On March 18, Adam Kotsko lectured on “The Prince of this World: The Devil and Political Theology” as the first of this semester’s Humanities on the Edge guests. Kotsko, who teaches at Shimer College, was the 19th invited speaker in the series. Drawing on his current book project, his lecture argued that the Devil, as a theological character and symbol, arose out of the specific political history of Jewish and early Christian communities.
Kotsko, also known for his philosophical essays on pop culture, is a theologian by training and a translator of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, from whose book State of Exception this year’s HotE theme is drawn. In his lecture, he took up the persistent question of freedom, and the political and theological forms that thinking about freedom can take.
Kotsko outlined a “biography of the Devil from within,” by which he meant a historical account of the genesis of the Devil-symbol, and not the myth of the Devil. Satan, he argued, is a complex figure of the problem of evil, at once the punisher and the punished, rebel and ruler, and has long been a fixation of Christianity. Quoting the early church father Tertullian, he noted that by the time of the early church, Devils appeared around every corner to those with the knowledge to see them. Furthermore, in the Gospels, Jesus seems to walk around a Galilee that is suffering through a demon epidemic. But most important in the linkage of Satan to politics is the scene of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Here, taking Jesus to a high place, the Devil offers him all the kingdoms of the earth, if Jesus will only bow down. For this to be a genuine temptation, Kotsko reminded the audience, we must take it that the Devil has it in his power to offer these kingdoms in the first place. Otherwise Jesus could have called his bluff. We therefore should take the Devil’s power over the world literally--which is difficult. We have been trained to not see the connection between political power and the Devil. Yet it was as a reaction to power that the Devil was born.
It took a historically unprecedented event to create the Devil. Kotsko pointed out that the early Jewish scriptures do not contain unambiguous references to “the Devil.” The Genesis account’s serpent in the garden is enigmatic, and The Accuser in Job is read as the Devil only in retrospect. In reading history, Kotsko argued, it was only through a series of developments that “The Devil” became a satisfactory political-theological solution to the problem of evil.
Broadly stated, the problem of evil arises out of three propositions: 1. God is all powerful. 2. God is good. 3. Evil happens. What is going on? How can these positions be reconciled? Because the first two are unassailable maxims, Jewish (and later Christian) thinkers could only try to solve the problem of evil by attacking the last proposition.
In the stories of Exodus, Kotsko claimed, we see the first theological solution to evil. In that story, a huge range of violence and destruction is visited on the powerful Egyptian empire. But this violence occurs in the name of justice--God is punishing Egypt and Pharaoh for their actions against his chosen people. There is a lag between unjust events and their punishment, but it is measured in years. Kotsko called this the Deuteronomic model--it is a model in which God acts as ruler: he wages war, controls territory, distributes laws. He relies on Moses as an intermediary ruler.
When Moses dies, however, and after a series of ad hoc rulers (the Judges) the people eventually clamor for a king. But, Kotsko argued, the kings didn’t last very long before they became corrupted--because if kings are responsible for destruction and evil, then pagan kings are much easier for God to work with. In the Deuteronomical model, God was primarily a local God (God of Moses and the Israelites) who acted as a ruler, and world events protected the Jews and punished their enemies. With unjust, evil Jewish kings like Ahab, there is a “doubling down” on the theological model. The new model relies on a faithful remnant population, who can prophesy the delayed justice of a global god, now using pagan kings as mode of punishment for the unfaithful Jews. The lag is now measured in generations and the relationship between God and kings changes. Kings now act as unwitting servants of God. Kotsko pointed out that many of Isaiah's messianic images are descriptions of Cyrus the Great, who certainly doesn’t seem to know that he is doing the will of the Israelite God.
The problem for the prophetic model occurs when evil and destruction again cannot be read as justice, even justice deferred. A crisis is precipitated in the book of Daniel in the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the fiery furnace. Here, three upstanding Jewish boys are nearly punished--not for their faithlessness--but precisely because of their loyalty. They go out of their way in requesting special dispensations and kosher food, yet they are still cast into the furnace and only saved by direct angelic intervention. The community can no longer understand disastrous violence as just punishment. Kotsko called this a theological close call--the paradigm is at stake. If evil can befall even the faithful, the prophetic model must again be “doubled-down.”
This story was also caused by a real historical crisis: the rampage of Antiochus Epiphanes. A central figure in the book of Maccabees (dismissed by Luther and thus not making the cut in the Protestant Bible), Antiochus was a successor of Alexander the Great, and who brutally, and without a clear political reason, destroyed and desecrated the Jewish temple. Antiochus, Kotsko said, is the Devil. He creates an exception to the prophetic paradigm. The second half of Daniel describes this exception, and doubles down again.
The paradigm shifts to apocalypse. If justice were temporally displaced for several generations by the prophets, it is now displaced even further--beyond death. In the face of such brutal horror and destruction, the hope for justice must now lie in the resurrection of the dead--the first mention of such a phenomena, according to Kotsko. Those who cannot hope to overcome their political situation are forced to submit to martyrdom. The promise to ancestors is out if there are no ancestors left. This forces a “reboot of creation.” If the sense of justice underlying the world ends, too bad for the world.
We can see references to the Devil as speaking in code about Antiochus, Kotsko argued, but that would miss the point. The political is always immediately theological, and that is why this contingent historical event--Antiochus--is so important. It forced a huge change in how people related to God and to evil.
With Christianity, the stakes were upped again--there was an even bigger political enemy: the Roman Empire. Now it wasn’t just the faithful who were martyred, it was Jesus--God himself. There was no room for error, and no back to normal. Christianity is itself a constant state of exception. The apocalyptic clock is ticking, and the Devil, as noted by Tertullian, is ever present in the events of the world.
In fielding questions, Kotsko noted the eventual association of the Devil with everything that didn’t fit in, including (in the middle ages) women as witches. He also briefly outlined Islam’s tradition of straightforward acceptance of the Devil, and the terrifying accompanying proposition that “We are all Job” and thus subject to evil and misfortune. Finally he commented on the rise of Pentecostalism in the global south, a tradition whose vivid depictions of spiritual warfare are especially appealing to the oppressed and dispossessed.
Kotsko’s talk was built on a careful historical analysis of a subject so familiar it seems known. But in showing the connections between politics and theology, Kotsko investigated the junction of thinking and what we think we know. The audience looks forward to Kotsko’s book on the Devil, especially a further analysis of the figure of the Devil in modernity and his political deployment today. Kotsko has noted elsewhere that the Devil, a figure originally developed by the powerless to grapple with overwhelming and violent power--has been perverted and used against the very powerless he was once created by to explain the evil of power. We should all remain wary of the power of the Devil.