Peter Rosengren: Maybe the Devil is a white man after all

Reading Time: 3 minutes
PHOTO: Working Title Films

As Everett, Pete and Delmar are on the run in the Depression-era Deep South of the 1930s in the classic Coen Brothers movie O Brother Where Art Thou?, they pick up a hitch hiker carrying a guitar case at a lonely crossroads in the middle of the Mississippi Delta. Shortly before this they encounter a religious congregation in the midst of a mass baptism. Swept up in a moment of religious fervour, Pete and Delmar are baptised. Back in the car, it turns out that Tommy Johnson, a black man, had to be at the crossroads at midnight in order to sell his soul to the Devil.

Everett, the always upbeat con-man of the trio who seems to be shocked by nothing, merely finds this interesting information.

“Well ain’t it a small world – spiritually speaking,” he remarks cheerfully. “Pete and Delmar just been baptised and saved. I guess I’m the only one that remains unaffiliated!” Everett asks Tommy what he sold his soul for.

“Well … he taught me to play this-here guitar real good,” Tommy replies. But a newly-baptised and shocked Delmar is deeply saddened. “Oh son, for that you traded your everlasting soul?” he asks. Tommy shrugs. “Well I wasn’t using it,” he says.

The conversation turns to Pete’s interest in what the Devil actually looks like. As usual, Everett is a wealth of information on any subject with a ready answer, including for this. “Well there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Pete,” he remarks manner-of-factually …. “but the great Satan himself is red and scaly with a bifurcated tail and,” he adds, “he carries a hayfork.” Tommy, however, begs to differ. “Oh no!,” he remarks emphatically from the back seat of the car. “No sir! He’s white – as white as you folks. With empty eyes and a big hollow voice. An’ he looks to travel round with a mean old hound.”

Apparently remarkable news surfaced this week as Spanish newspaper El Mundo (The World) reported an interview with the new General of the Jesuit order, Fr Arturo Marcelino Sosa Abascal, a Venezuelan with white hair and a white neatly trimmed moustache who looks strikingly more like a tram conductor or a concierge than the head of the Church’s most powerful order. General Abascal, the newspaper reported, said the Devil did not exist but was a projection of some dark aspect of the human psyche. Understandably, the interview went global.

“We have created symbolic figures, such as the devil, in order to express [the reality of] evil,” the paper reported the Jesuit capo dei capi as saying.

The existence of the Devil is something that periodically fascinates people – unless, we suppose – you do not actually believe he exists. Nevertheless, ordinary Catholics going about their daily lives could be forgiven for doing something of a double-take. It’s a pretty big statement to be making – certainly an attention getter – in effect, an assertion that two millennia of Christian teaching and (perhaps just as importantly) experience, starting with Jesus’ own words, are false and wrong. Either that, or, like the early Gnostics, General Abascal believes he has has privileged access to information denied to ordinary human beings.

On the other hand, another Jesuit has spoken often in recent years about the reality of the Devil and his hatred for human beings made in the image and likeness of God. So important is an undertanding of the Devil’s reality that he figured in Jorge Bergoglio’s first speech after his election as Pope Francis – and regularly from then on. Were Papa Francisco and Tommy Johnson to meet up both would surely agree on the Devil’s existence. And it’s hard to say for sure, but both might well agree that the Devil is a white man too.