The mythology of the demonic in individuals, institutions, and societies (Key text: Mark 1:12-15, 21-28)
This is the first of several instances in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus confronts and expels an unclean spirit or spirits, also called demons. In the world of Jesus and other cultures, both then and even today, it was and is assumed that spirits, both good and bad, share this world with humans, and these spirits can take possession of human beings. I’m not sure how a modern day psychiatrists might describe or diagnose such a condition today. I suppose that in light of their training they would describe it in psychopathological terms. If you ask me what I believe about the existence of spirits in our world separate from humans I would say, “I am skeptical, but open to the possibility. Just because I have never encountered the phenomena does not mean they don’t exist.” But let me stress that a passage like this should not be read literally, but spiritually, that is metaphorically and symbolically. This is a religious text, and therefore should be read spiritually, not literally or historically, so that we can appropriate this in the most appropriate way. However one might analyze it, the reality is that the demonic that expresses itself through individuals and groups of individuals is real. And in this presentation my intent is to unpack that.
On MLK day, I watched a documentary on HBO that traced the life and movement of Dr. King from the voting rights act in 1965 to his assassination in 1968. Along with original film segments and the words of Dr. King, the documentary featured contemporary commentary from the likes of John Lewis and others who were leaders in the movement. It was produced in 2018, before Lewis passed. If you have a chance to watch it, I highly recommend it – very well done. One of the parts that struck me was when they were in Chicago, and in the marches there Dr. King and others were calling attention to the inequality and inequity of employment opportunities and housing for black people. They showed scenes of the rage and fury of some of the white people who came out to oppose the work King and others were doing, and I have to tell you I was a bit shaken by it. They had some close up shots of the faces and the body language of those who were in a rage, shouting profanities and curses, ready to engage in violence if the occasion permitted, and I can tell you without any doubt that these people were possessed by a non-human (unhuman, non-humane spirit, an evil, racist) spirit. Their words and their actions were demonic. We saw that same evil spirit in the faces and actions of many of those who stormed the capital incited by words of the former president.
This evil spirit is passed down from generation to generation. I revisited the movie “42” this past week, a dramatic version of the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to break the segregation barrier in Major League Baseball. It captures a relatively short period in his life from his final year in the Negro league, his signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, his year with their affiliate in the International League, Montreal, and then his first year playing first base for the Dodgers. The Dodgers would win the world series in 1955, and in the first game of that series Jackie performed one of his signature moves, he stole home. I have a large picture hanging right behind my desk in my church office of Jackie Robinson stealing home in a game against the Cubs in 1952. In one scene in the movie, where Jackie makes his first appearance with the Dodgers in Cincinnati, the fans greet Jackie with curses and racist slurs. A short segment of the scene focuses on a kid, maybe nine or ten, sitting with his father, so excited to see a big league game. Then when Jackie takes the field, his father, who seemed so gentle and loving talking with his son, suddenly changes into a different person. His face becomes convulsed and contorted with rage as he begins hurling racist condemnations at Jackie, as do the other white people in the stands around him. The boy is startled and disturbed at first. Then he looks around, taking it all in, watching and listening to his father, then suddenly his face changes too as he joins the racist crowd hurling insults and curses at one of God’s precious children, whose only difference from all of them was the color of his skin.
In the Gospel of Mark the primary means through which Jesus proclaims and teaches about the kingdom of God is through his confrontation and struggle with the demonic forces that oppress his people. This is a major theme in Mark’s Gospel. Just after Jesus is baptized by John and the Holy Spirit comes upon him, the Holy Spirit compels Jesus to enter the wilderness for forty days, the symbolism recalling Israel’s testing in the wilderness before they entered the land of promise. Jesus is tested by Satan, who in the mythology of that time, is the most powerful of the unclean or unholy spirits. Unlike Matthew and Luke’s versions of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, we do not have any glimpse into specifics of this struggle, other than Mark’s short description, “He was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.”
