Demons Personal and Public

America needs its own day of Yom Kippur—a day of repentance and atonement, a day of confession and renewal. Without a time set aside for naming this essential human task, we have no container for the lament and grief arising in us as we look at our history of slavery and racism, for genocide and the wanton destruction of our habitat. We need a time and ritual forms to confess that we are not “the greatest” and do not live on a one-way express train to the Promised Land. Moreover, we need to suspend our belief in the quick fix and find ways to be open in humility to new possibilities for our personal and collective life.

Christians have Lent, where we are invited, indeed called, to do this work personally, but it rarely guides us to our collective need for confession, lament, conversion, and renewal. America has a long history of Jeremiads and “awakenings.” Indeed, we may be in one right now. But the old formulas and practices have lost their legitimation in the wake of corrupt would-be Messiahs and foolish fantasies and conspiracies. In the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic leadership and its reawakening in the Poor People’s Campaign led by William Barber today, we see lineaments of it. Whether we can enlarge the wider canopy of our deep culture to accommodate this work as a regular and intentional part of what it is to be American requires contributions from all of us.

Part of the challenge is to find links between the personal and the public, between our work of personal reconstruction and the reconstruction of our social order. We need language and symbols that take seriously the depth of the problem and open us up to the vistas of possibilities that can only emerge from the One who holds all things together in a divine purpose. In a Lenten meditation I wrote for our church recently I explored one source for thinking about the personal and collective demons that hold us in thrall and bondage. It might be a launchpad for your own search as well.

(You might want to refresh your memories by reading the three versions of the story of the exorcism of the demoniacs in Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; and Luke 8: 26-39.)

These three Gospellers relate versions of a story that has gripped, fascinated, and perplexed Christians for two thousand years. Scholars can speculate on the differences among them (was there one demoniac or two?), but certain points appear in all three. The demoniacs are outcastes. They live in the tombs outside the town. They are unrestrained wild men, who injure others as well as themselves. Mark says they are possessed by unclean spirits. In their mental pollution they have lost almost every element of their humanity and been severed from every social bond.

They are inhabited by multiple demonic forces who take over their psyches so they even lose their very identity. Today we might say that they had multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, or severe psychoses. Mark and Luke write that the demoniac tells Jesus that his very name is Legion, because of the multitude of demons that have taken over his life. When Jesus approaches them to throw out their demons, they fear that Jesus is bent on tormenting them. The demons also fear Jesus and ask him to let them flee into the pigs nearby. The herd of pigs then carries them away into the sea.

And then, most strangely, the people of the area beg Jesus to leave. They dread the very power by which Jesus heals the man. Matthew says nothing about the man’s fate, but Mark and Luke speak of Jesus leaving the man, now fully clothed and in his senses, and commanding him to witness to people east of the Jordan about what God has done to him.

We are passing through a time when it seems that demonic forces have taken control of people who have cast off normal loyalties, ranting and injuring others as well as themselves. And we are aware of demonic forces within ourselves, whether those of racism and economic injustice, or the destruction of our planet by the very practices that we have always taken for granted. It is a time longing for release from these corrupting forces but deeply afraid of such an exorcism as well. What shall we do when others return to their right minds and we are forced to examine the demons within ourselves? What will we do when our elaborate self-constructions for handling the torment inside ourselves are torn away with the removal of the fears and obsessions that gave rise to them? What will happen when Jesus tears down the wall between the in-groups and the out-groups, making the legion of humanity into one people? What will we do without the familiar scapegoats by which we heap our own sin, fear, and failure onto others? What will we do when the scorned creatures of the natural world can no longer bear our own demons and are thrown into chaos and destruction?

No wonder the Gospellers speak of people’s fear before the appearance of the Christ who will make all things new. It means not only a radical change within ourselves but in our ordering of our society and our relation to the other creatures of our world. It means giving up an identity that is “legion” for one that is focused and centered in God’s healing life within us.

We are in a time and a season when, like the demoniac, we take time to ask “What have you to do with us, Jesus?” This is not only a question, but a prayer to ask God to help us open our hearts for the new life awaiting us, if only we trust in our new identity beyond the demons of our time.


Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Restorative Justice, Theology, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Down Size


Let’s build a new nest for our love, my dear.

We’ll make it from memory and hope and slow falling steps.

It will not be so full of the plans born of yearning.

It will fit us with lay me down space for our heads,

with only a flower that blooms on the table

where wrinkled hands curl around palms of devotion.

The doors will rejoice in enough and in gratitude,

a roof full of stars,

a moon from the day we began.


