On demonization

In his testimony before the grand jury, unrepentant cold-blooded murderer Darren Wilson claimed to have been afraid of Michael Brown — an unarmed man literally the same size as Wilson — and said that in his rage, “it [Brown] looked like a demon.” Perhaps Wilson can pursue a second career as an exorcist in the long life of freedom that he has been unjustly granted.

What strikes me about this remark is what an appalling reversal it is from the original purpose of the language of demonization. For the Jews of the Maccabean period who created the concept of the demonic as we recognize it, as for the early Christians who took it up and developed it, the demonic was a concept that was synonymous with unjust earthly rulers.

Previously, the Jews in exile had been able to view earthly rulers as more ambivalent figures, carrying out God’s punishment against Israel for its unfaithfulness to the law and then subsequently being punished by God for their own injustice and violence. In the Maccabean period, however, the mad king Antiochus Epiphanes rendered this intellectual compromise impossible by persecuting Jews precisely for being faithful to the law. No longer was he the unwitting servant of God, but his conscious enemy and rival, who must be defeated in order to usher in the messianic age. The apocalyptic sections of the Book of Daniel are centered around this cosmic battle between God and the demonic forces embodied in Antiochus (symbolically designated the “little horn”).

Multiple texts from this period (most notably 2 Maccabees, widely available in standard Bible translations) focus on his torture of a mother and her sons for refusing to defile themselves by eating pork, and the authors credit the bereaved mother with creating a key theological concept: the resurrection of the dead. The grief of a mother whose innocent sons had been slaughtered is thus a primary site of theological reflection, something we shouldn’t forget today.

As an interesting sidebar, the same text that documents the origins of the Jewish-Christian theory of martyrdom also recounts a successful armed rebellion on the part of Jewish religious leaders, which led to the establishment of an autonomous Jewish state that lasted for a century. We tend to view non-violent resistence as an alternative to violent revolution, but the two have never been far apart.

The question I’m trying to get at in my devil research is how we got from there — where Wilson himself would be viewed as a demonic functionary of the Satanic system of oppression — to here — where language of demonization has been co-opted by the oppressors themselves. From a liberal perspective, this question is purely academic in the negative sense of being irrelevant: demonization language always “others” and “dehumanizes,” and so it is rejected on formalistic grounds as simply “bad.” Yet I think this view falls prey to the same false symmetry that always infects liberal formalistic arguments. Demonization language in the mouth of Wilson does illegitimately dehumanize Brown, but demonization language applied to Wilson reflects the objective fact that Wilson has dehumanized himself, has allied himself with demonic forces actively opposed to divine justice.

So I maintain that demonization language is both powerful and necessary — though my study of its legacy in Christian history shows me that it is also dangerous. That is in the very nature of a weapon, however, and we should not be so quick to dismiss theological tools that emerged from communities of the oppressed in the moment of their direst need.

2 Responses to “On demonization”

  1. Ben Says:

    Fascinating, if horrifying. It seems that what you describe here is “but” an older and less visible (because people generally are not very likely to know the history you describe here) form of the manner in which oppressors have generally come to appropriate and deploy the language of the oppressed, especially the language of equality and civil rights: “you’re the real racist,” “not saying Merry Xmas is like Nazis!,” “healthcare is like slavery!,” etc. This trend convinces me more and more that modern politics–those which, coming out of the Enlightenment, rely on rationality and good faith arguments–has no use, or an increasingly small use, in the contemporary world. Deleuze says, in the “Postscript on Control Societies” essay, that we need new weapons (among them pietas) to fight a the new form of power that replaced discipline in the 20th century. This form of appropriation, by which the old weapons are turned against those who developed them, is part and parcel of that need.

  2. Bill Tozier Says:

    There’s something in here that resonates with a badly-formed idea in my head lately. Something about how we speak of and think about systemic risks and forces, and how that interacts with the way speak of and think about individual will and experience.

    Meant a big, hand-wavy “something about” I’m nowhere near being able to explore.

    Hmm.


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