The symbolism of that brief description is rich and powerful. Wild beasts are vicious and violent and ravaging. They are bent on defending themselves with violence if they feel threatened, and they have no regrets when they devour and consume their prey. Jesus in the desert is confronting his own animal nature, a spirit that he confronts in others throughout his ministry, but must confront and overcome in himself first of all. Jesus will confront this spirit in the religious leaders who grow increasingly hostile toward him throughout his ministry, and who want him dead. He will confront this spirit in Pilate, in the Roman soldiers who torture him and nail him to the cross, and in the bystanders at his crucifixion who hurt insults at him and mock him. Jesus will have to confront this spirit in his own disciples who argue with one another over who will be the greatest, or when they lash out in anger, like James and John, when the Samaritans denied them passage through their territory on their way to Jerusalem, and they want Jesus to call down fire from heaven and destroy them. We all battle these demons and when they win the day the spoils of victory are what the Apostle Paul calls “the works of the flesh,” such as strife, greed, jealousy, anger, dissensions, envy, malice, slander, sexual abuse, destructive addictions, love of power, and all sorts of dehumanizing and destructive behavior.
We have a little dog at home, part chihuahua and part Yorkie. This little dog can be sitting on my lap, reaching up with her paw to get my attention so I will pet her, looking so pleasant and content and loveable. But if the front door is open, and she sees another dog outside, going past, she immediately becomes possessed by her animal spirit. I have tried to control that spirit, but have not been very successful. We all have an animal nature that we inherited as part of our evolution as human beings. It’s part and parcel to our evolution as a species. Sometimes it erupts in vicious ways like what I witnessed in the MLK documentary, or more recently in what we all witnessed during the insurrection at the capital. Jesus said that if we are to be his disciple, we must deny this animal self, take up our cross, and follow him. The Apostle Paul calls this animal nature the “flesh.” He says it must be crucified with Christ, so that we can walk in the Spirit, and be filled with the Spirit, and be led by the Spirit, then we will not fulfill the desires of our animal nature. There is no eradicating this part of our humanity, at least not in this stage of our evolution, but we can render it inoperative, we can control it and keep it in check. This is what Mark is talking about when he says that “the angels waited on him.” We mean something very similar when we talk about following our better angels.
There is a scene in the movie “42” where Jackie faces an unrelenting verbal assault from the manager in Philadelphia. He comes perilously close to giving in to his animal spirit. He is ready to return the wrath, but instead he retreats inside the doorway to the locker room where he unloads and smashes his bat against the wall. Branch Ricky, the General Manager, meets him there. He tells Jackie that he can’t fight, but he also tells him that he can’t quit, that there are too many people who believe in him and respect him. Jackie asks Ricky if he knows what’s it’s like to live day in and out with all this hate and contempt poured out on him as a kind of scapegoat. Ricky says, “No, you’re the one. You’re the one living in the wilderness – forty days – all of it, only you.” Jackie says, “There’s not a thing I can do about it.” Rickie says, “Of course there is, you can get out there and hit and get on base and score. You can win the game for us. Everybody needs you. You are medicine, Jack.” As the Dodgers take the field, Ricky puts his arm around Jackie and asks, “Who is playing first?” The question is from a spiritual point of view, “Are you going to expel this demon? Are you going to follow your better angels? Are you going to deny these animal instincts and live above the pack, above the racism? Are you going to be the better man? Jackie says, “I’m going to need a new bat.” He returns to the field, and he ends up scoring the winning run. Jackie is able, with the help of Branch Ricky, who speaks truth and teaches truth in love, who himself is one of Jackie’s better angels, Jackie is able to overcome his animal spirit, his “flesh,” his little self, and is able to be the better man, the better human being. The way a Christian might describe it is that he was able to follow the Spirit of Christ. He was able to walk in the way of Jesus.
Now, the struggle with these inner demons becomes even more intense, when such spirits pervade, not just an individual, but groups, whole communities, institutions, organizations, systems and structures of power, even nations. This is what the Black Lives Matter movement is about – calling out the demonic, the racism that is deeply embedded in structures of power, particularly our systems of law enforcement and our criminal justice system. Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone in the system is demonic or that the all systems are demonic. Obviously we have some excellent police officers and judges and lawyers. But we also have some who are clearly racists and know they are racists, and some who are racists who deny they are racists and may not even be aware of how racist they are. This is when we struggle with what Paul calls in Ephesians 6 “principalities and powers,” “cosmic powers of this present darkness,” and “spiritual forces of evil” for which we need the whole armor of God, which involves, among other things, “the belt of truth” and the “breastplate of righteousness/or justice (healing justice, restorative justice, redemptive justice” which is sorely lacking today.
