Sunday Homily: The Ayatollah Was Correct: the U.S. IS “the Great Shaytan”


During the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the West became aware of Muslims’ profound mistrust of the United States. The Ayatollah Khomeini repeatedly referred to “America” as “the Great Satan.” Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that the Ayatollah’s reference was spot on. The United States is indeed the Great Satan leading the world astray with its beliefs for instance that limitless wealth brings happiness, that bombing can be a humanitarian act, and that “fearing for our lives” justifies killing others.

As we’ll see in today’s readings, such beliefs are ‘satanic” both in the eyes of Jesus and of the Great Prophet Mohammed. In the United States, their infernal results are on display in each morning’s headlines where:

• The rich and famous end their lives in despair
• The U.S. bombs and drones to save the Yazidis in Iraq (or Libyans in Libya, Afghans in Afghanistan, Ethiopians in Ethiopia . . .)
• Police killings are uniformly justified by the claim “I feared for my life.”

I raise the issue because the term “Satan” is prominent in today’s gospel reading. There Jesus uses it in contrast to his own beliefs about life’s divine purpose which turns out to be incompatible with dominant western beliefs. According to both Jesus and Mohammed, life’s purpose is not to accumulate riches. Nor is life rendered meaningful by killing others even to save one’s friends. Neither do Jesus’ followers have the mandate to protect their own lives at any cost. Quite the opposite!

What is life about then? Consider Jesus’ answer in this morning’s gospel reading.

There Jesus uses the epithet “Satan” to refer to the leader of his inner circle of twelve. In Jesus’ eyes, Peter merits the name because he misunderstands what life is for. That’s shown by the fisherman’s efforts to dissuade the Master from following his divine “prophetic script.” For Jesus, that pattern would require him to lose his life for speaking truth to power. As we’ll see, using such speech in an effort to change the world – to bring on God’s Kingdom – turns out to be central to Jesus’ understanding of life’s purpose.

In any case, like the prophet Jeremiah in today’s first reading, God’s spirit has put Jesus out of control. So, like Jeremiah, he feels compelled by an inner fire to speak the truth, whatever its cost. As the earlier prophet had put it, God’s truth “becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary of holding it in; I cannot endure it.”

So in today’s reading Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Peter objects. “God forbid! This will never happen to you,” he says.

It’s then that Jesus replies: “Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Hearing those words, most of us inevitably connect with images right out of Dante’s Divina Comedia – enhanced by subsequent satanic glosses to include a fire-red body, horns, cloven hooves, tail and pitchfork. But that wasn’t the image in Jesus’ mind.

Instead, Jesus was thinking in terms of the Hebrew tradition. There Satan was a member of God’s heavenly court. He was God’s prosecuting attorney who typically raised questions that Yahweh’s overwhelming goodness and generosity might otherwise obscure.

In Jewish tradition, Satan was a realist who believed that faith and prosperity go together. Take away prosperity and goodness and faith will disappear too.

That was the thrust of Satan’s bet with Yahweh that we find in the book of Job. Job is good and rich. God is proud of his servant’s devotion. Satan says, “Don’t be naïve. All of that will change if you simply remove your servant’s wealth, children, and health. Just watch and see.” The familiar story unfolds from there.

So when Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” he’s not really telling his friend to go to hell. No, he means what he says, “You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Human beings (like Satan) connect faith with prosperity. But in Jesus’ eyes, prosperity is not life’s overriding purpose. Neither is personal safety protected by violence.

But what does God really “think” about the purpose of life? Jesus words about saving and losing life provide a clue.

Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?”

These are stunning words. They turn the world’s values upside down. They imply that God “thinks” that life’s purpose involves opposing empire. (Remember Rome reserved “taking up the cross” as a punishment for insurgents.) Life’s purpose entails self-denial, not self-gratification. It means holding life loosely, being prepared to surrender it “for justice’s sake” at any moment. It means preferring God’s Reign to possessing the entire world. It means returning kindness for evil, even if that means losing one’s own life as a result. Or as the psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, “God’s kindness is a greater good than life itself.”

