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.