My Juniors and I just finished reading and discussing Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. You may remember reading the play when you were in high school. As a refresher, The Crucible is about the Salem witch trials, and the tragic account of how all hell breaks loose in a community when theocratic leaders abuse their powers, drugging the masses with the opiate of absolutist rhetoric, and scapegoating and killing everyone on the margins that represents a threat to the status quo. The play was written in the midst of the Red Scare era, and was meant to critique Joseph McCarthy’s “witch hunts” for communists in academia, Hollywood, even the White House.
What struck me this time while reading the play was how those who were in power – Parris, Judge Hawthorn, Judge Danforth – were able to take bad theology and convert it into a kind of mythological drug for the masses. Specifically, they were able to create stories with the capacity to reshape reality to serve their agendas – most importantly to keep themselves in power. Thus they told their story of the “Devil’s work” in the Salem community until the people in the community were telling the stories to each other. After awhile, the leaders were able to sit back and watch the myth work like a wild-fire, devouring anything amendable to reasonableness.
The play descends into hell as these God-ordained leaders substitute theology for ideology, and come to actually believe in the stories they have created. The point Miller makes as hundreds hang from the gallows is this: it’s not reality that we believe in; it’s the stories about reality that we believe in. And these stories are powerful enough to make us believe we have the right to torture, persecute, and ultimately kill (aka bomb, bomb, bomb) in God’s name.
What’s tragic then, as personified in John Proctor’s character, is that when a minority of people refuse to fall under the spells of such silver-tongued wizards, they become the perfect antagonist for the stories that the myth-makers are telling. Thus the John Proctor’s of the world get cast as the “enemy of God”. And so for those like John Proctor, who represent grounded-reality folk, who represent the prophetic voice, who represent the voice from the margins, who represent the Church as the Conscience to the State (as opposed to the Masters of the State or the Servants of the State) – they get what tends to happen to minorities, prophets, those who live on the fringes – they get shunned, branded, vilified, demonized and ultimately silenced. It happened to Isaiah. To Amos. To John the Baptist. To Jesus. To Peter. To Paul. To Martin Luther King Jr. To Oscar Romero. To Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And so many more. And it still happens today.
Sometimes I wonder if there are enclaves of evangelicals who are like the Salem denizens – drugged victims of a mythology, ignorant cogs in a industrial-military-machinery, who believe in a reality that is a gross parody of the way things really are. Just ask most evangelicals what their eschatology is, for example, and you’ll probably sense what I’m getting at. What you’ll get an ear full of is not theology but mythology, a boilerplate version of The Left Behind series, where the “us” (those who think and believe like us) get raptured up to heaven and the “them” (anyone who doesn’t think like or believe the things we do) get left to suffer the wrath of God. Ultimately this version of the biblical story tends to leverage our fear of losing power, which then fuels our desire to preserve the status quo, which then involves ultimately keeping the powerful in power to take away that fear, which ultimately then gives those in power the ability to pass policies that involves raping the earth, feeding our addiction to oil, making the rich richer, borrowing billions from China, torturing our enemies (thus making us like them), bombing and killing the innocent, and doing nothing to truly end extreme poverty in third world countries. I mean really, what’s the point of re-arranging the lawn chairs on the Titanic if it’s all going to sink anyway, right? If the story ends with the total annihilation of all things created, as opposed to the total restoration of all things, then what’s the point?Religion then, as Karl Marx famously points out, becomes the opiate of the en masse. We are drugged into living passively for the afterlife and not actively for this life. Rather than engaging the problems and seeking to put the world back to rights, we instead seek to escape the problems and demand our rights to keep the world just the way it is – titled to our advantage.
By writing this, I know that I may be putting my neck in the noose like John Proctor. But is it worth sticking my neck out? That’s what I asked my Juniors at the end of class today. Was John Proctor’s sacrifice worth it? Was his death heroic? Or pathetic?
I leave that question for you to explore. As for me I’m wanting to learn how to be brave. Ironically I find it is easier to be brave with those who aren’t Christians than it is with those who are. Why is that? I’m not sure. But it’s because I love my evangelical brothers and sisters, and it’s because I want to honor my evangelical roots, that I ask them to humble themselves before God with me and seek His face and His truth with all their being. My critique comes from within as an evangelical. It’s a lovers quarrel, really.
So I say, Absolutely! It’s worth the risk. Because I am trying to live deliberately by another story. Not the story of domination. Not the story of revolution. Not the story of purification. Not the story of victimization. Not the story of isolation. Not the story of accumulation. But the story of restoration – the story of heaven crashing into earth and making all things new. This is the story I seek first and foremost. This is the story I have been summoned up into, which is the story of Jesus launching a project to put the world back to rights, to reconcile heaven and earth, to usher in a never-ceasing age of shalom (Isa. 11).