All such ideals run counter to the U.S. culture which Muslims find so threatening. They have become the ideals of the world which in today’s second reading Paul tells us to resist. “Do not conform yourselves to this age,” he writes, “But be transformed.” Only personal transformation, he adds, will enable your mind to discern what is good, pleasing and perfect in God’s eyes – even if it leads to the sacrifice of your own life.

As a Muslim who embraced the New Testament tradition, the Ayatollah Khomeini understood Jesus’ words. He saw that the order championed by the United States contradicts the basic values of Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition about community, compassion and care for society’s most vulnerable.

So he viewed “America” as what Muslims call “Shaytan.” For Muslims Shaytan is not the devil either. Instead, he is “the Great Deceiver,” whose promises mislead, corrupt and immiserate those who believe them.

In fact, while promising peace, prosperity, and happiness, the West’s elevation of commercial values to a position of supremacy in the moral hierarchy could not be (in Muslim eyes) more deceptive and disastrous. Without care for society’s poor and vulnerable, commercial values lead to individualism, competition, war and unhappiness.

None of those represent God’s purposes for human beings.

Would that we Christians could embrace those teachings and stop our mindless pursuit of wealth, our belief that violence saves, and our cowardly conviction that anything is justified by “fear for our lives.”

As Paul says, the authentic teachings of Jesus challenge such conformity to “this age.” Who among us is willing to embrace such challenging truths?

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

21 thoughts on “Sunday Homily: The Ayatollah Was Correct: the U.S. IS “the Great Shaytan””

  1. This entry leads me to ask about the company you are keeping, Mike! These U.S. citizens who you identify as greedy, all obsessed with money and power? Sure there have to be some, but I scarcely notice them. Every day I encounter more than a few dedicated, generous, loving people (and I thank God for that I’m fortunate enough to cross paths with them).

    A couple of weeks ago, I had to take my mom to a local medical office. I was stunned to encounter Stan Brock there; tried not to reveal how star-struck I was. I admire Stan Brock without reservation, along with the many, many local people who lends their skills and muscle to serve along with him at his creation (Remote Area Medical). One of the items on my “bucket list” is to serve RAM also before I expire:!meet-stan-brock/c1kmj

    I don’t have adulation for “The West” (although I feel fortunate to live here, and could enumerate many reasons — women’s rights, sanitation, relative choice and freedom of movement..) Nor do I have adulation for majority-Muslim lands which have their good points along with their drawbacks. But what is this with the loathing unremitting criticism of “The West”?

    Jesus asked us to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we hate ourselves, then where is that going to leave our neighbors — when that curse of self-loathing streams outward? There’s plenty of hellfire and condemnation to go around, but why go there? Forgive others… and remember to forgive yourself while you’re at it. This business of punishing all the sinners (including yourself) is mostly a waste of previous time. Figure out what’s going wrong, set it aright, and move along, hopefully towards God.


  2. It is important that some of us are called upon to criticize our culture. Jesus was such a one. The existence of some good people does not excuse us from confronting the evil done by others. To equate true criticism with unlove is incorrect. We criticize those who are harming themselves and others in the spirit of love, and in the hope of corrective action being taken to repair the harm done by those who are unloving. To fail to speak out against evil is not a loving manifestation. As Mike made clear, Jesus’ rebuke to Peter was made from love. For Jesus to ignore Peter’s mistaken attitude would be contrary to His loving concern for his friend.


  3. Yes, Mike K., and I hope that Mike will accept my rebuke as in that same spirit with which it is intended. I loved my time at Berea, and loved the many delightful people there and the hours I spent with them. It is in that spirit of love that I offer my own criticism of our culture — particularly our academic culture which has become the gateway to responsible positions of leadership. I am obliged to follow the leadership of people who have been taught in particular directions, and find myself more and more at odds.

