Rock! Paper! Scissors!
Tools for anarchist + Christian thought and action
Vol 1. No. 1
The Movement Makes Us Human
The Movement Makes Us Human
Editor: Joanna Shenk
By: J. Amos Caley
Recognizing the demon-possession of racism and white supremacy that exists in our individual and collective bodies in the United States, and claiming the power of God to cast them out.
Sermon delivered at Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey on January 28, 2018, a few days after ICE officers ransacked the home of congregants while they were staying at the church due to a need for political sanctuary.
Mark 1:21-28 (NRSV)
This week has been a difficult one for our community. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is stalking, snatching, and destroying our families. Children are gripped with fear. Parents try to imagine a world in which their kids can grow up without the feeling of being hunted. We watch people speak and act viciously, emboldened to play out their American nationalist fantasies as they support the scapegoating of black, brown, and Muslim people. We’ve cried tears of pain, clenched our fists in rage, and tried to make sense of this… what’s the word? Madness? Cruelty? Evil?
To be clear, I don’t think any of us are expressing bewilderment or surprise that our immigration system is targeting people in obviously racist ways. The hate speech that got the current president elected was sure to germinate into hate crimes against our communities, through written policies or white nationalist rhetoric. But maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised about the outcome of that presidential election either.
Our national foundation—not just our recent mission to become “great again,” but our very becoming in the first place—was forged in the crucible of white supremacy. From genocide and land theft; to chattel slavery and white wealth consolidation and to racially motivated treaty betrayals and land seizure through annexation. That’s just the first century of our “greatness” résumé. In the 20th century the United States funded wars explicitly fueling the American superego with racist and nationalist propaganda.
One of the coping mechanisms that progressive Christians tell ourselves is that we’re moving gradually away from this troublesome past into a more equitable future. I want to believe this, but I look at the state of the world, the inseparable link between capitalism and racial exploitation, and the inability of progressive politics to do what must be done to actually slay this beast, and I bury my head in my hands.
If progress is possible then we need a long-term strategy—a tutorial for extracting evil—something that can be ritualized and practiced, learned as a trade, and passed down. We need to learn how to catch white nationalism and neoliberal capitalism on fish hooks and extract them from the sea of humanity where they stalk and feed. We need a do-it-yourself manual for exorcising demons.
Wait, is this sermon really about demons? Yes, it really is.
It’s hard to talk about evil spirits and demons without being drawn into an imaginary world largely informed by pop culture and not direct experience. Maybe some of us have had an experience we would attribute to the presence of a paranormal, supernatural figure. But I think it’s safe to assume that the large majority of our ideas about evil spirits derive from fictional or fantastical images.
I sometimes wonder if our entertainment images of the demonic--seen in horror movies or ghost stories or hockey team mascots--actually communicate an assumption that they are silly things. They can only scare us for pleasure.
I’m not trying to convince you that they are real. But I can tell you that everyone in first century Palestine believed they existed and they firmly believed that the spiritual world had nefarious intentions for their lives.
What does the bible actually say about demons? Not much, actually. Largely throughout the Torah the only real supernatural figures that appeared were angels and, contrary to the whole “perfect angel” image of kindness and purity, these things were horrifying. Their appearances did not always signal good things for people.
They were usually messengers of information but sometimes they were warriors. In all cases, however, they were subservient to God. When the concept of “demonic spirits” begins to pop up in the Old Testament, it almost always refers to the gods or the idols of neighboring nations, which the Hebrew people almost certainly thought existed. But these “foreign powers,” like angels, were subservient to the one supreme God, Yahweh.
Evil spirits—demons—do not show up until the years when Israel was experiencing the traumas of war, exile, and occupation at the hands of neighboring empires. Prophets like Daniel began to suggest that there are supernatural forces that are in rebellion against God. Other apocalyptic writers expand this notion and make strong parallels between the oppressive spirits and the ongoing political and economic torment felt in the body.
By the time of Jesus, the concept of demons, especially in Galilee, was an important part of their social, economic, religious, and political worldview. Perhaps this was because they could relate intimately with the feeling of being possessed and oppressed.
In the 150 years prior to Jesus’ ministry the largely rural area of Galilee had been the site of seven major battles between competing empires. It was also the site of the Jewish resistance, headquartered safely to the south in Jerusalem. Thousands of Galileans were killed in those years, hundreds enslaved, and the land was pacified ultimately through the establishment of regional dictators and harsh taxation systems. Galilee had been beaten, bruised, and sold out by its own national authorities. Symptoms of oppression were felt from all directions in Galilee and the spirits lurked everywhere, hunting for bodies to possess and own.
And Jesus chooses to start his renewal campaign with an exorcism. That’s pretty significant, right? He’s about to do and say a lot of really incredible things, loaded with symbolism to help the people return to a time before wars, kingdoms, and punitive laws. He’s inaugurating a new era: when God alone reigns over all and no one suffers under the powers of sin and imposed death. To build his Messiah cred, he’s going to repeatedly cross large bodies of water, spend time wandering around in the wilderness, perform miraculous feedings, call together twelve disciples to represent the twelve original tribes of Israel, teach radical love and openness, and ultimately march on Jerusalem.
But, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus kickstarts his renewal movement with an exorcism. This is his first display of power—his first act of civil disobedience, if you will.
