Carter Did But I Can’t And You Can’t, Either

Charles Carter was a famous magician during the early part of the 20th Century whose third act during a spectacular stage show features a duel with an assistant dressed as Satan. Titled “Carter Beats the Devil,” the act featured a series of near miraculous escapes from seemingly impossible constraints – a popular theme in stage magic embraced by other well known magicians of the era: Harry Houdini, Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Harry Blackstone Sr., and Alexander Herrmann among others. At the end of the act, Carter in fact beats the Devil in the great conjuring contest to the delight of the thoroughly mesmerized audience. Carter’s fictionalized biography, Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold was a fun, if highly romanticized, read that led me to learn more about Carter and his contemporaries.

Would that beating the Devil was as simple as a little conjuring.

It seems to me that the Devil sure has been busy of late. Between terror attacks throughout the world, the emboldening of hate groups throughout the US, the aggression of ISIS and Taliban forces, the threats of angry nations resenting their material and political impoverishment and the growing divisions between people both within and among many nations, we feel shadowed by an almost continual sense of destructivity. Nation against nation, parent against child, brother against brother all of whom have newly developed nuclear weapons or bomb making skills or simply a driver’s license. It’s hardly a wonder that so many people fear that we are in end times. I suspect we are.

We are certainly at the end of a time where the darkest forces of the human heart remain submerged beneath the level of widespread consciousness. We are at the end of a time when we can assume that safety and security on our streets and in our homes is a given. We seem to be at the end of a time when political leaders are capable of evoking our highest and best ideals and behaviors, pandering instead to our fears and prejudices. Foolishly, those same leaders, neophytes at “together” but experts at “against,” elect to wield authority through the dispatch of weapon and warrior, convinced that they are capable of eliminating agents of hatred. Blood is shed, homes and cities destroyed, enemies emboldened and the Devil wins again.

Of course, I am no more interested in anthropomorphizing evil than I am in making God in our own image. I remember fondly an extraordinary insight in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s book Good Omens. An angel and a demon, longtime adversaries and acquaintances are comparing notes. The angel compliments the demon on the very effective job he and his cohort have done in wreaking havoc among humankind. The demon, in response, says something like, “Actually, we haven’t really done that much. What humans do to themselves is far worse than anything we could have come up with.”

In an earlier essay ( I stated that I was convinced of the presence of “some reality shaped by non-being [that] continually calls us away from embracing our full humanity,” the only way I can think of the pervasive and tenacious capacity for self-destruction that characterizes human behavior. Interestingly enough, it seems to be a reality peculiar to hominids – one that leaves those lower on the evolutionary ladder untouched. Certainly, animals do not sin (as good a word as any even though it carries some religious baggage with it). While the dogs and cats I have shared my home with may have acted in a way that displeases me, they never acted against their own instinct. I suspect the same thing is true about frogs and newts and blue jays. Archaeological discoveries of bashed skulls and marks of violence on bones seem to indicate that the emergence of violence for violence’s sake arrived with homo sapiens and our evolutionary predecessors.

And the President and his generals think that employing violence against the violent will eliminate violence? I doubt it. I think that one lesson we have yet to learn is that the Devil (whatever force or characteristic that might be) lives among us, in us, and acts through us. It can be recognized, it can be resisted, it can be denounced, but nothing we can do will beat it out of us.

Pogo and St. Paul both saw it clearly. We have met the enemy and they is us, Pogo said. Describing real personal anguish at his wrestling with the enemy within, Paul said:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?

Paul’s not alone. I find, much to my dismay, that I, too, know the good I want to do but am seduced away from doing it. The brutish and terminally ignorant behavior of neo-nazis and white supremacists and violent religious zealots far too often evokes the same emotions of rage and resentment in me that drive their actions. And can anyone eliminate that tendency in me with guns or troop incursions or drones?

No, St. Peter has it named: Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.

We need to accept that Satan lives among us, around us, within us and that the only remedy is watchfulness and an aspiration that is higher than our basest self, evocative of that part of us which is Divine. I stand in greater peril at the advance of the Devil within than the Devil in others.