    There are major differences and distinctions between different human cultures. There are also many commonalities. One of those commonalities is that “we all fall short of the glory of God” — all of us (I include Iranian national leaders here), without exception.


  4. Over the years I’ve known of Khomeini’s existence and role — since the 70s, when I was a young woman noticing Iranian demonstrators in NYC — I have given attention and respect to Khomeini as a fellow human being. I am also aware that Khomeini’s power was gained and consolidated in the same costly manner as other political organizations: killings, death, oppression, just like every other powerful religious/national entity.

    There are people who sidestep military/political processes (for example, Mennonites who are serious in their practices) — but everywhere else, INCLUDING U.S. culture, death and suffering have been incurred in the exercise of power. We’ve sinned, this is obvious and acknowledged. Then, what are the appropriate ethical questions to address? (My own take: how to minimize that suffering whose fruits we all eventually share?)

    What I read Mike as doing, is extolling another political regime (Iran) as exemplary — a political regime which also murders for power and control. And how is that an improvement over mistakes of one nation (the U.S.) that Mike has condemned here?

    What is the goal here? To find better ways to do things? Because we’re all “good”, and we’re all “bad”. There are only degrees to which a nation can move in any direction if enough people choose to do so, are conscious of our activities, and honest in our goals — and perfection is not likely, only some improvement. The most drastic changes often turn deadly and violent.

    Frankly, I do not yearn for the governance of Ayatollah Khomeini (who had some respectable goals), nor would I wish his management on anyone else I know. Khomeini’s directives would be oppressive for the likes of me, and likely most other people reading here, including Mike R-S.

    While undergoing their formal education (schools) and informal education (popular culture), have my children and their peers have been encouraged to idolize foreign cultures without honest, careful, sober critiques that are just as detailed as critiques we should apply to our own culture? I am not bringing this question up in a spirit of meanness, but rather with respect and concern, for myself and for others. This matters to me — and Mike RS, your blog is about the things that matter, right?


    1. Dear Mary, I don’t think I was extolling the Ayatollah except for his insight about the satanic role the United States played in the oppression of Iranians from 1954-1979. Please give some honest, careful and sober consideration to that history.


    1. “What I read Mike as doing, is extolling another political regime (Iran) as exemplary — a political regime which also murders for power and control.”

      As I read Mike’s post, he was merely pointing out that Khomeini was correct in characterizing the behavior of the United States as satanic in many respects; an understanding with which I agree. It is a fact that the US through the CIA overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Iran, and installed one of the worst dictators the world has known. The Iranian revolution was waged to overthrow this US created tyrant. The truth hurts, but your remarks, Mary, do not in any way undermine the points that Mike has made. We need to face our faults as a nation without equivocation only then can we work to change them.


    2. And further, the demonization of Iran by the US government and others is only a continuation of efforts to dominate that nation and control its oil resources. This satanic project by American interests in combination with it’s middle eastern attack dog Israel is only one element in the truly evil intention of America to dominate and enslave the entire world. This demonic project is officially written into US policy under the title “full spectrum dominance”. Men mad with power are truly destroying our world. Mike RS is among the few who are trying to awaken us to this nightmare. They deserve our attention and support.


  5. I hear you Mike K, but the demonization of the U.S. government, is it as pointless as demonization of Iran?

    Where does either demonization get us?

    Does it help to project innocence or guilt onto “the other” — instead of facing the difficulties that inevitably arise from wielding power as an organization? It is extremely difficult to wield power responsibly. No one who tries to exercise power, will escape their mistakes. Are there better ways to do this? Who is doing a better job? (If you hold up Khomeini as the exemplar here, I will again point to the deaths and oppression that has forced so many of his countrymen to flee. If you don’t believe me, go to Los Angeles and survey a random sampling of Iranian emigres. Most didn’t want to flee — they had to leave an incredibly beautiful spot of earth, but there was no more room for them as human beings in the Iranian theocracy. If you hate Israel for excluding and forcing migration, how then do you approve the Iranian setup in good conscience? Please help me to understand you.