Jesus had just called his first disciples to come fish for people, then heads to the center of Capernaum on the Sabbath. When we read about Jesus “entering the synagogue,” it’s easy to picture him walking up some stone steps into a religious building where people are praying or singing. “Synagogue” (in the Greek, συναγωγή) simply means “gathering together” and it was probably a lot like a town hall or city hall but without a building.
Imagine a big group of people, gathered together on a Sabbath, to discuss stuff like the water supply, or local business etiquette, or communal prayers. Sometimes these gatherings would welcome visiting speakers to come and teach, like scribes from Jerusalem or rabbis like the Pharisees, and members of the village would engage the teachings or information with questions or applications of the teaching.
So Jesus entered this gathering and started teaching. Maybe he was invited. Maybe he wasn’t. Either way, his message was different. Nothing like the temple scribes from past weeks or the Pharisee the week before. Rather than announcing a new tithing requirement he talked about a movement in which God was forgiving sins and canceling debts and demanding the release of those held in slavery and freedom to the prisoners of war. God was turning the world upside down, starting with the tiny villages.
Wait, wait. Who is this guy? What’s his angle? Who authorized this message?
One of the men stood up, shouting violently. We’re told he had an unclean spirit, who had taken control of his voice. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? You’re not from Capernaum. Have you come to destroy us?”
Whatever this unclean spirit was, or however it became lodged in this person, it had turned a human to a demon hybrid. Jesus’s message had put him on the defensive. It lashed out aggressively and revealed its intentions to expose him as a revolutionary, which would no doubt bring about violent suppression, as it had for other Galilean revolts. The spirit sneered at him, “You’re one of those Messiahs.”
At this point, Jesus makes an important decision. He speaks firmly, issuing a resolute demand: “LET MY PEOPLE GO.” He makes a sharp distinction between the person and demonic. With the power of the Spirit, he allows the bond between the oppressive spirit and the human being to be torn asunder. The demon is vanquished and the man is restored.
This was the Capernaum strategy that was born in that sea-side village. A close look at the traveling schedule of the Jesus movement in Mark suggests that Capernaum became Jesus’s headquarters for the first portion of his ministry. It is where the exorcism strategy was devised: the strategy of standing directly in the way of the possessed, unflinchingly naming the violence it intends, and recognizing and appealing to the human trapped inside. Jesus made a fiery, Spirit-filled demand that the oppressed be released and the demon be banished. The results were dramatic.
“Let my people go,” Jesus said to the unclean spirit and, later, to the prejudice of the religious leaders. He said it again to the fear of Peter, to the greed of the tax-enforcers, and to the opulent temple itself.
Those in Capernaum wrote the DIY manual: Call out the spirit, call upon the humanity, expel the spirit by defending the human. It wasn’t always easy to apply in each situation. Not all demons are easy to name, much less call out. And not all bodies want to be free from bondage.
What would it take to save this American body—our individual bodies and our collective body—from these demons? What strategies would be most effective for exorcising these unclean spirits from the bodies they intend to claim?
Perhaps Christianity itself is overdue for an exorcism. In his book, The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin reflects upon the paradox that White American nationalism and Western Christianity are so woven together. Commenting on the heart of the Christian faith as being rooted in revolutionary love, non-violent struggle, and non-white politics, he writes:
…the energy that was buried with the rise of the Christian nations must come back into the world; nothing can prevent it. Many of us, I think, both long to see this happen and are terrified of it, for though this transformation contains the hope of liberation, it also imposes a necessity for great change. But in order to deal with the untapped and dormant force of the previously subjugated, in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long.
Racism is a scary demon that is woven into the religious fabric of our nation. It’s actually bigger than one demon and bigger than one president or one vice president or even the demographic of their supporters. White nationalism is a sophisticated spiritual network of evil that has permeated throughout all of our society, from the courthouses to the churches. Depending on its power and volume, it turns its hosts into hideous beasts, making them capable of unspeakable horror. Unless we confront its ugliness in me and in you and in us, we will never set us free.
Most people who find themselves possessed by these demons have no idea they are changing into someone unrecognizable.
So let’s be a people who, together, ritually exorcises demons. This will require blocking the path of those racist ideologies. Let’s allow ourselves opportunities to exorcise our own demons as we come into contact with authoritative teachings from the mouths of our prophets, like Jesus of Nazareth, James Baldwin, and Angela Davis, to name a few. This Word—this good news to the possessed and dispossessed—will inspire and require us to set all captives free no matter the cost.
Let’s be determined and let’s expect the impossible. Let’s keep recording ICE agents possessed by the logic of white supremacy and hypermasculinity as they knock down doors, ransack houses, and try to haul our friends away. Let’s make it harder for them, as human beings, to justify their inhumanity. Let’s hope they watch the livestreams, or read the testimonies, or try to answer their kids’ questions about what they do at work.
I hope and pray that these confrontations will bring ICE field officers to a point of collapsing and convulsing with sincere repentance as the unclean spirits leave their bodies, at which point we will help them up and embrace them back into the beloved community of a restored, healed humanity.
Friends, let’s continue to recognize the humanity in the ourselves and in the other—for the sake of the other and for the sake of ourselves. May we never back down from demanding liberation for the captive and destruction to the systems that dehumanize. For the sake of the world.
Thanks be to God.
About the journal
Rock! Paper! Scissors! is a topic-focused, web-publication exploring issues from anarchist, radical Christian and other anti-oppression perspectives. To find out more, read the introductory piece, "What's in a name?"