So I recently saw the now infamous video of Fort Worth-based televangelist Kenneth Copeland and his aged male cohort angrily addressing the novel coronavirus COVID-19 by name before giving it a “blow job” and then kindly informing the sickness that it had been thereby “destroyed forever” and would “never be back.” Am I the only person who hears the phrase “the wind of God” and thinks more of flatulence than theophany? Anyway, sure glad they did that!
Clearly this is the sort of delusional behavior that, if it didn’t enjoy the social sanction of officially recognized Religion™, would immediately go down in universal ignominy. Watching the spectacle, my first unbidden thought was: Are these folks serious? (Truth be told, the oldest member of the quintet, standing farthest stage right before the empty sanctuary, can be seen in the video grinning broadly as he repeats the huffing and puffing bit, as if to suggest that he, too, finds it all just a tad silly.)
A little later, I see fiery pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of Tampa Bay, Florida, declaring of his own church still operating normally amid the pandemic that it “will never close.” The good reverend was promptly arrested for his defiance, achieving instant legal martyrdom and validation for Christian persecution complexes everywhere. Louisiana’s Tony Spell went so far as to use a church bus in attempted aggravated assault to punctuate his point about his own particular congregation remaining open for face-to-face worship in the face of protestors exercised over the religionist’s continued contempt for public health and safety. Then, when the pastor’s wife came to bail him out following his arrest, she proudly flashed a fan of cash to be used for posting bond, demonstrating that great truth Jesus must have mistakenly omitted from the Beatitudes: “It’s all about the Benjamins,” or rather “Blessed are the liquid, for they shall make bail.” I reckon it helps when you urge your gullible parishioners to throw their coronavirus stimulus checks your way; the campaign even came complete with its own social media hashtag: “#PastorSpellStimulusChallenge.”
Meanwhile, three churches in SoCal and at least two in Kansas have filed suit against their respective state governors over social distancing orders that have shuttered or at least limited the size of in-person services. The plaintiffs all claim their First Amendment religious rights are being violated, to which indignity the desire to save mere human lives obviously takes a back seat.
And let’s not forget the loving Christian laypersons like the “viral” woman who, when pressed on why she was defying stay-at-home orders in order to attend church, protested that she’s “covered in Jesus’ blood.” The possibility that regular ol’ human blood might eventually wind up on her hands as a result of contracting COVID-19 while worshipping shoulder-to-shoulder with coreligionists and then spreading that viral good news beyond the bounds of her own flock never even stood a chance by comparison. “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it,” right? Just like the good Gospel of Matthew says.
At the same time, numerous prominent public religious figures have spoken up in recent weeks to lend their support to the President’s call to rush the reopening of the US economy (which he may be in the process of walking back?). My own state of Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who usually wears his Christian faith on his sleeve when it comes to being “pro-life” and opposing legal abortion, even proudly opined that “there are more important things than living” if maximally preserving life, particularly that of the older generations, requires permitting the economy to falter. I reckon he’s just echoing Louisiana pastor Tony Spell, who said similarly: “True Christians do not mind dying.”
Again, seeing all of this play out, I am forced to wonder: Are these folks serious? In order to answer this question, I think we need to give consideration to how these folks are conceiving of the virus and its deleterious effects on our world.
Many news outlets have reported that those on the Christian Nationalist far right are apparently in deep denial over COVID-19 and the seriousness of our present situation. I mean, despite the fact that novel coronavirus has now racked up a death toll in the United States that exceeds American fatalities during the Vietnam War, our own Vice President Mike Pence just this week drew flack for not wearing a face mask while touring the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in violation of the Clinic’s own personal protective equipment policy! As bitter irony would have it, Pence went to the famed medical facility in order to thank doctors and other medical personnel for their hard work and personal sacrifices in fighting the virus.
There is, of course, a plethora of possible reasons why these individuals might manifest outright denial and even trutherism surrounding the threat from COVID-19. Possible motives include everything from a simple, crass desire for financial gain through preserving tithes and economic activity to helping protect the re-election prospects of a presidential candidate with a proven track record of dishing out significant pork to Christian Nationalist supporters and special interests.
One under-explored factor that I feel bears discussion here, however, is the shared belief among all of the key players I have detailed above that the novel coronavirus and distancing orders designed to coral it and moderate its impact on society somehow proceed from demons, especially Satan. They keep telling us to look to the Bible for guidance and help in understanding these dark times. Yet when we follow their advice in seeking to understand the peculiar Christian practice of demonization, we find a curious lack of seriousness about the dire demons supposedly in charge of marshalling the present unpleasantness.
