Defeating Satan at Harvard | Sojourners

Defeating Satan at Harvard

Dunster House White Tower and Red Dome at Harvard, Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock.
Dunster House White Tower and Red Dome at Harvard, Jorge Salcedo /

How do you defeat Satan?

That was the question the University of Harvard had to answer last week when the Harvard Extension School’s Cultural Studies Club planned a satanic “Black Mass” at the university.

The Harvard community, led by Harvard president Drew Faust, was outraged by the Black Mass. Faust addressed the situation by stating, “The ‘black mass’ had its historical origins as a means of denigrating the Catholic Church; it mocks a deeply sacred event in Catholicism, and is highly offensive to many in the church and beyond.” Although Faust was offended by the planned event, she defended the right of the Cultural Studies Club to proceed with the black mass. “Nevertheless, consistent with the University’s commitment to free expression, including expression that may deeply offend us, the decision to proceed is and will remain theirs.”

The Archdiocese of Boston also responded with outraged offense. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley claimed, “Why people would want to do something that is so offensive to so many people in the community, whether they’re Catholic or not, it’s very repugnant.”

As a Christian, I understand the outrage. After all, the black mass mocks the Eucharist, one of the most holy events in Christianity. But, before we fester in our animosity toward the Satanists, I want to encourage us to take a step back and analyze this event from the angle of mimetic theory.

Mimetic Theory and the Satan

René Girard has been invaluable in helping us understand Satan by exploring the many titles attributed to Satan. In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard states, “These titles and functions include the ‘tempter,’ the ‘accuser,’ the ‘prince of this world,’ the ‘prince of darkness,’ the ‘murderer from the beginning,’ and all of them together explain why Satan is the concealed producer, director of the Passion.”

The reason Satan is so dangerous is not because Satan is a mythical figure with horns and a pitch-fork. Satan is so dangerous because Satan represents an anthropological reality. Satan has no independent existence outside of humanity. Humans provide oxygen for Satan’s survival whenever we accuse others and exclude them from our community. Following Girard’s use of Satan’s titles, Satan is the anthropological principle that “tempts” us to unite in “accusation” against a scapegoat, or a common enemy. Satan is the “prince of this world” and the “prince of darkness” because the world runs on accusations. Whenever we experience accusations against us, we respond with accusations of our own. This leads us down a dark path of mimicking verbal and physical violence against one another

Girard’s exploration of the satanic principle leads to a difficult conclusion that no one wants to hear, but we need to hear it: whenever we point fingers against another, even when we point our fingers against Satan, we are caught up in the satanic mechanism.

Again, as a Christian, I completely understand the outrage against the satanic black mass at Harvard, but ultimately our outrage traps us into an imitation of Satan, and so we give oxygen and bring to life to the satanic mechanism. We provide Satan with oxygen as we participate in “Satan casting out Satan.” The Harvard community, the Catholic diocese of Boston, and many others were caught up in mimetic outrage at the Cultural Studies Club and succeeded in having the event relocated to another venue. If Satan is the principle that unites us against a common enemy and excludes them from our midst, then we need to consider the possibility that any act of excluding the satanic black mass is itself satanic.

Mimetic Theory and the Eucharist

Is there an alternative response, one that resists the temptation to accusation and exclusion? Yes. And ironically the answer is found in the very thing the black mass ridicules.

The black mass mocks the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving of Christianity. What is so “great” about the Eucharist?

The Gospel of Luke tells us that during Jesus’ last supper with his disciples he “took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”

Now, what’s really interesting about the last supper is that Jesus knew he would be betrayed. And it wasn’t just Judas who betrayed him. Satan didn’t just enter Judas’s heart; he entered the hearts of all the disciples who abandoned and denied Jesus during his time of need. They were all caught up in the satanic mechanism.

But thankfully the satanic mechanism of accusation, expulsion, and murder doesn’t have the last word. Jesus has the last word. The Eucharist is the Great Thanksgiving because the last words of Jesus are words of forgiveness. As James Alison states, Jesus is the Forgiving Victim who doesn’t respond to satanic accusation and violence with more satanic accusations and violence. Rather, Jesus responds with love that embraces even his enemies and universal forgiveness. Jesus prayed for his persecutors from the cross,

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

The Only Way to Defeat Satan

Satanists make an easy scapegoat for Christians. Who could be an easier target for Christian outrage than those who glorify Satan? But when we unite in mimetic outrage and accusations against Satanists we reveal that we are prone to getting caught up in the satanic mechanism of exclusion.

The only alternative to the satanic principle of accusation is Christ’s principle of love and forgiveness. Christian tradition claims that Satan was defeated by the forgiveness of Christ on the cross. Christ gave his body and his blood for the very people who betrayed him; the very people who were caught up in satanic accusations against him.

In other words, Christ gave his body and his blood for all humanity, including Satanists. Whenever we unite in accusation against another, but especially when we do so in the name of Christ, we mock the cross and the Eucharist. We become Satan casting out Satan, only to reinforce the satanic principle of exclusion.

Harvard stopped the black mass from happening on campus, but it was a short-term win. In the long term, excluding Satanists only reinforces the satanic principle of exclusion. If we want to win in the long term, the only way to defeat Satan is to deprive him of the oxygen that gives him life. And the only way to deprive him of oxygen is to love and forgive him.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: Dunster House White Tower and Red Dome at Harvard, Jorge Salcedo /

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