Wielding Our Little Tridents


Recently, one of my readers wrote me:

Here is a thought I’ve come back to after a time. Understand that I come at this as someone who has a bit of detachment from the idea of “love one’s country,” etc.; not of disdain, or despite of fellow man, but as one who can look hard at history and say, “Ooh, bad call,” and similarly at the present. Perhaps it is the perspective of living and working with the bottom of society for so long, coupled with my Catholic Worker instincts.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Here goes the proposition:

“The false God worshipped in America with appalling universality is ‘America.’”

Truly, the “pagan” gods of the Old Testament were very much Political constructs — court “cult” religions to concentrate power in the hands of the current local potentate, be it Babylon or Egypt or wherever.

Often in ancient Israel, prophetic calls condemn the worship of “false gods” linking the self-worship of its own wealth and power and the alienation of the ancient poor (widows, orphans — who, by the way, were violent delinquent street children; no “noble poor” these folk).

The Cold War, Mutually-Assured Destruction, the Total War of that noble “WW2,” the dehumanization of the Japanese in war-time propaganda, etc., all united a people to worship the power of the U.S. In the 1960s through the 1980s, a bipartisan approach to unjustly and inhumanly deprive entire of peoples of dignity and self-governance (Chile, surrogates trained to enlist terror as a technique of population control in Central America, the opportunistic deprivation of peoples of their own resources on the altar of private property — think United Fruit Company) trained us further that, in certain circumstances (hardly with any limits), individuals were to be human sacrifices for U.S. power and wealth.

Now we torture . . . but we had a long walk to this. This point in history did not materialize out of some event in September 2001. We had long training to come to this point.

We worship U.S. power as God. The U.S. “Left” vs. “Right” constructs are just two competing visions of that same God . . . each willing in its own way to justify its long walk to this current point in American history.

Oscar Romero was martyred on March 24, 1980, 30 years ago this Holy Week. He was not embraced by anyone but his littlest people, and embrace him they did and still do. He was someone who reminded his powerful oppressors, El Salvador’s American puppet masters and his government, they were not God.

Maybe the call for the Left is to remember him, and the Right to recognize him.

Just some thoughts.

I think there is much in this, though I would trace our secular messianic roots (which are very deep) back to the Puritans and their City on a Hill. It was G. K. Chesterton who perceptively noted that America is a nation with the soul of a church. Today, we are increasingly a nation of apostate Puritans, still hell-bent on missionizing the world with The Message — only The Message is mutating. It used to be the American Way as conceived of in the mid-20th century. Now, it’s increasingly, “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!” Our Madonna is not exactly the Blessed Virgin, but she is emphatically apostolic. Our prayer is not “Deliver us from evil,” but “Bring it on!” Our gods are Moloch, Mammon, and Might. But we remain certain, even in our postmodern uncertainty, that we are right. Absolutely right, in fact. Anybody who proposes premodern morals or ways of viewing the world is savaged as a theocrat.

Still, having said that I agree with about 99 percent of the above, I would take one small issue with this remark:
Truly, the “pagan” gods of the Old Testament were very much Political constructs — court “cult” religions to concentrate power in the hands of the current local potentate, be it Babylon or Egypt or wherever.
I think this is to get things backward from the biblical view of things. To be sure, the ancient pagans (like the modern ones) worshipped money, sex, and power. But the biblical view does not really seem to me to see the gods as “constructs,” as though Athena or Ra were corporate logos like Ronald McDonald, meant to symbolize the power of Athens or Egypt. Rather, the suggestion of both Exodus and of St. Paul is that behind the idol to the god there lies a real spiritual entity. The magicians of Egypt perform some of the signs of Moses (Ex 5:22). And Paul tells us flat out:
What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Cor 10:19-21)
Similarly, Paul likewise tells us, “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Of course, read wrongly, such texts can be and have been used to go right ahead and demonize the flesh-and-blood enemy, as though anybody who opposes Me and My Godly Agenda is a willing agent of Satan. But Paul does not mean that. For he has just pointed out to the Ephesians themselves that
you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph 2:1-7)

Why does this matter? Because Paul is not a jihadist. He commands no armies. He has no strike force he is mustering to defeat the might of Rome. He is writing from jail (well, technically, house arrest). He has no earthly power and never will. His talk about principalities and powers is not rhetoric used to whip his readers into a frenzy aimed at helping them slay the soulless orc, but to remind them that, as John warned, “The whole world lieth in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:19), and that we ourselves are only recent rescuees.

I mention all this because I think
both Left-wing and Right-wing analyses have important insights but fatal flaws. The insights are due to the fact that, as Chesterton points out, every rebel tends to have a lively awareness of what is wrong but not a very clear idea of what is right. So Lefties have an acute diagnosis of the real failures of conservative thought, and Righties likewise can see what lefties are blind to about their own failures. But neither has a clear idea of a positive vision to articulate.

For my part, I have long been concerned that, for all Lefties get right in their just critiques of Rightie blind spots (as, for instance, the note above), one of the big failures of Lefty analysis tends to be a too-easy dismissal of the supernatural dimension of the gospel. So while I agree with my reader about the overweening pride of the Leviathan statism to which the Right and Left increasingly subscribe, I am loath to say that we humans are ultimately being manipulated by a merely human agency. I think it’s darker than that.

As a supernaturalist who believes in the existence of Paul’s “principalities and powers,” I think the Left (and, increasingly, the Right) are both making the mistake of dismissing the devil with a roll of the eyes instead of with the sign of the Cross. In our post-Christian culture, it has become fatally easy to speak as though the nation-state and hardball politics are the reality, and the demonic is the psychological construct or image we humans use to try to talk about that reality.

I suspect the reverse is the opposite. Politics and such are the ephemeral thing. The demonic, the angelic, the divine, and the human are the solid realities — and the human is, in a sense, the least solid of the four, since we are in a state of probation till our death, and we only “harden” to our heavenly or hellish destiny at the moment of our death.

This is, I know, a way of looking at things that will invite catcalls of “superstition” from a huge number of my contemporaries (and not all of them unbelievers). But I can’t help but think it is much closer to the biblical way of seeing things than any system that gives primacy to the idea that we do wrestle with flesh and blood — which is essentially the entire project of modernity, both Left and Right. It is also, by the way, why I take seriously the ancient warning of Antichrist and why I cannot shake the feeling that all our mortally opposed human political systems and ideologies have in common a secret thread: Insofar as they urge us to trim our Catholic faith to better serve their agendas, they are all, in their own ways, wielding their little tridents to help clear a path for his advent.

I say all this because it seems to me to be the principal lesson of the Gospels about what happens when God meets fallen man. In the story of the Passion, what we see is a certain vision of Humanism achieving its full potential. Herod and Pilate; the chief priests and the Roman procurator; the authority-hating mob and the authorities; people speaking Hebrew, Latin, and Greek; rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, conservative Sadducee, and liberal Pharisee; indeed even the apostles themselves — a whole rainbow of diversity come together in the Triumph of the Humanist Spirit to shout as one: “Yes We Can — crucify the Son of God!”

Just some unsettling Holy Week musings.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...