers recently about the concept of evil in the thought of early Friends. I communicated to them what I had come across in my reading of early Friends, such as George Fox, Margaret Fell, Robert Barclay and William Penn, among others, which was that the early Quakers were people with a vivid experience of evil, and who were comfortable speaking about the active presence of spiritual evil in the world. I was surprised to find myself responded to in a very defensive manner. I had the sense that some of the people I was speaking to did not want to genuinely hear what I had to say, and I struggled with why that would be so among Friends. If our spiritual ancestors were so aware of the presence of the spiritual forces of rebellion and antichrist, why is it apparently so difficult to even mention the subject among some Quakers today?

One obvious barrier that I was encountering among Friends was the perception that, when speaking about evil, that I was speaking about some sort of personified "anti-God," some sort of Zoroastrian, evil counterpart to God, equal in power but opposite in polarity. Given the reaction that I have received from some Friends, I feel it prudent to be explicit about what I feel that the early Friends were referring to when the spoke of the fallen “god of the world,” whom they knew by the biblical name of “Satan,” “the Serpent,” “the Dragon,” “the Beast,” or “the Tempter,” among other names. I have seen no indication that the early Friends saw evil as being a force equal to God. While the early Friend’s emphasis upon spiritual warfare might lead some to bring charges of dualism, I see no evidence that this is the case. 

Far from being a counterforce to Christ, early Friends viewed the Devil as being the leader of an ultimately futile rebellion against the limitless power of the Lamb. Evil was anti-christ, not in the sense of being coequal with Christ, but in the sense of being a flawed, impotent imitation thereof. Early Friends saw the forces of evil as being that of lust and confusion, a shadowy reality destined to be eradicated and transformed by the inescapable advance of the Light. In the beginning there was only the Light and its Word, and so it would be in the end, with this present time of darkness as only a relatively brief interruption of the clarity of Truth.

All the creation must do to stand against the so-called "powers" of evil, these principalities of the world, is to abide in the true Vine, the Way shown to us by Jesus Christ and opened to us by the Holy Spirit. All shadows flee in the brilliance of the Light - but we must submit to and turn towards the Light. The shadows, as ultimately unimportant as they are, do exist, and they must be rejected, turned away from. I do not feel that the darkness should be ignored or denied having any reality, however. If we are to turn towards Light, we must acknowledge and recognize that which we are turning away from. If we avoid acknowledging the reality of evil, of the spiritual forces of rebellion, it is far easier for us to fall into the traps that are laid for us and to stray out of the Way.

The early Friends spoke of evil and of the Tempter, they made reference to the spiritual forces of rebellion against which they fought as Children of the Light. They acknowledged the forces arrayed against them that had so deeply saturated the world they lived in and the civil society that surrounded them. Things have not changed. The forces of evil infest our world, spurring the rich to oppress the poor, fueling the lusts which are the foundation of war, encouraging petty rivalries and pride, and pushing the will-worshipping, God-hating world along in haste towards the pit it will not see until it is too late.

How are we to move forward as Children of the Light if we forget that our very identity as Friends is that of spiritual warriors against the power of death and hell? To be a Child of the Light is to have our Father's law written on our hearts, yes, and also His name written on our foreheads. Children of the Light have been called apart from this world to follow the Lamb wherever he goes. This is not some dead letter, this is not some history lesson; This is the deadly real spiritual warfare that echoes through eternity. The fight of the early Friends is our fight. We fight not with outward weapons, but with the double edged sword which comes from the mouth of Christ. If we abide in the Vine, the forces of rebellion and lust will flee before us, but we must be aware of their existence and their works in the world: their subtle treachery, consistently attempting to overcome God's plans in our lives through barely consciously articulated arguments, fears, worries, and petty lusts.

For we are at war with the power of sin and death, and we are to demolish every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we are to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. Our war is total, down to our very thoughts and innermost motivations. We must be aware of and actively working against the forces of rebellion and infidelity in our lives. George Fox and others stressed the subtlty of the Devil; evil needs only a small foothold to begin its work within us. We must be active in our warfare of inward sanctification. We will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, bringing our entire being under the reign of Christ.

Recognizing the presence of evil in the world, we are called to be strong in the Lord and God's mighty power. God has not left us unequipped for this struggle, but has given forth the Holy Spirit to fight through us if we will but submit and obey. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. Our warfare is not, at its root, about presidents or congresses, or even about the imperial economic system and the lusts and outward tumult that come with it. No, our warfare is against the principalities and powers that sit on their high thrones and that have their root in the shadowy realities of rebellion, pride and lust.

We cannot understand our calling as a community to be a spiritual army, following the Lamb wherever he goes, until we recognize the forces of rebellion and lust that assail us and the world we live in. How are we to witness the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven throughout the earth if we cannot see that the outward wars that rage amongst the nations find their origins in the lusts that reside within our own hearts? What are the things that we chase after that keep us from being entirely obedient to the Spirit of Christ? What are the things that we believe we love or need, but which are actually addictions that separate us from God, that keep us from being obedient? Is there anything that you would not be willing to give up if the Holy Spirit demanded it of you? Where does the spirit of lust and rebellion have a foothold in your heart? Are we ready to come together as a community and declare war upon this darkness that we find in our hearts, as well as in our interactions together and with society more generally? Is the time yet come for us to bind together our whips and to clear the temple of our hearts?


