Is “Demonic Activity is Palpable” in American Politics?

If you’ve been reading this blog at all closely for the past year or so, you know that I’m no great fan of our current president. But even I was taken aback at this description of a recent Trump rally near Orlando, by a local Nazarene pastor named Joel Tooley:

Joel Tooley
Joel Tooley – Melbourne First Church of the Nazarene

Call it what you will, but I was completely dumbfounded as the most powerful leader in the world began his speech by badgering the media. The crowd began screaming angrily at the entire press corps that was present….

It was then that I heard two ladies off to my left chanting, not yelling or screaming but chanting, “T-R….U-M-P; that’s how you spell – bigotry!” They repeated the rhyme over and over.

Two ladies in front of them began seething and screaming in their face while shaking their Trump signs at them. Another couple standing behind them started screaming at them as well. One of the chanting ladies had her eight-year-old daughter on her back; the other had a severely disabled child in a wheelchair in front of her. As they continued chanting, the people around them became violently enraged. One angry man grabbed the lady’s arm – that’s when I went into action. I barged through the crowd and yelled at them to back off. My heart wasn’t racing; I just instinctively became a protector.

I didn’t actually want a Trump sign, but one of the volunteers had shoved it into my hands as I walked through the door earlier; “Make America Great Again!” That sign probably saved someone from getting hurt. I held the sign close to my chest as I positioned myself between the chanting protesters and the angry mob. My 11-year-old daughter was clinging to my arm, sobbing in fear.

The two angry, screaming ladies looked at me, both of them raised their middle finger at me in my face and repeatedly yelled, “F*#% YOU!” Repeatedly.

I calmly responded, “No thank you, I’m happily married.” Their faces and their voices were filled with demonic anger.

I have been in places and experiences before where demonic activity was palpable. The power of the Holy Spirit of God was protecting me in those moments and was once again protecting me and my daughter in this moment.

I haven’t been to a Trump rally myself, but I’ve seen enough footage and read enough accounts to know that anger is not unusual. However, I don’t recall hearing anyone describe that emotion in that setting as being “demonic,” or claim that “demonic activity was palpable” at such an event.

So when I came across that headline at the Washington Post yesterday, I have to admit: my first reaction was to scoff. I mean, if all I knew was that a Holiness pastor from Florida was talking about palpable demonic activity, I wouldn’t give it any credence.

And even if I knew he was describing a rally whose elements should trouble any historically orthodox Christian (see the way the Lord’s Prayer was used, a topic I’ve written about before) who believes (as Tooley told CNN later) that we’re to love mercy and love our neighbors, “demonic” would still not come to my mind.

* * * * *

In fact, just an hour before I read that article, I’d had to confess my discomfort with this kind of language to my students in Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture (CWC) course. As we reviewed the history of early Christianity, a student asked me if Athanasius’ description of the tormenting of Anthony was meant literally.

Michelangelo copy of Schongauer, Torment of St. Anthony
Michelangelo’s copy of Martin Schongauer’s “The Torment of St. Anthony” – Wikimedia

Having sealed himself up in a tomb, the Father of Christian Monasticism is besieged by “demons” that “took the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves….” Though he refuses to give in, Anthony suffers “bodily anguish” and at first can’t understand why God would allow the torment to continue. “I was here,” comes the reply, “but I waited to see your fight; wherefore since you have endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succor to you, and will make your name known everywhere.”

Powerful as the story is, I admitted that I tended either to take the account figuratively, or to wonder if Anthony was hallucinating. I don’t doubt that Athanasius’ narrative resonated with those ancient believers, but like most modern, educated Christians, I tend to fall back on comfortably rational explanations.

* * * * *

But Tooley’s description has stuck with me… precisely because it echoes something I heard earlier this month — not from a Nazarene pastor, but from a fairly progressive, highly educated Episcopalian layman. He suggested that we not be too quick to discount “spiritual warfare” as we try to make sense of such confusing, disturbing political times. (And the fact that I just used the phrase “make sense” further reveals my modern assumptions.)

