Angels vs. Demons: Burnier-Than-Thou

Original image by colodio on Flickr. Modified by Gyesika Safety.

I’ve recently begun rereading Elaine Pagels’ wonderful book “The Origin of Satan”, where she postulates that the social origin story to Satan was an attempt to moralize an inherent human tendency towards us vs. them. To take that sense of comfort we feel at belonging to a group, and creating that group identity through defining what we are not (them), and magnifying it to a cosmic level. I see this tension at play in the burn community I participate in and identify with. I see it within myself, as I self-identify as a burner.

There’s a term for this interplay of “us-vs.them” within the burn community: burnier-than-thou. It’s a recognized and accepted concept within the group that this tension exists. There is a sense of moralization, I do more, bring more, work harder, been here longer than you, therefore I am more of a burner than you are. In some sense this is true. Some people have been around longer and thus have done more. The inherent nature of us-vs.-them is humanity speaking the less pleasant truths of our nature.

The benefit of having a “them” is that is solidifies what “us” constitutes. On a basic level it’s “me” vs. “you”; we tend to self identify with what we’re not, giving ourselves a clearer picture of what we are. We can also accomplish this process for ourselves on a micro level of our own self-identity and apply it to the macro group ethos. I tend to view burners as people who contribute something to the community and to burn events. Whether that be art, their time and energy via volunteering, a theme camp, gifting, or contributions that I haven’t thought of yet; for me, being a burner means action. Doing the do that makes up our community and events.

However, not everyone agrees with me on this (as it should be). For some, being a burner is attending an event and experiencing it. For others, being a burner is attending the myriad of activities that happen through out the year, including online interactions. I can get into an us-vs.-them attitude, where I dismiss these other versions justifying one’s inclusion in a group that I cherish but that this mindset, though natural, overlooks is that we are all on our own personal journeys. Some of us will stay and contribute more, others will fade away. However your journey plays out, the experience of a Burn has the capacity to change you, if you let it.

Perhaps that’s the real lesson to be learned about judging how other’s view themselves. We can feel justified by our self-identity (personal or group) and intolerant of those who are not part of our group. We can become exclusive, instead of inclusive. When we allow a group, an event, life to mold us into new, more open people, we have experienced and contributed to that group, that event, life. I think this appeal to out better, one could say angelic, nature.

I think that my criteria for what constitutes a burner has shifted to “Were you open enough, even just a crack, to let the experiences of the group, up to and including whatever event you attended, change you?”

2 thoughts on “Angels vs. Demons: Burnier-Than-Thou

  1. (so much easier to comment on LJ…)

    It is interesting to contrast this with the Jewish view of satan. Quoting from the FAQ:

    Question 12.35:
    What does Judaism believe about Satan?


    Judaism does not believe in the devil, but we do believe in Satan (who more properly should be called “the Satan”). As this demonstrates, the Jewish view of Satan is very different than the Christian one.

    The word satan means “challenger”, “difficulty”, or “distraction” (note that it is not a proper name). With the leading ha- to make haSatan, it refers to /the/ challenger. This describes Satan as the angel who is the embodiment of man’s challenges. HaSatan works for G-d. His job is to make choosing good over evil enough of a challenge so that it can be a meaningful choice. In other words, haSatan is an angel whose mission it is to add difficulty, challenges, and growth experiences to life. Contrast this to Christianity, which sees Satan as God’s opponent. In Jewish thought, the idea that there exists anything capable of setting itself up as God’s opponent would be considered overly polytheistic—you are setting up the devil to be a god or demigod.

    The notion of an angel having free will is alien to Judaism. Free will requires the tension created by being a soul dwelling in a body. People can have free will, angels can’t. There is a debate over whether they lack the potential for free will, or whether they simply percieve reality to clearly to have any choices to make. But in any case, without the fence-straddling of the human condition, there is no free will. HaSatan acts as a servant of God, not as an opponent or even disobediant child. Angels cannot sin, they cannot fall.

  2. First off, I LOVE Elaine Pagels. I’ve read everything by her I’ve been able to get my hands on including this book and would love to find more. It is hard to express in words how great I find her to be.

    Your post is thought-provoking. You link to my own, very loose definition of what a Burner is. In my lexicon entry I basically say if you attend an effigy burn/destruction ritual you’re one of us. But if you went for the week or long weekend or whatever, and watched the effigy burn, and were totally unmoved and went home thinking ‘well I guess that was an ok rave…’ then do you really deserve the title?

    On the other hand, such people are unlikely to want to identify themselves this way. But on the other other hand I have encountered people and thought to myself, ‘Do they really get it? Are they faking it?’ Maybe that’s just me imposing my interpretation on the event and being Burnier-than-thou…

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