The demonic can be a prevailing ethos in a culture, a dominant social, political, and cultural force. The writer of 1 Timothy says that “the love of money” is demonic, it is a “root of all kinds of evil.” Greed can pervade and dominate a whole society. I have sometimes wondered in my own life when the desire to better myself or want “more” becomes greed. It’s a thin line and I, no doubt, have crossed back and forth across that line. The love of power is demonic. Is there any doubt that what we have come to know as Trumpism – with its conspiracy theories and lies, with its propensity toward and incitement of violence, and its hatred toward groups of people like the undocumented – is there any doubt that this is a demonic force in our society today?
Paul tells the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 10) that in this struggle with evil spirits/forces, we do not wage war by their standards, returning blow for blow, wielding brutal and violent power. Paul says the weapons we use are not “fleshly” – they do not originate from our beastly, animal spirit, rather, they come from the Holy Spirit, our Christ nature, and have “divine power.” Divine power is the power of love of neighbor, love of enemy, love of justice for all people, love for the common good – love for what is good and right and true and fair and merciful. This is the power we have to combat the demonic in us, in others, and in the systems and structures and communities we are part of.
Now, the authority that Jesus exercises over the demonic as son of man, as the human one, and as the Son of God, is the same authority granted to us as the daughters and sons of human beings, and as the daughters and sons of God. We have the same authority as Jesus to confront and overcome the demonic in us, in others, and in the principalities and powers of the world. When Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God they exercise the same authority as Jesus. Mark 6:13 says, “They cast out many demons, and anointed many with oil who were sick and cured them.” We possess the authority to liberate ourselves and others from the demonic, and the authority to heal spiritual sickness and brokenness in our lives and relationships and the communities we are part of. We do that by exercising divine power, the power of Christ, the power of love with honesty and humility.
And let us not miss how Jesus exercised his authority to liberate the oppressed from the demonic (an authority that we also have). Anthropologists have studied the phenomena of spirit possession in other cultures, and what they have discovered across cultures is that the characteristics manifested by the possessed are similar across cultures, such as multiple personalities, unusual physical strength, uncanny knowledge of things, bizarre behaviors which are usually violent and often self-destructive, and such reactions as convulsions and seizures. These are all characteristics common across cultures and are present in the Gospel stories. However, there is one striking different between the Gospel stories, and the research of anthropologists. The researchers reported that those who were known in their cultures to be exorcists, holy men or women who could expel the spirits, did so by means of special incantations, elaborate rituals, and through the use of power objects. Jesus, however, in the Gospel stories expels the demons by speaking to the demon. And the Gospel writers links his authority to expel the demon to his teaching. At the conclusion of the story, those who witness this say, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” From the perspective of the Gospel writer his teaching and his capacity to expel demons are all one piece.
The demon says to Jesus: “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy one of God.” Do we know who we are sisters and brothers? One of the words Paul uses in his letters to describe disciples of Christ is the word, “saints,” which means “holy ones.” We are holy ones like Jesus, loved, chosen, called out and given authority and divine power like Jesus to live the truth of love of neighbor and to speak truth and teach truth about love in love in ways that expose the demonic and liberate people from it.
In Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus Paul says (in chapter 4) that “by speaking the truth in love,” says Paul, “we grow up in every way into Christ.” We overcome the evil in us and in the world and grow up into the image of Christ by embodying the truth of God’s inclusive love in our lives and by speaking the truth in love. We speak truth into our own spirits and souls. We speak truth into the demonic wherever and whenever we encounter it – in our family, in our church, in our community, in our work place, in our political and social and religious communities – we live the truth as best we can and we speak the truth about love in love. That’s how we expose the demonic and liberate ourselves and others from it.