We’re living in a world of division, and that division is defining. We put ourselves in groups and make alliances, and then we define ourselves by these groups. In fact, we tend to define ourselves against other groups. We’re not them. Worse, we often demonize the other groups. They are evil. They cause us harm. And because they cause us harm, or can cause us harm, then we should be afraid of them. One step more is that since we’re afraid of them, we should circle the wagons in our own group to protect ourselves. Dig in our heels and put on all the armor and once more define ourselves against them. Then we should hurt them before they can hurt us.
We know this. If you’re a United Methodist, you’re living in a world of factions: traditionalists, centrists, progressives (oh my!). Beyond the Methodists we do this in all sorts of ways: liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, pro-LGBTQ+ and anti-LGBTQ+, pro-life and pro-choice, the list goes on. In-groups and out-groups, protect everyone in the in-group until you realize someone was actually part of the out-group, then spit her out. Don’t let yourself get hurt.
In our more reasonable moments, we recognize that this is detrimental to us all. It’s a vicious reality with no easy resolution. But there may be a way to move forward with more grace. When John Chrysostom preaches about demons, he’s nearly always talking about virtue. Because so much of the divisive world runs on people and groups’ demonizing one another, Chrysostom has something important to tell us.
Chrysostom tells his congregants over and over not to fear the devil and his demons. His people are afraid, sure that the devil is running the world and sure that demons will hurt them. It might not be a direct parallel, but so much of the division is driven by fear of the other who might somehow hurt. In Christian circles, a lot of the fear is about a group that might even lead people to hell. Though we might not use the name, we are demonizing one another. So Chrysostom, who preaches to his congregants who are afraid of demons because they could send them to hell, might have something to say to us as well.
The basis of Chrysostom’s assurance to his congregation is that the devil and his demons cannot cause true harm. Using Stoic categories, Chrysostom says there is true harm and only apparent harm. Things might seem like harm—and they might be genuine suffering—but they are not true harm. True harm, Chrysostom insists, is harm we do to the soul. The only harm that affects the soul is sin. And, says Chrysostom, we alone can harm our own souls. God created humans with a free ability to choose that no one—not demons, not other people, not even God—can compel. Therefore, the only one who chooses sin is the person himself. So, Chrysostom preaches, do not fear what other people can do to you. They can physically maim you, they can verbally assault you, but they cannot damage your soul for salvation. Only you can do that.
One of Chrysostom’s examples of this is Cain and Abel. Chrysostom preaches that even though Cain murdered Abel, Abel was not truly harmed. His soul was still righteous. Cain, however, damaged his soul by his sin. Job is Chrysostom’s primary example of this: all that happened to Job did not truly harm his soul, even though it was deep suffering. Because Job did not curse God, his soul remained righteous.
If we’ll listen, Chrysostom is trying to tell us the same thing. Whatever we fear what the other group will do to us, they cannot harm our souls. They cannot endanger our salvation. We alone can do that. In fact, when we demonize the other group, when we hate, when we curse, when we expel the one who doesn’t quite fit, that is when we damage our souls and endanger our salvation.
It is hard to be brave. It is hard to remain open to the world and to see others fully and with soft heart. There is no easy resolution to our division. The way forward is difficult. It requires taking responsibility for our own sins and the sins of our group. It requires standing vulnerable and exposed before the other group, hoping you won’t be hurt (however not truly—or eternally—damaging it might be, hurt still hurts). It requires a ceasefire. Stop thinking to hurt them before they hurt us. Hurting them does more damage to our own soul. The way forward might require suffering. It is not an easy way. One might say it is a cruciform way.