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God Bless the Satanists

 
When I was at church camp in high school, I fought against the Devil’s music.
 
The first night of camp, an especially rebellious boy in our cabin popped a Metallica CD into his Walkman. My friends and I stared at each other, incredulous. Heavy metal, at church camp? We had cut our spiritual teeth on Christian urban legends about rock music, its subliminal messages and Satanic symbolism.
 
My friend Dane decided to fight back: he pulled out his own Walkman and played a Jars of Clay CD. The metalhead turned his volume higher. Dane cranked the Christian music up. Soon the whole cabin was engaged in a shouting match, half of the boys defending Enter Sandman and half of us standing with righteous Dane.
 
In retrospect, all of us were quite adversarial towards each other. In the purest sense of the Hebrew word for “adversary,” we had all behaved quite Satanically.
 
Meet the Satanists 

I am a Christian: raised Evangelical, currently in the Roman Catholic camp. (Heavy on the Liberation Theology and Saint John of the Cross, light on the Pope Benedict conservatism.) I do not know if a literal Devil exists—my faith is focused on God, after all, not the other guy. One thing I do know, though: good and evil are real.
 
However, it is precisely because I believe in evil that I am ready to defend modern Satanists: despite their name, I don’t believe they are the epitome of evil. I met some of them in Los Angeles earlier this year, and they were quite pleasant. Almost godly, in fact—but more on that later.
 
Until a very recent point in human history, nobody dared to call themselves “Satanists” out loud. For centuries, Christians applied the term to whomever they perceived as The Enemy: in medieval Europe, anyone who dabbled in pre-Christian paganism was a Devil worshipper; Spanish Inquisitors called Muslims and Jews Satanists; Protestant and Catholic Christians mutually exchanged the insult. Nobody would dream of tagging themselves on Satan’s fan page, though—not until the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
 
All of a sudden, Anton Lavey and others were openly claiming the name of Satan, establishing “churches” and “temples” that have lasted to the present day. Director Penny Lane’s recent documentary, Hail Satan? examines one of these very groups. In March of this year, I attended an advance screening of the film in Los Angeles, later chatting with some living, breathing Satanists.
 

Satanic political theater
 
Like most modern Satanists, the subjects of Lane’s film do not worship the Devil. In fact, they don’t believe in the supernatural at all. The Salem-based organization known as The Satanic Temple is made up of  atheists who view “Satan” as an archetype of independence and rebellion. Rather than invoking evil spirits, they spend their time advocating for the separation of church and state.
 
It’s hard not to see the whole religion as one giant ironic statement, a massive trolling of the unsuspecting U.S. public. Lane followed The Satanic Temple for months, filming their brilliant acts of creative political theater. While the interviews are interesting—especially the comments by Lucien Greaves, Harvard graduate and co-founder of the temple—it’s the activism that steals the show.
 
The Satanists’ public actions are as provocative as they are entertaining, pushing the line with a crude, South Park-esque sense of humor. To wit: in protest of Reverend Fred Phelps’ claim that “God hates fags,” the Satanists performed a gay ritual over his mother’s grave to “turn her gay in the afterlife.”
 
Their advocacy for Satanic monuments on public property is entirely tongue-in-cheek, exposing the inherent hypocrisy of such icons. Not only are government religious monuments anti-Constitutional, many of us Christians find them blasphemous as well. Doesn’t state-sponsored religion contradict the whole idea of free will, after all? In some of the film’s most hilarious scenes, the Satanists engage public entities as any other religion would. Politicians and community members stare, horrified, at proposals for a massive statue of Baphomet on the Arkansas State Capitol, or a Satanic invocation at the Tucson City Council.
 
The most enlightening part of the film, by far, involved Christians’ reactions. Counter-protesters held up signs with pithy sayings like SATAN: THE ULTIMATE LOSER. One man showed up to oppose the Satanists with a Confederate flag and a t-shirt that read DIVERSITY: A GENOCIDAL SCAM. Another religious man told news cameras that the Satanists should be allowed to erect their Baphomet statue, and then “they should be shot next to it.”
 