Take, for instance, one of my favorite episodes touching on the demonic in the Christian New Testament: the exorcism of the Gadarene demoniac. You remember: the man allegedly possessed by demons that were “Legion” (Mark 5:1-20; Matthew 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-39)? After the Good Lord drives the demons out of the sufferer, they immediately fly into a herd of pigs, all of which promptly rush headlong to their deaths in the sea. The locals are so “impressed” by Jesus’ destruction of their livelihood that they turn out to beg the upstart moral entrepreneur to just “leave their neighborhood.” Turns out, they would rather have lived on with the demoniac—and their swine!—intact. People after my own heart.
When it comes to Jesus’ own statements on the subject of Satan and Satan’s demons, He didn’t seem to take the threat of the demonic all that seriously either. Recall how cheeky and defiant His words were to none other than Satan himself, when the great tempter tormented Him in the desert following His baptism? He flat-out tells the devil to just “go away.”
Then, later, accused by the Pharisees in Mark 3:22 of being in cahoots with a demon—Beelzebul, first known in the Hebrew Bible from 2 Kings 1—Jesus denies the connection and tells the Parable of the Strong Man, likening that King of Demons, Satan, to some Big Man Drug Lord type, whose stronghold Jesus intends to invade, tying the boss up and plundering his property. He then ominously warns the Pharisees about blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, saying that whoever is not with Him is against Him and must scatter. Cocky, arrogant, and overconfident are some of the adjectives that come to mind here.
Even in the 2 Kings passage where Beelzebul first appears under the guise of Beelzebub, many scholars have long thought that the name change to the Hebrew equivalent of “Lord of the Flies” represents the prophet Elijah poking fun at the deity of the Philistine city of Ekron, whose name as it appears in the New Testament, Beelzebul or Ba’al Zebûl, might literally mean “Lord of the Lofty Abode” or “Master of the Big House,” just as Jesus portrays in the Parable of the Strong Man. Since this latter designation is obviously appropriate for a mighty deity’s appellation, the former must stem from an act of so-called caconymy or bad mouthing through name-calling. This technique is characteristic of the attitude Biblical prophets and priests assume toward the demonic: utter contempt. That’s precisely why the Pharisees would even attempt to smear Jesus through supposed association with Beelzebul to begin with: they think that he, like the demon they take for his boss, is beneath their contempt.
As irony would have it in the present context, if the name in the form Ba’al-Zebûb is in fact not a caconym but actually the pagan god’s proper designation (as some have argued), then the reference to flies might indicate that Beelzebub was originally a local deity associated with plagues and averting plagues, somewhat like the Greek cult of Zeus Apomuios or “Averter of Flies” or the Greco-Roman god Myiagrus “He who chases away flies” (Pliny Natural History 10.40). Or even the formidable Mesopotamian Pazuzu of The Exorcist fame! Because he was a foreign deity served by a populace painted in the Bible as fundamentally opposed to the Israelites and their monotheistic religion, however, the step toward demonizing Beelzebub and associating him with ultimate evil and even Satan was a small and natural one for the later Jews, Christians, and their religious professionals to take.
Anyway, another prominent passage demonstrating Biblical contempt for the demonic is the famous “scapegoat for Azazel” from Leviticus 16:5-26. This section from the Priestly Code describes a peculiar ritual to be undertaken by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. To wit, he is to gather two goats for a “sin offering,” one for himself and his own house and one for the entirety of Israel. The latter, he is to drive into the wilderness “to Azazel.”
Now there has been a lot of scholarly and popular ink and speculation expended over just who or what this Azazel is supposed to be, but the usual analysis holds that the name is a reference to some demon or other, off to which a damned but still living goat bearing the sin and iniquity of the people of Israel for the past year is sent, as to hell. The odd thing, as scholar David Wright notes in his entry for Azazel in the Yale Anchor Bible Dictionary, is that the Biblical text seems to equivocate in its use of the term between the name of a demon and a demonic or hellish place. That is, this demon appears relatively un-personified and certainly not in the guise usually associated with demonic beings or deities to which offerings and sacrifices are made in an attempt to avert disaster or expiate sin. There is no hint in the Leviticus passage of a reverent or fearful attitude toward Azazel, no real sense that this is a potent and powerful entity associated with negativity that must be appeased in order to guarantee future prosperity.
Just as we dismissively yell “to hell with you!” at those we seek to abuse, belittle, and ultimately ignore, so the Priestly Code seeks to relegate the sins of all Israel via perfunctory ritual observance to a faceless and toothless hell in the desert referred to by the name of an all but forgotten demonic personality who not only causes no real harm but also receives no offerings or sacrifices in order to avert harm. The goat to Azazel is not properly an offering at all, but merely a conveyance to “bear on itself all [Israel’s] iniquities to a barren region.”
