Recently, I learned that the word “diabolical” means, at its root, to “throw across”, from the Greek dia (meaning “across”) and ballo (meaning “I throw”). The sense of the word is that diabolical behavior is that which has the effect of throwing something at something else in order to shatter its integrity. Like throwing a rock through a glass window.
Of course, we don’t normally think of rocks thrown through windows as diabolical. We tend to reserve that word for particularly heinous acts of violence or evil. Hence, the word in Greek becomes a name for the devil, and moves out from Greek to denote the devil or demonic behavior in other languages.
It seems to me that there are a lot of people today living what we might call diabolical lives. Not because they are somehow in the service of the devil, but because much of their lives seem to be devoted to attempts at shattering the integrity of others. What passes, for example, for political campaigning or debate is seldom, it seems, a genuine, substantive engagement over issues, but more like a competition to see who can through the most stones at the opposing person so as to shatter as much of his or her integrity as possible. What passes for religion often does the same thing: rather than inviting people into a deeper, more authentic, more compassionate life where healing and transformation might be found, far too many religious people and groups today are more concerned with shattering the lives and integrity of people whom they see as “other” and therefore threatening.
I’ve never been convinced that there is such a being as “the devil”, but it certainly is true that our willingness to live diabolically draws us away from God.
I am reminded of that wonderful story in John’s Gospel of the woman “caught in adultery” who is brought to Jesus by a crowd who want him to confirm that the traditional penalty — stoning the woman to death — is just and right. Jesus declines to do so, instead turning the matter around and simply saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus has no interest in affirming diabolical behavior. He sees nothing just or right coming forth from a literal shattering of this woman’s life. And once the crowd, drawn out of their desire for the diabolical by Jesus’ simple response, drifts away, Jesus refuses to condemn the woman and invites her to move forward in her life. Rather than shattering her existence, Jesus invites her to see the futility of how she has been living, and move forward into a transformed life that is truer, deeper, more authentic.
God does not embrace the diabolical. God does not seek to shatter the window panes of our souls, but simply to open those windows up so a fresh wind of the Spirit might blow through. Perhaps if our religious and secular cultures could stop throwing things for a moment, and instead open ourselves up to really hear, see, and know each other, we could develop a better, deeper, more authentic community.