As I watched the documentary in Los Angeles and the crowd around me laughed, I cringed. It all reminded me of that night at church camp twenty years ago. Those of us who stood behind the Jars of Clay CD were certain that we had picked the right team, simply because it had the Jesus Label slapped on it. Ethical principles be damned: we had rallied around the right flag, and we were ready to fight tooth-and-nail to defend it.
 
Our Evangelical subculture was full of this adversarial mentality. In the apocalyptic Left Behind books, the Tribulation Force kills and maims humans, the same as Nicolae Carpathia’s soldiers. They use the same guns, playing on the same bloody gameboard, but the Christians are the good guys. Not because of any moral upper hand, not because of their love and grace, but simply because they march under the banner of Heaven.
 
Are Satanists Christian?
 
The Satanists in Penny Lane’s film are more than just provocative—many of their actions are downright admirable. They collect food and clothing donations for the homeless. They support the rights of LGBT people and immigrants. They donate female hygiene products to the needy, organize blood drives, and adopt highways. According to quotes from the Satanists, this is a direct expression of their ideology:

“Satanism is about looking out for the Other—because we are the Other.”

“Invoking Satan is invoking the struggle for justice and equality.”

“Baphomet is the voice of the marginalized, the hated, the misunderstood.”
 
When interviewed for Fox News, Greaves describes Satan as “the ultimate rebel against tyranny.” As I heard these descriptions of “Satan” as the personification of activism, of the eternal rebel, of the opposer of repressive traditions, one thought repeated itself in my mind: Sounds like Jesus to me.
 
It had me wondering how much really separated us, after all.
 
After the film’s screening, I walked up to shake Lucien’s hand. When I asked him how he would describe his ideology, he summed it up as “compassion and empathy.” During the cocktail hour later on, I chatted with Verona, a member of the Los Angeles chapter. She explained that she had joined because she was fed up with injustice; the fat cats of our world’s kleptocracy claimed the name of Christ, so she wanted to join the team of whoever opposed them.
 
I thought of the last scenes of the 1968 movie Rosemary’s Baby. When Rosemary finally discovers that her son, Adrian, is the child of the Devil, the Satanists explain what he represents to them. “He shall overthrow the mighty and lay waste their temples,” the character Roman cries. “He shall redeem the despised…”
 
It struck me as a strange way to depict Devil worshippers—after all, it sounded very Christian.
 
“He shall overthrow the mighty…”

“He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble…” (Luke 1:52)
 
“…and lay waste their temples…”

 “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days…” (Matthew 26:61)
 
“He shall redeem the despised…”
“The lowly he sets on high, and those who mourn are lifted to safety…” (Job 5:11)
 
As I left the L.A. theater that night, the thought crossed my mind: Are these people all that different from us? Could they just be Christians under a different name?
 
The nature of evil
 
Shortly after I met the Satanists, I told a Christian friend about their social advocacy.“How do you know it’s not a trap, though?” Her brow furrowed. “Maybe they just act progressive to lure people in, then trick you into worshipping the Devil.”
 
I’ll admit, I can’t prove that Lucien Greaves’ group does not worship the Devil. However, if they really were engaged in a conspiracy to lure people into evil, I doubt they would call themselves “Satanists.” In fact, they’d probably masquerade as Christians.
 
According to psychologist M. Scott Peck, this is how evil usually works. In his book People of the Lie, a brilliant examination of human evil, Peck says that most truly evil people are not in the prisons and fringe groups. They hide inside the respectable institutions of society: political authority, law enforcement, and organized religion. This strikes me as a very Christian way of perceiving the Satanic, considering on how Jesus uses the word.
 
When He tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” is he saying Peter has been literally possessed by the Devil? That Peter is a closet unbeliever? Hardly. Jesus uses the word “Satan” to symbolize all that opposes God’s will. The diabolical is not some foreign evil that comes from “out there,” out among the pagans, but from those inside Jesus’s inner circles. All of us are capable of opposing God’s Kingdom. All of us can behave Satanically.
 