Mac The Badger said...

Is the action of the Lamb's War purely spiritual? Do we fight to cleanse the promised land of idolatry only within ourselves? Do Friends also bear the responsibility of using their spiritual weapons to eliminate the worldly forces which are rooted in lust, etc, or to attempt to change the hearts of others and enlist them as fellow warriors of the Lamb?

Anna said...

Very interesting post. It made me think a lot. I don't believe in a physical evil like a devil who temps people away from God or some sort of cosmic battle between God and Satan. I do however believe that people can to evil, terrible things to themselves and each other. I believe that doing evil is turning away from God in the worst way. To turn way from God to the point where you can commit evil is to place one's self into a state of hell. I don't believe hell is a fire-filled place we go after we die if we've been bad.

To mac the badger:
Fighting evil in us is obviously our first calling. Yet isn't fighting evil in the world why we as Friends fight for issues in social justice, human rights, environmental protection, and for protection of civil rights. And what if we are called to enlist others? Is this wrong, should we shy away from evangelical faith simply on principle? Or should we truthfully ask ourselves what kind of faith we hold, what kind of work God has called up to do?

Peace and Joy,

Micah Bales said...

Mac: I feel comfortable with how Anna responded to you. I think that when the Holy Spirit pours itself out on us, it is impossible to keep it a secret. This Life and Power is bigger than any one of us, and it is my experience that I have a great need to link up with others who have my experience, to share my experience with those who are seeking, and to search out every chance to build up our community, our "spiritual army," the Church. I feel called to encourage us to keep focused on hearing and carrying out the mission that God has for us as a community.

Anna: As dangerous as this may sound, it is my experience that I am either serving God or I am resisting/rebelling against God. I don't see a middle ground. I agree with you that Heaven and Hell are already spread out before us, in this life, regardless of any concerns of the hereafter. The choice is always before us. I feel called to continually turn towards the Light, and, with divine assistance, to help others do the same.

Anonymous said...

What you are describing here, Micah, is a very hard truth for most people to bear. Most people are very heavily invested in making themselves comfortable in the world, and in a practice of shying away from their conscience so that they don't have to go through difficult feelings inside. When we challenge this directly (which is what the Lamb's War is about), we must expect resistance.

I think that a part of what George Fox was getting at, in his advice to Friends to "answer that of God in every one", and of what traditional Friends generally were getting at, in their advice that we "speak to the Light in others", is that appealing to the part of other people that loves the Light, loves goodness, loves God, is usually more easier and more successful than challenging the part of other people that loves being comfortable in the world and doesn't want to reform itself.

Alas, both things -- the easy task of appealing to folks' love of the Light, and the difficult task of challenging the evil they do -- need to be done. Church leaders who only do the easy part are rightly described as hypocrites.

But one can try to enlist people through their love of the positive, even as one asks them to confront and reform themselves. Christ's method of reaching Zacchæus -- recognizing and adopting him first, before asking him to change -- is a real inspiration to me these days.

Micah Bales said...

Marshall: An excellent point. I recognize myself reacting to a religious community that often stresses the easy, seemingly more compassionate way, over some of the more difficult challenges that require risk and sacrifice. However, you are definitely right when you remind us not to forget the power of affirming interactions with others, and with ourselves. As a very self-critical person myself, this is definitely a lesson I still struggle with.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Micah, interesting post indeed. This summer I participated in one of those group exercises where the leader called out beliefs and we were to align ourselves along an imaginary line based on how strongly we agreed. When it came to the question of evil, I and a very few others were all on one corner by ourselves. Most of the FGC Friends in that room thought evil didn't exist.

All I can say is that the concept of "The Tempter" is a very powerful way I've found to understand the spiritual warfare that sometimes rages inside me. Knowing that this force is an expert in deceiving and a pro at finding my too-easy rationalizations gives me the pause to seek deeper clarity in times of self-doubt.

I have seen people give in to temptation, to do the wrong thing to satisfy ego or self-righteousness. That doesn't make these people evil, only misguided. Speaking to that of Christ within them (when directed to do so) is our job as Friends. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Tempter has been to convince Christians that evil doesn't exist.

Glad to see you're blogging and sharing all this with the world!
Your Friend,

Heather Madrone said...

Nurturing the good in people is not only easier than challenging the evil; it's also safer and more effective. If you're going to challenge evil, you need to be very sure that you're right (a difficult thing, to be sure; the history of Christianity is strewn with the bodies of people who were killed by those who thought they were right). Once you're sure you're right, you also need to know where and how to act in order to arrest evil.

