The devil you know…

The following is a paragraph written by Anton Chekhov in the short story, A Doctor’s Visit.    The story begins when the doctor is called to visit a sick girl in the country.  When he arrives he learns that the girl is the heiress to a large factory.  The factory has five buildings.  In one of the buildings he can see two windows lit up with the glow of red fire.  As for the heiress, everything is wrong with her while nothing is wrong with her at all.  As he thinks about her condition-less condition and the social conditions of the “good” factory, he reflects;

“And he (the doctor) thought about the devil, in whom he did not believe, and he looked round at the two windows where the fires were gleaming.  It seemed to him that out of those crimson eyes the devil himself was looking at him – that unknown force that had created the mutual relation of the strong and the weak, that coarse blunder which one could never correct.  The strong must hinder the weak from living – such was the law of Nature; but only in a newspaper article or in a school book was that intelligible and easily accepted.  In the hotchpotch which was everyday life, in the tangle of trivialities out of which human relations were woven, it was no longer a law, but a logical absurdity, when the strong and the weak were both equally victims of their mutual relations, unwillingly submitting to some directing force, unknown, standing outside life, apart from man.”

There is no devil, believes the Doctor.  Yet, the devil is all around.  The devil is staring at him through the crimson eyes of the factory.  That place where the lives of rich and poor intersect.    The devil is controlling them through his creation – the mutual relationship between strong and weak and the belief that the strong must control the weak – indeed, exploit the weak – in order to thrive and survive.  The devil is ideas and theories that rationalize the exploitive relationships between human beings.

But the devil’s grip weakens when you look at the everyday lives of people.  The devil’s grip weakens when we ask; Is the system we’ve come to embrace without choice really working?  Are not both slave and master victims of the devil’s creation?

In this paragraph, the doctor locates the devil, not in medieval visions of a spiritual boogie-man that is out to steal souls one at a time.   Where the doctor sees the devil most clearly at work is in the concrete social realities that pit person against person and person against God.  It’s been the devil’s strategy from the beginning (see Genesis 3).  This stands in stark contrast to God’s shalom vision – which is also a concrete social reality.  (Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven).

Some would dismiss Chekhov’s analysis through this story as late 19th century , Marxist thought.  In some ways it is.  But I would challenge you not to dismiss Chekhov’s thought, here, on those grounds.  Chekhov is a Christian.  He’s just not the sort of Christian most 21st Century American evangelicals would recognize.  His themes here are intentionally Christian – we are talking about the devil’s work, after all.  His conclusions clearly rooted in the second part of the greatest commandment from Jesus – you are to love your neighbor as yourself as well as the OT prophets like Amos.    He rightly identifies the intractable problem at the root of most, if not all, societal ills.  His diagnosis isn’t a Marxist one, or a Socialist one, as if a Capitalist solution is the answer.  The problem Chekhov identifies is at work within capitalist economic systems and liberal democracies alike.  The problem is a fundamental perversion in the nature of human relationships that we cannot seem to correct.  This is the devil’s work.  The strong exploit the weak for profit.   No economic system has been able to change that, not even the American brand of capitalism rooted in individual freedom and democracy.

The only legitimate alternative to the devil’s coarse blunder is found in the life and teaching of Jesus.  He turns the devil’s coarse blunder on its head and show forth the only remedy; loving God with heart, mind, soul and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself.  The only way to stand against an unwilling submission to some directing force, unknown, standing outside of life, apart from man is through a willing submission to a more powerful directing force, the divine Son of Man, incarnate, standing in the midst of life, fully present with man.

This, to me, is what it means to repent.  It means to stop playing the devil’s game, even when we are winning by his rules, and going the way of Jesus, which the world, echoing its father the devil, mocks in full chorus.


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