What of these organized Satanists, though—just how good or bad are they?
 
The dark side of Satanism
 
The compassionate Satanists I met are not the only group that claims that name. Believe it or not, there actually is a dark side to Satanism.
 
Alongside the atheists for whom “Satan” is just a symbol, some small groups of theistic Satanists do believe in a literal, personal Devil. They worship this being. While they are extremely small, some are horrific. The U.K.-based “Order of Nine Angles” openly advocates neo-Nazi beliefs, practices human sacrifice, and is classified by law enforcement as a terrorist organization. As Peck points out in People of the Lie, the willingness to make a Faustian pact can be wicked in and of itself, whether or not a literal Devil even exists.
 
In addition to actual Devil worshipers, there is a much more mundane dark side to institutional Satanism: the basic selfishness that Anton Lavey argued for.
 
Lavey was not an especially evil man. He was a very common person who advocated a common approach to life: “Look out for number one.” Despite his instructions to respect others, he believed that selfishness was the most noble human principle. He was a fan of Ayn Rand and her glorification of greed. He supported laissez-faire economics, a world of social Darwinism where the poor are left to fade into oblivion. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the world keeps on spinning.
 
As a philosophy, it’s quite banal, no more evil or less evil than most human societies. It’s the philosophy that lets millions of humans languish in poverty, watching indifferently while they are ground under the heel of Empire. As it turns out, most modern-day Satanists are no more evil than your average next door neighbor. Hannah Arendt’s quote about the banality of human evil has never been more apropos.
 
“What are your thoughts about Laveyan Satanism?” I asked Verona when we chatted in L.A.
 
“I don’t want anything to do with them,” she said. “They take Lavey’s right-wing ideology and push it even further. A lot of them have gone full white supremacist lately.”
 
“Small world,” I replied. “So have many Evangelical Christians.”
 
For Aslan or for Tash?
 
Meanwhile, chapters of The Satanic Temple across the U.S. continue to clothe the naked and feed the hungry.
 
Sure, maybe it’s all just a publicity stunt. I wonder how long their acts of service will last, after the cameras have turned off and the world stops watching. Indeed, the same could be said for the humanitarian relief offered by any other religious organization. Inasmuch as they are feeding and clothing people, though, they are feeding and clothing Christ.
 
In C. S. Lewis’s apocalyptic novel The Last Battle, Aslan returns and ushers Narnia into eternity. At the Final Judgement, a worshipper of Tash—the devilish pagan god of Narnia—is surprised to find Aslan accepting him into the fold. Aslan explains, “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me […] no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.”
 
By shining light on the corruption and greed of religious authorities, our modern-day Satanists mimic the street theater of the Biblical prophets. Inasmuch as they fight for social inclusion, economic justice, and the underdogs of society, they are doing God’s work.
 
They might be surprised to learn the name of the One they are serving, the greatest Friend of the marginalized and the oppressed. In the end, the “ultimate rebel against tyranny” is not a horned, winged creature from mythology—He is a landless Jewish peasant who lived under the yoke of imperial occupation.
 
And regardless of the name that people slap on their good deeds, those good deeds are going to Him.
 
* * * *
 
David J. Schmidt is an author and multilingual translator who splits his time between Mexico City and San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income.
 
Schmidt has written several books in English and Spanish, published in the United States and Mexico. His series “Into the Serpent’s Head,” recounts his journey to a coffee-farming community in the mountains Oaxaca, Mexico. Other titles include his “non-fiction horror” book, Three Nights in the Clown Motel, and Holy Ghosts: True Tales from a Haunted Christian College, a study of haunted places. His Spanish-language books Más frío que la nieve: cuentos sobrenaturales de Rusia and Tunguska: luces en el cielo sobre Siberia were published in Mexico in 2017. He is also the co-host of the podcast To Russia With Love.
 
Website: www.holyghoststories.com
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/David-J.-Schmidt/e/B00BXTBY7K
Facebook: @HolyGhostStories
Twitter: @SchmidtTales
Email: HolyGhostStories@gmail.com

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