    1. Neither Mike RS nor I have tried to “demonize” the US or Iran. If the behavior of either of these entities is satanic or demonic, it is not because someone has accused them of it. The evidence of their behavior convicts them. That many persons or larger entities are doing evil deeds does not mean it is pointless to accuse them of that, nor does it mean that since we are all sinners, we should pass by the sins of ourselves or others in silence. Your argument that calling attention to criminal behavior is useless and even counter productive has no merit. It is on a par with the fatuous remark of one when caught in bad behavior, “Well, everyone else does it!”


    2. Dear Mary, You ask if it is as pointless to demonize the U.S. government as it is to do so with the government of Iran. Please read today’s first reading from Jeremiah. There the prophet complains about having to speak out against the crimes and violence of his own people. He feels duped by God who makes him do so. But he can’t help himself, even though his words inevitably bring criticism, hostility, and ridicule..


  6. I don’t know much about Iranian landscapes except what I saw in “The Color of Paradise”, a film from the 1990s. Spectacular scenery (and a good story also). If I had grown up there, I can imagine how it would hurt badly to have to leave those beautiful landscapes behind and to flee…


    1. I remember very well an Iranian student of mine at Berea College back around 1980. She had just come from revolutionary Iran where the cruel, U.S.-supported Shah Resa Palavi had just been overthrown. The student came from a well-to-do family. She spoke of how her father owned many apartments and lost it all after the revolution. She said, “When that happened, I was so happy.”


      1. Mike, your student would have been about the same age as Roya Hakakian, who also supported the Iranian Revolution at its beginning… and ended up having to emigrate, for reasons and experiences she very eloquently describes.

        If you listen to Hakakian’s YouTubes, it is obvoius that she still cherishes her homeland (although she does say that there’s no way now, after living for years as an American citizen, that she would allow a 17-year-old Revolutionary Guard with an AK-47 to stop her on the street in order to inspect the contents of her handbag etc.) Her Human Rights Youtube description of a lecture on gender issues from her high school principal is superb, and there is a dramatic description of pre-Revolution rooftop demonstrations, where everyone cried out “Allahu Akhbar!” in the dark.

        This article at the link only describes her experiences in Berlin, but it’s interesting in relationship to government and rule of law


  7. Dear Padre: You misunderstood Imam Khomeini’s reason for calling United States government being a “Great Sha’atan” (Devil). He applied the term as a political reformer (the title professor Richard Falk gave to the Iranian leader) – and not as a religious “Fatwa”. In fact, the great American philosopher, Dr. Noam Chomsky, have repeatedly called the US, “the Greatest Terrorist State” in the world.

    What American Christians are by large responsible for the crimes their government is committing against followers of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and others. Washington’s actions are against the teachings of all biblical prophets according to Holy Qur’an. However, the fact is that it’s happening because United States have become a colony of Godless Zionist entity.


  8. Mike K, re this: “Your argument that calling attention to criminal behavior is useless and even counter productive has no merit. It is on a par with the fatuous remark of one when caught in bad behavior, “Well, everyone else does it!”

    You misunderstand my argument. If my argument were the one you describe, I would have to agree — it is fatuous (silly, complacent, etc.)

    However, that is not my argument.

    I am suggesting that the questions you are currently asking, will get you nowhere (along with any other students who are paying attention). Should the question be “Who may I condemn?!!!” (Which Jesus suggests you should not do — “let him without sin cast the first stone”).

    Rather, should the question focus on the development of responsible adult leadership? What are the inevitable complications of wielding power, and how can a person learn to sort through them?

