Whenever Kelly Brown Douglas hears the phrase, “the devil made me do it,” images of Flip Wilson dressed in drag as his alter ego Geraldine immediately come to her mind.
“Anytime this character got into some difficulty this was the excuse that was offered,” said Douglas, a professor of religion at Goucher College in Maryland. “There are a couple of things that are suggestive here that perhaps help us to understand why this becomes a response to various misdeeds in the black community.”
Recently, Tina Campbell, of the gospel duo Mary Mary, and her husband, Teddy Campbell, admitted that their marriage is in trouble due to an extramarital affair on his part. While Teddy did not utter the words, “the devil made me do it,” there was some demonic finger pointing.
According to Teddy via his Facebook page: “My struggle, was with sexual immorality but my wife struggled with anger, rage, unforgiveness, pride, just to name a few, for over 2 decades. The devil wanted to use strongholds that took hold of our lives in our childhood, to remain and destroy us as adults. So now instead of being mad at each other we’re mad at the devil and we’re ready to fight.”
As a result, the Campbells have asked their fans and supporters to join them for a month of fasting and prayer. Their intent is that at the end of this month their marriage will be saved and they will have overcome the attacks of Satan.
To the average, self-identified black Christian today, this commentary, where Satan becomes the blame for whatever may be wrong in any scenario is not uncommon. Many have grown up in households where Satan has become synonymous to struggle, strife, and failings, even infidelity. And while scripture may have something to do with this narrative, some academics believe the demonic scapegoat commentary/narrative/theology is problematic.
Richard Pitt, assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, has done research on church conflict in Black churches (around hiring of new pastors). He said the devil is often mentioned as a primary actor in the goings-on at a church in conflict.
“This tactic is often used to deal with disorderly conduct by particular members of groups of members. In fact, even visiting preachers say things like, ‘I’m sorry that Satan got in here and did you the way he did,’” Pitt told The Grio. “So, while ‘the devil made me do it,’ was one of the biggest laugh lines for comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine, blaming the devil seems to be a very useful response to religious wrongdoing.”
Satan as ‘scapegoat’
Pitt references tactics used by Ghanaian Akans in similar situations. He points out that African scapegoat is usually a pet animal – such as a dog or cat – and used to deflect anger so as to avoid face-to-face conflict.
“If an Akan woman’s husband is having an affair, rather than criticize him directly, she will take the more subtle approach of, in his presence, talking about a pet dog’s proclivities toward infidelity or disloyalty,” he said. “This gives the actual person who is being addressed an opportunity to hear the complaint, but since he is not being addressed directly, a public response is rendered inappropriate and would betray his complicity in the actions being addressed.”
The same happens in church conflict, Pitt suggests. Satan is used as the scapegoat for the actions of the “troublemakers.” And the same is done in situations involving individual failings. Satan becomes the scapegoat so that the individual in question saves face. They are still considered upstanding and responsible. However, they simply became a victim of the tactics of Satan. Blaming the devil is an “excuse” that argues—often effectively in religious contexts—that one’s behavior is in response to the behavior of someone else: the devil, Pitts points out.
But where does the theology of blame come from?
Sometimes from a misreading of scripture, said Esther Acolaste, assistant professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and World Christianity at Duke Divinity School.
“Look at the story of Job. The story of Job is an illustration of a larger cosmic reality. It is not a prescription for how the spiritual world works,” she told TheGrio. “[The story of Job is] not for us to constantly think something out there is after us.”
For her, devil blame commentary goes against the tenets of Christianity. She believes such narratives gives entirely too much power to evil forces.
“It almost gives equal power to the devil and God at the same time, [which is] a totally theologically inadequate picture of who God is and who the devil is,” Acolaste said.
“Instead of blaming the devil, scripture tells us when we are tempted we should look within ourselves first.”
The critiques of these scholars are in no way value judgments on the Campbells and their situation. As a matter-of-fact, Acolaste believes fans; supporters and friends should pray for them. She considers the request to be obedient to scripture.
“We can pray for them but also hold them accountable. Galatians tells us the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, long suffering,” she said. “So when the desire to be angry comes over us, we pause a moment to pray and ask for power. You cannot keep birds from flying over your head. But you can keep them from nesting in their head.”
However, the Campbells’ situation provides an opportunity for honest discussion, said Margarita Simon Guillory, assistant professor of Religion Arts, Sciences, and Engineering in the Department of Religion And Classics at the University of Rochester.
“The Campbells’ situation could possibly act as a scaffold to generate honest conversations about developing and putting into practice theologies of free will that takes evil (in the form of Satan) into consideration without repressing human accountability,” she told The Grio.
She believes the re-appropriation of such a theology is possible, particularly at the local church level. However, Douglas and Pitt are not as convinced.
Douglas believes there is still much work left to be done in the black church.
“In general, situations such as these further indicate the body problem in the black church community as well as the way in which women are viewed,” said Douglas. “That Tina Campbell and other women support such an excuse respects the way in which we all can become victimized by our own “faith” traditions to the point that they interfere with our own well-being. “
“In spite of the supposed “project for respectability” the black community is engaged in (that under-girds some of the virulent homo-antagonism voiced by many black religious leaders), the ability to either scapegoat the devil or blame biology (“he’s a man . . . they can’t help themselves around women”) gives, especially heterosexual, men easy cover when they do bad things,” he said. “In a way, the account suggests there are two victims here: the aggrieved wife and adulterous husband. If wives and God can forgive so easily, so will the black church.”