Two of the biggest evils in the world right now are war and the destruction our species is doing to the environment. How do we challenge those evils? How do we take effective action against the war in Iraq? Demonstrations, which seemed effective in the Vietnam era, seem to be mostly theatre. Electoral politics seems to offer a more effective approach at this point.

As to global warming, the Society of Friends needs to take a hard look at our habit of traveling long distances, sometimes by air, to meet with one another. We need to change the infrastructure of our society. This is long, boring, difficult work, and not something that can be done by tilting at windmills.

I sometimes thing that Friends are infatuated with grand gestures and public acts. It's not clear to me, however, that those grand gestures are as effective as the diligent (but boring) work of making small changes one brick at a time.

That might not be effective for you, but that's the only way I've found to progress.

quakerboy said...

Good post, Micah! I was once one of the folks who denied "evil" and saw such belief as dualism. However, I met a friend's Mom who is a Holocaust survivor and began to think about the people who could do such things to other humans. Can there be anything other than "evil" responsible for such acts?

However, I know that this "evil" also exists in my heart. That, Friend, is why the Lamb's War is so very important in our spiritual development.

Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post.

quakerboy said...

Good post, Micah! I was once one of the folks who denied "evil" and saw such belief as dualism. However, I met a friend's Mom who is a Holocaust survivor and began to think about the people who could do such things to other humans. Can there be anything other than "evil" responsible for such acts?

However, I know that this "evil" also exists in my heart. That, Friend, is why the Lamb's War is so very important in our spiritual development.

Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post.

Laurie Chase Kruczek said...

"Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Tempter has been to convince Christians that evil doesn't exist."

Excellent point, Martin. The difficulty, and what Micah points to, is amongst Quakers who do not identify themselves as Christians to begin with. I love that so many Quakers are now looking to historic roots of the religion to get a firm grasp on its relevence now. I myself believe there is evil, but as a Christian, I leave God to make the eternal decisions concerning that. I try to deal with what I can, when I can, in a positive way, hopefully. Just trying to be a humble servant, but sometimes I'm more of a stumble servant, if you know what I mean.

Frederick said...

Walter Wink's books on the powers ("Naming the Powers" etc.) do a great job of leading readers with a rational/materialistic worldview into understanding how spirits can be not only inner/"spirituality" but also abroad in the world, among groups of people, and even in control of parts of society and institutions. Wink deals quite a bit with how evil spirits work, and points out that Jesus' good news means changes for the powers as well as for humans: i.e. that part of Christ's work is to redeem the powers, as well. Speaking as someone who grew up in a very materialist family, and who used to reject talk of evil (like the Friends Micah mentions at the beginning of the post), I am finding Wink's books very helpful in "translating" between the two worldviews. Spiritual warfare is often right where the place for "activism" is!

Paul L said...

I'm sorry I didn't see this when it was first posted.

I was in the same workshop-thing Martin Kelly referred to. I remember it a little differently: A few of us were in the "we definitelybelieve in evil" camp, and most others were somewhere along the continuum.

Only one young woman, however, placed herself at the extreme end of the continuum, believing that there is no such thing as "evil." The leader asked her to explain why, and she said something to the effect that everyone was basically good, no one was irretreviable, etc.

Then, an Afro-American woman Friend just looked at her and asked, "But haven't you ever faced evil?" It was a stunning moment. Of course, no one who has ever faced evil could ever deny its existance.

In addition to Walter Wink, you might find any of William Stringfellow's writings on the powers instructive and inspirational

Mik Conover said...

The Tempter is a label that speaks to my condition. Just as identifying Christ in words has power, identifying a clear stand against specific evils has power. How to do so and stay focused on love and the Light is not as clear for me.

forrest said...

I'd like you to try reading

and go on through the other chapters, if you find it of interest. Because it ties into what you're talking about here. (I also still hope you'll join in at because I really do think your forthrightness would be valuable there.

I think you also need to reflect on what Jesus meant about not judging and not condemning.

Yes, there is visible (and horrible) evil at work in the world AND ALSO there is "no such thing as evil." By that I mean: There is no evil in existence that is not needed in God's good purpose, and destined to vanish as that purpose is fulfilled.

The devil is us, in that it is our own desires and our own willingness to lie that leads to self-deception. And Christ is also us (though of course not "merely" us), in that our desire to help one another is as genuine as our temptations to profiting at another person's expense.

Why do small children prefer knocking down someone else's tower to building one of their own? Because it's easier; they know they can do it and they don't yet trust their own constructive ability. But as they get older they learn to prefer making rather than destruction.

Likewise, love is stronger in the long run--but clinging to illusions of power and moral superiority is easier. As long as we are in that mind, our very effort to "fight" evil risks turning towards self-righteousness and doing unintended harm.

I like the way the New English Bible changed "Resist not evil" to "Do not set yourself against a man who would do you harm." We are no longer positing "evil men" then. We aren't saying to let evil flourish unchecked either. We're saying to "war against powers and principalities" but without committing "collateral damage" in the process.