Thursday, July 23, 2009

L'enfer, C'est les Autres

The line comes from Sartre's 1944 play Huis Clos (best known in English as No Exit): "L'enfer, c'est les autres." Hell is other people; in any language, it is one of the best-known quotes of the twentieth century.

The other day a pamphlet fell out of my wife's Bible: Overcoming Offenses: God's provision for victory - no longer a prisoner of hurt (1995). It had been given to my wife by someone at a Bible study class. The author is a pastor named David G. Huskey. What intrigued me most was the reference to "victory." Lately, I have been reading about Christian nationalism and wondered if this was a dominionist manifesto or something more personal and reflective. As it turns out, there is a bit of both here.

Huskey begins by presenting a Biblical definition of "offense" as "anything that arouses prejudice or becomes a hindrance to others or causes them to fall by the way." It also shares a definition of "offense" as the part of a trap where the bait is placed. This might have led to an exploration of anger and pride, the habits that compel us to reach for the bait time after time.

There is some good inspirational material here about working with difficult emotions such as anger and vanity. This is not, however, a pamphlet that encourages deep self-reflection. Instead, culpability for our confusion is assigned to a single outside actor. A well-known figure, as a matter of fact. A character known for his horns and pitchfork. Yeah, him. Literally.

Allowing offenses into your life causes many things to happen. Satan brings these hurts upon you to distract you from your destiny...The devil will use anyone as the bait in the snare. It may be your wife, husband, friend, enemy or stranger. This is his way of trying to break up relationships. In using these people, he is mainly striking at killing your fellowship and joy with God and others.

Oh my! What about breaking up relationships by telling vulnerable people that their spouse or friend may be possessed by Satan? Anything someone says or does that differs from the preferred doctrine must be the work of the Satan, specifically designed to trip you up. This parallels one of the crucial steps cults follow in gathering vulnerable people: isolating them from the community outside the cult.

The devil will set a plan against you because you are important to God and a detriment to him. Satan has studied you and knows you, though his knowledge is not as intimate or complete as God's.

This guy doesn't go to many interfaith clergy breakfasts. The meme that "people who are different are touched by evil and dangerous" is nothing new, of course. Yet Huskey actually takes the step of de-humanizing people at the point they say or do anything that might cause you to consider your own beliefs. It also places you at the center of a scary universe: it is all about you, and it is all about Satan's efforts to GET you.

Huskey brings up the passage from Matthew where Jesus tells the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, be killed, and then rise from His grave. Peter was understandably a bit troubled to hear these things and had some questions -- perhaps skeptical questions. That's when Jesus hands Peter the smackdown: "Get thee behind me, Satan! Thou art an offense unto me; for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men."

Huskey points out that Jesus addresses Peter as Satan, because this was Satan talking, not Peter. Anything other than uncritical, non-introspective fidelity to this belief system is worldly and bad. Therefore, if your professor at school asks you to entertain an idea outside the particular doctrine you have adopted, he has been momentarily possessed by the devil. Love and forgive your professor, says the pastor, but disregard any question he asks or any idea he expresses. Get thee behind me, Satan.

Sartre's play is about purgatory, the French title a legal term for when a court is adjourned. Three people are trapped in a room together and feel compelled to examine and convict one another. (Thus the quip is made, "Hell is other people.") Something the decedents all have in common is bad behavior in relationships, suggesting that their purpose in this little room might be to learn how to care for one another.

To find that intimacy, you have to be able to talk and understand the other, to honor the integrity of the story that is moving them while making yourself understood to them. Huskey pushes the reader in the opposite direction: insulate yourself from otherness as much as possible, because otherness is an illusion woven by the devil solely for the purpose of destroying you. This is no basis for a human relationship.

In Zen, we sometimes say that anybody who offends you is Buddha, showing you your angry mind. We do not believe this as literally as Huskey's vision of Satan. The point is: if you make hell, then other people are hell. On the other hand, otherness can also teach you about the world and other people. If compassion and forbearance become your habits, if you accept some education instead of hiding in some personal dark age, your hell disappears and the whole world becomes church. What a beautiful thing.


Kelly said...

I would have to read the entire tract by Huskey to really be able to form an opinion and comment on this, but from what little you quoted I think I can see what he's trying to say... Have you discussed it with your wife for her opinion?

As an aside, I find the photo you used here quite interesting. When we still had goats there were a few with odd looking horns, but nothing like that!

Anonymous said...

I found your page by looking Sarte's quote. I'm a weak agnostic searching for some spirituality I'm from a Southern Baptist background. I really enjoyed and agreed with your comments. like to read more so I'm bookmarking your page... Thanks ,,, Annie