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History: The Tragedy and the Farce

Karl Marx begins his famous essay of 1851, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” with the statement that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” A few sentences later Marx goes on to say “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” [My italics for emphasis]

These two passages have haunted me ever since I first read them in college, when I was only beginning to sense the historic and burdensome memories that shape our present action. It wasn’t until the events of January 6 that I realized what forms the farcical repetition of tragic history might take—and that they can be comedic and deadly at the same time. (The actual events in France at that time are mind-numbingly complicated but bear eery similarities to some of our own recent history.)

From the time we dress up for Halloween as little children we begin to shape our lives and actions through the costumes handed down to us by the Big People who are guiding our lives. By the time we realize that the Big People running our lives are simply older and no longer bigger, we think that History or God must be the guiding author of the drama for which we costume ourselves every day, especially for the great occasions of graduation, marriage, funerals, work, and court appearances. We know what to do, we know the scripts, we know the plot. We are secure in the immense uncertainty of action.

That is our everyday life. If we become responsible for thousands, yea millions, of others whom we are designated to represent, the power of these costumes and roles becomes even more enormous. For those who act in the pure freedom of not having a script, bold actions can result in victory, praise, the confirmation of the crowd and oft-remembered stories for future generations. If they fail, even with the best of intentions, it is tragedy. The noble effort falls into a black abyss of self-destruction.

The costumes, scripts, and plots of great successes in the storied past become the props of risky action in the present. We act believing that history will repeat itself, that it will fulfill and confirm the play that once worked upon the world’s stage of our ancestors. But, Marx intones, it ends in farce. Why? Because history is not a stage that can be reconstructed for each play. It is constantly changing in response to deep contradictions and unseen forces, not to mention fresh players. The players come dressed for a stage that no longer exists. Their once-victorious performances are soon exposed to ridicule because they no longer fit the stage on which they seek to enact their noble drama. They are no longer vessels of greatness but of mindless parody. Their efforts to re-enact heroic epics soon reveal themselves to be a farce.

And so the horrendous attack on the Capitol—the first effort in American history to overturn an election—was enacted by men in Revolutionary War hats, Norse warrior get-ups, Confederate flags, and more, I am sure. They had scripts of Revolutionary Patriotism and Confederate rebellion to guide them, but now detached from the actual, present-day world they sought to rescue or destroy. And indeed, they, like many of us, did not acknowledge that the historic successes of our past all contain profound expressions of tragedy: the compromise over slavery that made possible our Constitution, the genocidal attacks on indigenous peoples that cleared the land for European settlement, the despoliation of the land in the drive for “progress,” and many more. They dressed in the costumes and chanted the scripts of their imagined heroes.  It was as if the play world of a million TV programs had been unleashed upon the world while its author watched it all with delight on TV.

In the face of seeming anarchy we all search for scripts to guide us in our action and quell our fear. But history does not repeat itself, though we would have it do so for our sakes. What we must do is try to see the world around us as it really is, not merely as an instant in some all-encompassing drama whose outcome is clear and whose author is known. We are like children seeking the Big People who will provide us with the costumes to navigate this strange world. But they are not here. What Marx was trying to tell his would-be leaders of the revolutionary Proletariat in the mid-nineteenth century was that they needed to look at their situation with the eyes of a scientist trying to understand what is going on around them. Marx may have been wrong about those facts, but that is what we need to do now.

What is the real world? It is shouting at us in extreme weather events arising in the warming of our atmosphere, in the unparalleled global systems of communication and information transfer, in the immense immediate diversity of the varied peoples of the earth, in the suffering of our fellow creatures and the diseases of a disrupted ecology. The destructive farce of recent weeks must not leave us in anger, searching for outworn plots and costumes, but open to discovering the world that scientists (yes, scientists), craftsmen and women, mothers and fathers, farmers and healers are finding in their actual lives. There is where we are called to act in response to the extreme disruptions in the real world around us.


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Breaking Through


We found

beneath the mulch of leaves and sticks

the rough earth

the broken glass

a bursting acorn

seeking the light

its infantile roots


against a rock below


against an asphalt sheath.

A road had run

beneath our garden

from the street and

back across the tracks

behind our house

down to the creek

to reach a long abandoned power plant.

But now

the roots were breaking

through a tiny crack

to find the earth below the tar-built plate

To resurrect the forest

which had sheltered for a hundred thousand years

a life once filled

with plants and trees and birds

with deer and bears and butterflies

A wild luxuriant symphony.

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