[Note: A longer version of this post appears at the author’s personal blog, Just Theology.]
“Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” Luke 9:1–2, NRSV
“But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Luke 11:20
Two years ago, near the end of my second year of seminary, I drove over six hours, alone, to attend the Red Letter Revival. I was eager to live into the call to social justice that my school taught, but felt something was missing. Incomplete. Responding to the persistent tug of the Holy Spirit, I drove those long hours to see what that missing piece might be.
At the event, pastor Jonathan Martin delivered a sermon on the evil of white supremacy in the United States. A self-identified “hillbilly Pentecostal,” he named evils at work that I had not heard voiced at my progressive, social-justice-centered seminary. While my school preached against white supremacy, Martin called it out as an ancient principality. Then he spoke a word I would never hear in a sermon at chapel: exorcism. The United States, he preached, needed an exorcism from the principality of white supremacy.
This was not my first exposure to these concepts. Principalities, exorcism, and spiritual warfare were central to preaching and practice at the Pentecostal church in the small, rural town where I grew up. The same church I had to leave as a teenager when my questions got too “dangerous,” supposedly leaving me at risk of falling prey to those same malignant forces. When my failure to speak in tongues—to demonstrate initial evidence of baptism with the Holy Spirit—seemed to confirm the worst.
I became the first person in my family to go to college. By then I had left behind Christianity entirely, convinced it was all fundamentalist, fear-based hogwash. I eventually found my way back thanks to a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, but I kept that part fairly quiet. I was no longer living below the poverty line in the middle of nowhere. I had made it. Moved on. Gotten respectable. If I would be in the church, it had to be the church with both feet in the real world, where real-life racism, poverty, and corrupt economic systems kept people in bondage in the here and now. Any salvation worth recognizing was this-worldly, visible, actionable through collective human effort.
There was no place for principalities. For exorcism. And yet.
For the past several years, our nation has witnessed an ongoing apocalypse in the original sense of the word. The veil is being torn off all the diseased underlying conditions that those who have possessed the privilege of blindness would rather not have to confront, including police repeatedly being filmed murdering unarmed black people, most recently George Floyd.
The progressive (middle-class white) Christianity I had come to align myself with is committed to opposing these evils. Yet in my observation, its witness seem to follow on the heels of secular social justice organizations. Rather than naming the core of our witness in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, when it comes to demonstrating publicly against white supremacy, I hear abstracted calls to justice unmoored from the gospel.
But in the actions in which I have taken part and read about, I sense more is going on. That forces on the unseen plane—forces Jesus names in the gospels and empowers his disciples to confront—are in play. And if we attempt to confront them without recognizing their spiritual depth and responding in the power of the Holy Spirit, they will destroy us.
I believe the Spirit is calling the church to cross the historical divides of fundamentalism and liberalism, to join the gifts She has bestowed upon us as a gathered body to confront this evil. I believe we must. And to do so, we must commit to following the teachings of Jesus, including affective, embodied teachings.
This focus on the affective reveals a weakness in the white progressive church. Progressives typically seek to change views using facts, articles, and arguments. If this fails, we consider our attempt complete, perhaps concluding that “you can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into.” While that may be true, the fact that someone may not change their views through a reason-based approach is not an excuse to disengage. Our understanding of education has been indelibly marked by the same mind/body split that runs throughout Western culture. But from the perspective of his time, casting out demons was part of Jesus’ “teaching,” because teaching and learning was understood to include lived bodily experience.
Observe Jesus’ reaction to the Gerasene demoniac, which I will equate here with the modern example of a fellow white person engaging in overt racism. Even in the demoniac’s thrashing, Jesus doesn’t tell the man to read an article then come back and talk after the spirit possessing him gets sufficiently “woke.” Jesus instead recognizes his humanity and understands that what possesses the man cannot be limited to reason. You cannot always select the proper article or argument to educate a spirit of hate out of a person or system. Sometimes the spiritual reality cuts deeper. Prayer is needed. Exorcism is needed.
What would an exorcism of white supremacy that accounts for the reality of spiritual evil look like? I do not have space to explore that here. But if we are to follow the teachings of Jesus, we must acknowledge that a significant part of those teachings involved exorcism. And to examine it from all angles, we just might have to engage with Christians who take a different perspective on it than we do, and recognize that we all have something to learn from and teach one another.
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