    Last year the local diocese’s “St. Luke’s Guild” sponsored a Saturday class on medical ethics (for medical professionals as well as the interested public). The cost was not prohibitive, so I signed up and went, hoping to learn something, yet also prepared for the possibility of dogmatic, fatuous lectures and a wasted Saturday. As it turns out, the speakers addressed situations where no matter what is done medically, someone is going to lose their life, and went into the reasoning. They provided the number of a hotline that consults with Catholics about complex nuances of making ethical medical decisions. I had no idea. Surprise and gratitude, the seminar was excellent.

    The room was filled with respectable professionals (including one medical doctor who is currently running for political office, no doubt at great cost in time, loss of privacy and lost earnings. I am grateful that he is willing to put himself out in this way, and I hope that he won’t suffer too much for being willing to serve the public in government. And you know what else? That man will probably make some mistakes. (I would probably make many more mistakes than he will.) Good on him for trying, though.


    1. Should the question be “Who may I condemn?!!!” (Which Jesus suggests you should not do — “let him without sin cast the first stone”).

      Mary, you continue to confuse reasoned accurate criticism with violent condemnation. This reminds me of the attitude of extreme pacifists who would stand by and watch innocents killed in order to preserve their “superior values”. Jesus was not above criticizing the “whited spulchres” of his times.


      1. Mike K, I’m seeing confusion among many people, including those future leaders, young people who listen carefully to one-sided critiques and develop unbalanced judgments as a result.

        I’ve been disappointed at the educational services I would have expected from a world power like the United States… not enough geography, not enough foreign languages, partial histories that leave a great deal out, resulting in substantial misapprehension of history (long past and even recent). That’s not to say that I’m ungrateful for what became available to me and my children — just that so much was missing that responsible new leaders would need as foundation!

        Although professors can justify omissions by statements like “you can’t include EVERYTHING!” there are events of history which help present-day students to make more accurate sense of the past, were they included (and the difficulties of living under Khomeini & Co.’s theocracy have been unbearable for multitudes. Students and bloggers should not minimize this if they hope to serve humanity with examples of reasoned judgment).

        I could cite a long list with multiple examples… but I’ll begin with my aggravation that Myles Horton has been effaced from history. Can anyone reading here explain to me, why?

        When I was a (literate, newspaper reading) child during the 1960s, Horton was in the news nearly every day, making waves, changing the United States along with other people (some of whom were undoubtedly in the service of other/imperialist countries, but that’s beside the point, Horton was a hero).

        I met Horton briefly in person at Columbia University, sometime back around 1980. Yet certainly from 2006-2014, Horton’s name and massive life contributions are scarcely mentioned anywhere (even when college students study an interesting fiction piece such as “Storming Heaven”, based on the Blair Mountain episode, but which borrows heavily from Horton’s real autobiography). This was true even in a place that focuses especially on Appalachian Studies, Berea College. Why is that?

        In effect, the thought leaders of our society have erased the EXAMPLE as well as the memory of many highly courageous individuals who were definitely not greedheads, definitely not smug, complacent, etc. etc. and who were VERY American. Mike RS? I’m not accusing you or condemning etc. here. I would dearly like to know why Horton has disappeared from college history. I remember him clearly. Was there a scandal? or what? Horton was a good friend and associate of Saul Alinsky, who remains well-known. They had a difference of direction, one which I agree with: Horton noted that it is not enough to overturn tyrants and replace them with more tyrants (which didn’t seem to bother Alinsky in principle). Horton wanted for people to LEARN from their experiences and proceed to do better, not simply to switch places as oppressors-oppressees.

        I won’t go into whitewashed tombs right now, thanks — will save that one for Halloween maybe. I’d like to know why so many cultural leaders focus on anti-culture, and on omitting/degrading/ misrepresenting people who put their lives on the line to serve God and the world — as if they hadn’t existed, hadn’t given their all for others and the Almighty.


  9. At Berea College, one of the professors (K. Egerton) taught a class on “Writing for Law and Public Policy” that was excellent. The textbook and topics of that class would make terrific Sunday School material for adults who want to make a difference in their communities (if anyone has sufficient ambition to tackle it.)


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