Trying to take that suggestion to heart, I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite texts that we teach in CWC: Enchiridion militis christiani, by the Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus. A bestselling devotional in the years just before the Protestant Reformation, its title means both “Handbook” and “Weapon of a Christian warrior.” That might seem confusing, given Erasmus’ deep commitment to earthly peace. But then he’s not writing in response to earthly conflict:

…we must remember that our life on earth is a constant war. Most people are fooled into believing that they can live at peace and enjoy themselves, as if they had already conquered all their enemies. It is a strange thing to see how carelessly we live, how peacefully we sleep, lying on our sides, then rolling over to the other side, while we are surrounded by a great troop of armed vices sneaking up on us, lying in wait to trap and overcome us. Overhead sleepless demons plot our destruction armed with a thousand deceptions, a thousand poisonous weapons to infect our minds. Only the shield of faith can turn these darts aside. The world attacks us from the front and from the rear, from the right and from the left, sometimes openly, but at other times seducing us with lying promises or creeping up to catch us in an idle or careless moment and undermine our faith. Satan, that slimy serpent, the Father of Lies, lies hidden in the grass, coiled up to watch and wait for the chance to bite us on the heel, the sensual Eve in each of us, tempting us and drawing our minds towards deadly pleasures. Our greatest peril comes from this enemy, the earthly old Adam within us, whom we cannot expel by force of arms, nor hold off with castle walls and fortifications. We can only watch with a hundred eyes lest he open the door for devils to enter in. Since we are surrounded by such fierce enemies who conspire to plot our death, ought we not to arm ourselves against them, and take weapons in our hands? (as paraphrased by our former colleague Neil Lettinga, which we still use in our coursepack)

Erasmus by Holbein the Younger
1523 portrait of Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536) by Hans Holbein the Younger – Wikimedia

Reformation historian Diarmaid Macculloch has archly warned that “one should never place too much faith in individual writings of Erasmus, who wrote a great deal for effect, a great deal for money and a great deal to curry favour.” So I suppose a passage like this could tell us more about the presuppositions of the book’s late medieval audience than about the true views of its authors. But it’s still remarkable to find one of the greatest intellectuals in Christian history — a man of the Renaissance whose faith Macculloch describes as “a cerebral, disciplined, biblically based Christianity… the learned wisdom of Christ” — warning that a supposed Christendom was actually beset by “sleepless demons” armed with “a thousand poisonous weapons to infect our mind.”

If he was right then, I wonder why I assume that that “constant war” should have ended before my own time. What Erasmus wrote half a millennium ago could speak to me, if only I wanted to heed his words: “But we, as though we were at peace with everyone, snore quietly and give our selves to idle pleasure, as though our lives were a party and not a war.”

So I hope I have ears to hear again that I have been “consecrated by God at your baptism, and agreed to be a faithful soldier to Christ your captain”; I hope I remember to “keep your weapons ready at hand, lest the enemy sneak up on you asleep, unarmed, and unawares.”

If you’d rather, you can take “demonic” language more figuratively than literally — and still believe that Erasmus is right to urge on us “two weapons in particular”: prayer (which “lifts us up to heaven, and builds a tower beyond the enemy’s reach”) and learning (which “arms the mind with sound ideas and honest opinions”).

I’ve previously drawn on this passage in the Enchiridon to think through the purposes of higher education (since Erasmus urged study of “pagan poets and the philosophers” as well as the Bible and Church Fathers), but I think there’s a more broadly applicable lesson here:

Whether or not we actually find these times so troubled that the “demonic activity is palpable,” we must recognize that we are not at peace. But also, that the angry urgency of even spiritual warfare tempts us to disdain as too passive the same practices that best protect us.

If “we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places,” then we had best “put on every piece of God’s armor” (Eph 6:12-13, NLT) — starting with prayer and learning.

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