The Devil You Say...

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 31, Issue 6
November – December 2018
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Two years ago I wondered aloud whether the national election would be remembered in the same way as Guy Fawkes Day is recalled in England, that is, as a celebration of the fact that nothing went awry, that the Parliament had not been blown up. The British annually enjoy a collective sigh of relief over what was in essence a non-event. However, from the bluster and blowback of the last two years, both sides of the American political spectrum would concur that some dynamite has gone off. The 2016 election continues to resound in a daily volley of shock and awe, as tweets provoke pundits, executive orders elicit court challenges, and facts are transmogrified into propaganda. If one accepts the counting of the Washington Post, the president prevaricates at least seven times a day. His constant iterations reveal a Guy Faux, or is it Guy Fox?

But the situation is not simply about “the Donald.” In fact, the oval office is not the center of the hurricane. “The Donald” actually mirrors this country. He reflects the passions, fears, and profound ambivalences of our nation. The seething unrest and disappointment, disgust and despair, as well as the frantic aspiration to win at something before everything collapses, all of this and more ricochet off that orange coif. But the president is doing more than serving as the echo chamber of our fears. He gives the nation the opportunity to explore what we would rather keep firmly under wraps or simply project upon someone else. His resolute stare offers us all the chance to recognize the presence and the location of the diabolical.

Let me be very clear. I am not calling Mr. Trump the devil. No, what I am sniffing is much more odious. The scent may well be coming from all of us. It hovers just outside of our ordinary consciousness. But, like a gecko, it disappears before we can get a good look at it. It is, nevertheless, there. Often it appears precisely when no one notices it. This may well have happened a couple of months ago when there was a great uproar over the anonymous letter in the New York Times. Here came the further confirmation that the West Wing of the White House was a “crazytown.” Then, the declaration that there was a patriotic resistance attempting to keep the country afloat despite the actions of the President. This led immediately to a guessing game as to the identity of the writer.

What I never heard discussed was the possibility that the letter itself was a poison apple. No commentator or beltway expert offered the notion that someone deliberately wrote this, not to defend the nation, but to stir the bewilderment even more. Evidently no one recalled the action of Iago in Othello who delighted in the thought that all would fall. Countless theories have been advanced over that dastardly character. What remains unblinking is his cold enjoyment of another’s doom. Perhaps the harder question for us is not who could be the writer but who would relish the wreckage of the West Wing?

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You might find what I say rather fiendish. And it is. That is the point. Alexander Solzhenitsyn gradually came to admit that the

“line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, but right through every human heart.”
Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956 (Harper & Row, 1973), p. 615.

We are familiar with the story of the snake in the garden. We can continue the excuses of Adam and Eve, fascinated and conned by that low-down snake. But until we see what is going on, we shall ever be at the mercy of that snake. We can continue to be mesmerized by the hiss of the serpent and overlook the terror lurking within, or we can recognize that zig-zag motion around the chambers of our heart.

Albert Camus played with this oscillating terror in his novel The Fall. The main character Jean Baptiste Clamence delivers an unending monologue. An anonymous person is welcomed to sit with him in a dreary Amsterdam bar and listen to Clamence’s slow spiral into ultimate isolation. Jean Baptiste is a “judge-penitent.” He confesses his sins and, in condemning himself, rises like a dark angel of judgment. He admits that he realized how hypocritical and empty his life as a successful lawyer was, when one night he did not respond to the cries of a young woman drowning in the Seine. Layers upon layers of insincerity and lies fall away, leaving this eloquent advocate in the final circle of hell.

But Camus does not conclude there. Clamence suddenly starts the conversation up again. But this time he reflects what the patient listener is now telling him. As Clamence speaks, he reiterates words already spoken, scenes already described. But now it is the listener who tells this tale of ultimate isolation. The transfer is complete. Camus slyly leads the reader through this ironic interplay of characters’ voices to detect the hypocrisy, the two-faced fraud on both sides of the conversation. Evil, arriving up close and personal, comes home to the attentive reader.

What would happen if we refused to live vicariously? If we monitored the no-man’s land of our hearts? If we took responsibility and admitted that we can be heartless and cruel? Would there be anything more to discover?

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

The Fourth R 31-6

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