The following reflection is an abbreviated account of Yip’s chapter, “‘For Our Struggle Is Not Against Flesh and Blood’: The Demonic in Hong Kong,” in The Hong Kong Protests and Political Theology.
Events during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong have aroused moral outcries. People angrily condemned in social media police brutality, protesters’ vandalism, and prevalent injustice.
Christians would readily evoke the concept of sin for a theological-moral critique of the situation. We often assume that human beings are free, autonomous individuals. Sin would then be a morally wrong decision of free individuals—police officers, protesters, politicians—which we condemn. Yet a predominant concern with the (im)morality of individual decision might overlook the political, social, cultural, and historical context that influence, motivate, and limit such decision.
Paul Tillich offers a helpful reinterpretation of the classical doctrine of original sin and actual sin in terms of “sin as fact” and “sin as act” in dialectical interdependence, which follows the ontological interdependence of freedom (actualized in decision) and destiny (everything that contributes to the decision). He writes in volume 2 of Systematic Theology:
Sin is a universal fact before it becomes an individual act, or more precisely, sin as an individual act actualizes the universal fact of estrangement. As an individual act, sin is a matter of freedom, responsibility, and personal guilt. But this freedom is imbedded in the universal destiny of estrangement in such a way that in every free act the destiny of estrangement is involved and, vice versa, that the destiny of estrangement is actualized by all free acts. Therefore, it is impossible to separate sin as fact from sin as act. They are interwoven, and their unity is an immediate experience of everyone who feels himself to be guilty (56).
Take the case of excessive police violence for example. It is inadequate to focus predominantly on the “bad cops” or to believe that “all cops are bad.” Many factors (sin as fact) have contributed to police brutality (sin as act). Examples include: a police culture of obedience to commands; the policy of allowing police officers to conceal their identity by not showing their identification numbers on their shoulder epaulettes; officially designating peaceful protests as “riots”; the government’s avoidance of laying criminal charges against police officers; and the violence of some protesters against the police. And police brutality has, in turn, reinforced some of the contributing factors.
A theological concept broader than sin is evil. There are forms of evil where the concept of sin is inadequate to express its nature, as they are not evil acts done by human beings but are forces that can compel human beings to act even against their reason, conscience, freedom, and agency. In the synoptic gospels they are the demons which Jesus casts out. In Pauline letters they are the “principalities and powers” which Christ overcomes.
In his essay “The Demonic: A Study in the Interpretation of History,” Paul Tillich captures all this. He employs the demonic to critique powerful social forces such as capitalism and nationalism. The idea of the demonic contributes to our approach to the 2019 Hong Kong protests in several ways.
First, it leads us to recognize the structural nature of evil in the events. The discrimination and hatred against young people, for instance, is somewhat similar to racism as a structural or systemic evil that pervades the cultures and practices of a substantial segment of society—though the two are not comparable in scope and in history. Moral condemnation of the actions of individuals does not suffice. The demonic powers, which Tillich describes as ambiguous “structures of evil,” were working behind individuals, groups, and organizations in Hong Kong in 2019 by producing discrimination, oppression, and dehumanization, as well as cycles of violence and hatred. Since the demonic powers worked behind them, we should not view particular individuals, groups, or organizations as unambiguously demonic.
Second, the demonic, in Tillich’s view, is the self-elevation of something finite to infinity. This provokes the reaction of another finite entity, thus causing split and conflict. In the case of Hong Kong in 2019, the self-elevation to absoluteness can be seen in the hubris of the governing authorities in their insistence to push forward the extradition bill even after reportedly one million and two million people marched on the streets to protest on June 9 and 16, respectively. Their repeated refusal to commission an independent investigation into alleged police brutality is another example. Such self-elevation has provoked widespread split, conflict, and antagonism in society along with cycles of violence and hatred.
Third, Tillich’s idea of the demonic emphasizes that it has the character of possession. Possessed by demonic powers, individuals and groups lose their freedom and autonomy and can be driven to do what is against reason and conscience. This may explain the irrational decisions of the government, the violence of many police officers against the innocent (pedestrians, first-responders, reporters, and nonviolent protesters), and the violence of some protesters against others who disagree with their political view.
It is important to note that moral effort and repentance are no remedies to the state of possession. Tillich writes in volume 3 of Systematic Theology, “Demonic structures in the personal and communal life cannot be broken by acts of freedom and good will. They are strengthened by such acts—except when the changing power is a divine structure, that is, a structure of grace” (103).
We can interpret the church’s ministry of “exorcism” as unmasking, resisting, and fighting the demonic powers in society. It is important to note that the “enemies” are not human beings. As the author of Ephesians points out:
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm (6:12–13, NRSV).
To recognize that our “enemies” are the demonic powers, not human beings, would put things into a theologically proper perspective. Surely there are significant moral aspects in the 2019 events that warrant critique, if not condemnation. But we will have a biased analysis and diagnosis if we presuppose that perpetrators of discrimination, violence, oppression, and dehumanization are entirely free and autonomous individuals. We need at the same time to recognize and take seriously the tragic aspects of the events, in which the perpetrators of evil are themselves grasped, enslaved, or “possessed” by demonic powers as structures of evil. This recognition can help reduce the hatred that has gripped various parties in the conflict. We can be angry about the evil occurrences, but there is no need to hate the perpetrators who, to some extent and in some respects, are also victims of the demonic powers.
I am not suggesting that their legal responsibilities should be lessened. In fact, what is badly needed in Hong Kong is to find out the truth of the occurrences, identify the victims and perpetrators, and bring the perpetrators to justice. Yet we need to address the root of the problems—the demonic powers as structures of evil—by unmasking, resisting, and attacking them, by the power of God, with the goal and in the hope that the systems will no longer generate evils and their perpetrators. As the Second Epistle to the Corinthians says, “For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds” (10:3–4, net). And in engaging and fighting against the demonic, we also need to recognize our own vulnerability to the demonic. As Tillich says in The Eternal Now, “Unless you are aware of the demonic possibility in yourselves, you cannot recognize the demon in others, and cannot do battle against it by knowing its name and thus depriving it of its power” (64).