Some commentators have suggested that right-wing calls to reopen states and the economy, irrespective of the cost in human lives lost to coronavirus, might represent a kind of prayer to an evil deity like the Biblical Moloch, who supposedly demanded human sacrifice. “What people are willing to sacrifice for their god should…be a commentary on their deepest values.” Indeed! The sad truth, though, is that for those making these calls (and ignoring social distancing in order to preach them, collect tithes while doing so, or worship in this death-cult capitalism), COVID-19 and the lives lost to it are not even so serious as the Old Testament’s infamous child-killing deity of the fiery pit. They are scapegoats sent out into a nameless, faceless beyond, bearing what those who send them would rather see eliminated from the world, or at least from their immediate sight.
It’s well known that both historically and in the contemporary world where the novel coronavirus is running rampant demonization and pandemic go hand in hand. It’s well known, too, that the “spiritual” or supernatural aspect of this process, while it may provide an illusion of personal power or control in uncertain times that is the bread n’ butter of delayed-return religious praxis, is at best concomitant and at worst subservient to the more mundane program of shoring up a powerful group’s particular construction of their “sacred canopy” and the social order that shelters beneath it during an existential rough patch. Populations employing the technique of demonization don’t just rest content with “counteracting the unseen forces of supernatural evil on their own terrain through ritual action.” Rather, they also insist on “neutralizing the social source of that evil—the witch,” or, more broadly, the demon.
Witness the racialization of the pandemic in this country, with elements on the conservative, Christian-nationalist end of the political spectrum referring to COVID-19 with derogatory ethnocentric and racist epithets like “Kung-Flu” and “Chinese virus” and saying that China is “to blame” for the spread of the virus because of a “culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” It came as little surprise when the President announced on Twitter recently that he was “signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States” full stop. It’s been obvious for the duration of his dubious administration that they’ve all been chomping at the bit for the opportunity to make such a move: coronavirus just gave them the necessary cover story. Hungarian dictator Viktor Orbán has similarly suggested that there is a “clear link between coronavirus and illegal immigration,” even as he uses COVID-19 as an excuse to seize virtually unlimited power in his locked-down nation, attempting to remake society to be more in line with how he would have it by, among other measures, excluding transgender individuals from any form of legal recognition.
Meanwhile, in a slew of states back here in the U.S. including little old Texas where I live, as well as internationally in places like Poland, conservatives are similarly attempting to use the pandemic as cover and justification for remolding civil society by yet again assailing abortion rights. Christ’s suffering would be for naught were people not required to be born and suffer as He did in a world that neither wants nor is able to take care of them, especially while in the throws of a deadly pandemic disease, right?
We Satanists, meanwhile, take a very different view of demons, the demonic, and Satan. Even those of us who are staunch atheists and insist on a thoroughly unenchanted view of the world take the power of demons seriously. As we know well who have taken the name Satan upon ourselves, whatever gets the demonization treatment represents a threat to some order or other, to some desired state of affairs that is far from guaranteed, natural, or divinely ordained, but must rather be assiduously and carefully cultivated and protected right down here on messy old planet earth.
Many of us who come to Satanism arrive from a place of demonization of one sort or another, having been made to feel different and, because of our difference, bad, wrong, even evil. We have felt deeply the power of scorn, mockery, abuse, and even physical violence meted out to those who don’t perform “correctly” their societally allotted roles and who are therefore reckoned as demons. Having once been, and maybe still being, somebody’s or some group’s demons, then, we Satanists take the powers of the demonic and demonization seriously.
Moreover, when we who don’t acknowledge any form of afterlife—for whom the present, carnal earthly existence represents the only shot at living and enjoying life we will ever have—face down a “demon” like a deadly pandemic that has cost more American lives than one of our top-ten bloodiest wars, we take the prospect of “death the great abstinence” and the urgings of “abstinence-only” proponents very, very seriously. Satanists may start to sound and look a little dour in this seriousness, taking on something of the austere, ascetic character of small-town preachers, fulminating against defiance of stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements as much as any Protestant minister inveighing against sin. But that’s just because we’re scared: scared to death and both unable and unwilling to send others into the breach for us, instead of us, bearing our iniquities and failures to accept personal responsibility on their blameless backs.
Coronavirus has brought the barrenness and uncleanness of Azazel out of the wilderness and into our cities, our homes, and our daily lives. It is a demon that will not be dismissed through empty ritual, and we must attend to it with utmost seriousness if we expect to make it out alive.
Let’s not forget whom the Israelite King Saul sought out when he seriously desired to conjure the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 28: a witch. And she seriously called forth the deceased, that “god coming up out of the ground.” Leave it to the witches and to Satanists to take the demonic seriously and to give death the gravity—and the fight—it’s due.