Hail Satan?

Baphomet“Hallowe’en is coming
And the goose is getting fat.
Will you please put a penny
In the old man’s hat?
If you haven’t got a penny,
A halfpenny will do,
And if you haven’t got a halfpenny
Then God bless you,
And your old man too.”

That’s the wee verse my sisters and I used to rhyme off at this time of the year, annoying our neighbours in Rathcoole as we went from door-to-door in homemade costumes made from bin bags. We carried Jack o’Lanterns which our mother had lovingly hollowed out of turnips. That, believe me, was no easy task.

This was long before the coming of the commercial Americanised imported ‘trick or treat’ fashion and the appearance of readymade costumes from Asda or B&M. As we counted our pennies, bobbed for apples and hoped to get the slice of apple tart containing a silver sixpence we were just having some fun.

We never thought of it as a celebration of the triumph of evil, or devil worship or of horrible things. We were not conjuring up demons; not a bit of it. It was part of our inherited traditions; every bit as much as the Eleventh Night, The Twelfth, St Patrick’s Day, Easter or Christmas. To hear some religious people talk; you would think that devil worship is what it’s all about. Not at all.

Still, the season we’re in reminds me of a recent documentary I saw at the QFT. Penny Lane has made a hugely entertaining film about a recently formed religious group that is beginning to attract public attention. It’s growing quite fast in the US where it began, and in some parts of Europe.

This new religious group has published its Seven Fundamental Tenets. Let me share them with you…

  •  One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
  •  The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
  • One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
  • The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
  • Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
  • People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.
  • Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.

By and large, with a quibble over a word here and there, that sounds like something you might read in The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Magazine or in The Inquirer; it sounds like faith guided by reason. It wouldn’t be out of place in one of our churches.
Doesn’t it all sound grand?
Doesn’t it all seem reasonable?
Doesn’t it sound ethical?
At first glance, I’d say yes.

So, what is this new religious movement and where is it based? Well, significantly or otherwise, it’s based in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. Yes, that Salem; the group calls itself The Satanic Temple. Wow!

For a moment, when I read these Seven Tenets, I thought to myself, “My God. A lot of this sounds quite reasonable. Have I been batting for the wrong team all these years?” Not only is the devil reputed to have all the best tunes; it now looks like he’s beginning to run away with the best principles too.

In fact, however, the Satanic Temple does not worship the Christian devil. They don’t actually believe in a literal Satan; for Christians, Jews and Muslims the personification of evil and hatred and the adversary of truth. The Satanic Temple’s symbolic ‘Satan’ is based on the literary heroic character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; the wannabe challenger of arbitrary power and self-styled champion of the dispossessed.

They use their status as a recognised religious body to challenge conservative right-wing Christian theocrats in America who are trying to impose their own religious principles on others in violation of the US constitutional amendment separating church and state. They demand equal status for their own ‘deeply held religious principles’. When such groups try to place Crosses or Nativity scenes or stone tablets of the Ten Commandments on public property; TST then demand equal treatment in the courts for statues of Baphomet; their goat-headed symbol. Rather than allow that to happen, the Christian theocrats usually take their symbols down.

So, in the interests of peace, justice, empathy, mercy and equal treatment for all, should we prepare to ditch our Hallelujahs and start singing Hail Satan? Well, I’m sure (or, at least I hope) you’ll not be surprised to hear me saying, No.

John Milton’s literary Satan is not all he seems. He is not a man looking out for the common good of all humanity. He is a self-seeking immortal animated by a grudge against God to prey on humanity’s innocence.
Milton wrote at the time of the English civil wars. He thinks the common good is the most important thing about society. His opposition to kings is based upon his strong conviction that monarchies, being fatally vulnerable to the power held in the hands of one flawed individual, cannot benefit nations. To Milton; the only flawless king is God, therefore no human being should usurp God’s empty throne. That’s why he agreed with Charles I’s execution for treason and excoriated the Presbyterians of Belfast who protested against it.

He believed that republics, with their checks and balances, are a much better option; but Milton knew how naked ambition can pervert republics, too. He knew what happened to Rome and Athens. He had read his Tacitus, his Plutarch, and his Suetonius. From this, and his personal experience in the English civil wars, he concluded that the heart of tyranny is individualism.

Milton’s Satan personifies this individualism. Satan cannot bear to put the common good before his own personal desires. He exemplifies all that is dangerous about personal charisma, charisma, and his rhetorical dominance is bound up with that charisma.

When Satan makes speeches to other people, he is always manipulative, always instrumental. He uses people for his own ends. He lies. He is not a champion of the oppressed at all.

We might applaud the probably well-intentioned folk behind the Satanic Temple for the fine ethics in their Seven Tenets. Following them may indeed make them better people and good neighbours; but their champion has feet of clay.

As non-subscribing Presbyterian Christians, our champion is Jesus of Nazareth. I realise that some forms of religion can be a sly way for people to feel superior to others (we’re the chosen, God’s elect; you’re a reprobate sinner).

But we have no magic formula;
no Seven Tenets;
no 39 Articles;
no Westminster Confession;
no Four Spiritual Laws;
no Five Points of Calvinism.
We reject the insistence many professing Christians have, of insisting on doctrinal correctness, and concentrating on the afterlife and avoiding hell above all else.

We seek to nurture a deep and living faith in the goodness, grace, forgiveness and unconditional love of God as embodied in the life, the teachings, the death and the vindication of our Elder Brother, Jesus the Christ.

Hail Satan? No thanks. Instead, my cry will be
Kyrie Elieson. Lord have mercy. Alleluia and Amen.

This article was first delivered as a sermon in First Presbyterian Church, Belfast by David Kerr the Sunday before Hallowe’en 2019.

Picture: Eliphas Levi’s image of Baphomet

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