In 2015, I attempted to write a play which would draw together my lifelong fascination with the Passion story, my appetite for political satire and my immersion for many years in the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom, justice and equality in the Holy Land. The result was The Devil’s Passion – a passion play set in Occupied Palestine, and told by the devil. Part espionage thriller, part satire, part poetic meditation – Homeland meets Mistero Buffo meets Dante’s Inferno – set in a ‘Holy Land’ characterised by harsh divisions, barriers, walls, alienation – a state of affairs which the diabolical narrator finds entirely satisfactory. Until, right from the heart of this suffocating, intractable scenario, the Passion story erupts. A radical, transgressive story of love transcending fear and hatred, of non-violence in the face of oppression, hope breaking down barriers, the victory of vulnerability.
The tragic events now unfolding in Israel-Palestine reminded me of this short piece I was asked to write about the play back in 2015.
I’ll be touring The Devil’s Passion in Italy throughout March 2024, starting with three nights at Theatro Technis, London, 2nd-4th March, then touring to Naples, Malta, Sicily, Venice, Milan, Florence & Rome, and including a performance at the Union Chapel, London, on Palm Sunday 24th March.
No More Walls
Playwright & actor Justin Butcher, who conceived and curated the Bethlehem Unwrapped festival, returns to St James’s in Holy Week with his new play, The Devil’s Passion.
Not so long ago, a play attempting to explore the nature of good and evil through the character of the Devil might have seemed quaintly old-fashioned. Marx and Freud having delivered us (in the inexorable march of human progress) from the superstitious language of yesteryear, the Devil was surely no more than exotic metaphor for a fundamentally psychological analysis of human frailty. Now, with the rise of new and ever more toxic forms of extremism in the Middle East and Europe, the proliferation of violence state-sponsored and freelance in many parts of the world, economic insecurity shaking the structures of developed and developing countries, and shocking revelations of corruption in many arenas of public life (not to mention wars, rumours of wars, pestilence and environmental devastation), perhaps the spiritual reality of evil no longer seems an outmoded and superstitious concept.
One needs to be careful, however, as there is no monopoly on such language. When the WMD charade collapsed, the ‘unique evil’ of Saddam Hussein’s regime was cited, post facto, as justification for the catastrophic Bush-Blair adventure in Iraq. In turn, the followers of Isis, perpetrating crucifixions, immolations and other unspeakable cruelties in their ‘holy war’, view the West as the ‘Great Satan’. Carl Jung thought and wrote a lot about the shadow dimension of the soul – the unlived forces of the psyche which, if banished or denied, can become demonic. St Paul wrote about our struggle with the ‘principalities and powers’ – spiritual entities which exercise a palpable influence in human affairs. In our own era, thinkers such as the American activist and theologian Walter Wink have done much to illuminate our understanding of the ‘powers’, the presiding spirits or daemons of corporations, institutions and cultures which hold sway in today’s world.
In his recent book, Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams, grappling with the question of miracles, writes: ‘All we know is that we are called to pray, to trust and to live with integrity before God in such a way as to leave the door open, to let things come together so that love can come through.’ Of course things can also ‘come together’ in such a way that evil can ‘come through.’ The Passion – the suffering and death of Jesus – seems to me to be a moment (one might say, the moment) when absolute love and absolute evil ‘come through’, and a cosmic battle ensues.
Walter Wink criticised the widespread doctrine of ‘substitutionary atonement’ – in which the innocent Son is murdered to placate the Father’s anger against human sin – as a corruption of the Gospel, and a contributory factor to the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ which blights our political, economic and religious life. But for the first thousand years of Christianity, a completely different understanding of the Passion obtained: the doctrine of ‘Christus Victor’, in which Christ – like Aslan in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe – ransoms himself for humanity, held captive by the powers of darkness, and wins a final victory over them, turning evil on its head.
In response to new terrors, we invariably want to erect walls, fences, barriers, new systems of surveillance – but the Passion story seems to be all about tearing them down. Jesus tears down the barriers between clean and unclean, sacred and taboo, oppressor and victim, even between life and death themselves. At the climax of his suffering, all the barriers are dissolved: the sky turns black, the graves yield up their dead and the Temple curtain, age-old separation between God and humanity, is torn irrevocably from top to bottom. The Mediaeval Mystery Plays depict movingly the ‘harrowing of Hell’, in which Jesus descends to the Underworld to break down its walls and set free the captive souls. Then, on the third day, he breaches the final frontier, bursting forth from the sealed tomb into new life.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote of his satisfaction at being labelled an ‘extremist’: ‘Was not Jesus an extremist for love? Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you …’
Easter is the victory of the extremist – Christus Victor, the extremist for love, on a suicide mission. ‘He only could unlock the gate/Of heaven and let us in,’ goes the old Good Friday hymn, but in fact at the heart of the Passion story, Love unlocks the gates of hell and lets us out.
First published in 197, the magazine of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, in March 2015.
‘… Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist … I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you …” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” … And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? … Perhaps the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.’
Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jnr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail