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.

1 thought on “Demons Personal and Public”

  1. Dear Bill,
    what an excellent call to wake up to the truth and the situation!

    What a pertinent call to repentance which is hidden in the story of the legion of demons being exorcized and transferred into drowning pigs! The Corona Virus Disease is such a call in face of a demonic challenge that shakes us all out of our senses. and which needs to be exorcized by the spirit of God. The virus and all its mutations which apparently came from bats may end up getting drowned in vaccinations never to come back again. But then woe to us if we do not change our evail ways and will suffer the consequences that our pollution of the environment may conjure up new viruses in new animals which then get transferred to us.

    You say “America needs its own day of Yom Kippur—a day of repentance and atonement, a day of confession and renewal“. In Germany we used to have a Public Holiday of Repentance and Prayer (Buß- und Bettag) just before the end of the church year in November, 11 days before the first Sunday of Advent. We gave it away stupidly when unfortunately it was abolished as a German public holiday in 1994 for reasons of financing the insurance for old age care (!). I have to admit, though, that it had not really been sufficiently celebrated in the Evangelical Church in Germany as a Yom Kippur-like day of repentance and renewal for the people and the country. We used it in the Ecumenical Center in Darmstadt as day of ecumenical church service with our Catholic sister congregation.

    The political decision to abolish this public holiday was suggested and realized by a Minister of Work (Arbeitsminister) who was a devout Catholic and committed to social justice. But the Evangelical Church in Germany did not put up a fight for this Protestant holiday – also not our friend Wolfgang Huber as newly elected Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg. Now it would be so good to have it and use it for repenting for destruction of the environment, especially the climate catastrophe and the death of so many species.

    In the old hymnal we had a number of hymns for this day of Prayer and Repentance under the heading „for the people and the fatherland“ (für Volk und Vaterland). The most impressive of these hymns started „Wake up, wake up, you German land, you have been sleeping enough, remember what God has given to you, for what he created you“. Written in 1561, this hymn reminded the Lutherans in Germany of the Reformation and its rediscovery of the Gospel message. It was written by Johann Walter, a contemporary of Martin Luther, who wrote the first Lutheran hymnal in 1524 and started the Lutheran choir tradition. He wrote this hymn in 1561 when indifference, recatholisizing tendencies and decadence had taken hold of Germany after the Reformation‘s re-awakening renewal of the Gospel.

    Most of its (originally 24) stanzas are as pertinent as then, for example:

    Nobody wants to listen to the truth,
    Lies are adorned elaborately,
    God‘s Word is being despised,
    The truth is scornfully laughed at,
    Telling lies is being honored.

    God‘s signs are showing this:
    For God’s punishment is at the door,
    Germany, let yourself be softened,
    Repent in time,
    Because God is still offering you his grace,
    And extends his hand to you
    That we leave sins
    And lead us to his kingdom
    That we hate injustice.
    Lord Jesus Christ, help us now
    And give us your spirit
    That we should take your warning.

    It is like Luke‘s parable (in chapter 13) of the barren fig tree which has not born fruit, and the gardener asking the owner of the vineyard to give him one more year to dig around it and water it before he cuts it down. Maybe it will bear fruit anyway!

    Let us heed this message: The time span given to us is short, but hopefully long enough (“just one year“). We have to trust that it will suffice and that it can be used meaningfully. Let‘s hope we are not like the people of the story who ask Jesus to go away because they apparently have not been able to read the signs of the times and don‘t want to change even after a legion of demons have been driven out of their context. Will we be able to drastically change our personal and public lives? We should take as an example for us the demoniac called Legion who after being liberated from the many demons begins a completely new life praising God and spreading the good news of Jesus‘s power over the forces of evil.

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