Most people who tell you they don’t believe in angels and demons are liars. You may be sitting in the pew even now telling such a lie to yourself. You may have looked at the sermon title this morning with an enlightened eyebrow raised in skepticism, then assumed that the title was meant ironically and decided to patiently hear me out, but this sermon will not be an ironic one.
There is a popular aphorism, “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” I think this is wrong. I think the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he does exist. That HE really IS.
It’s understandable why we fall for this trick. Humans are a very narcissistic species so we anthropomorphize everything. We anthropomorphize our animals, imputing human emotion and reason onto them. We imagine our cats as tiny tyrants, and our dogs as loyal servants. We anthropomorphize inanimate objects too. We name our cars. We talk about boats with feminine pronouns. We make animated movies where toys and cars and planes and everything else comes to life and behaves just like human beings. We see faces everywhere, from the clouds to the surface of the moon. Think about it. Look at an electrical outlet and tell me you don’t see two eyes and a mouth agape in shock.
With our tendency to see everything in human terms it is unsurprising that we think of evil in human terms also. Lucifer. Satan. The Prince of Lies. Guided more by Dante and Milton than the Bible our culture quickly embraced the idea that evil takes a human shape and walks about as a person. The devil and his army of demons tormenting our world from the shadows.
Now, if you’re like me you long ago rejected the most fanciful portions of this myth. Demons don’t have horns or barbed tails. They aren’t literal people. I have said to myself that demons don’t really exist. Not really, but I have learned to my dismay that I was lying about my belief in demons. Even as I deny their existence intellectually I affirm it in my behavior.
Here is how I betray my belief in demons: when I watch the news and I learn that ISIS burned a Jordanian pilot alive I hear my heart say inside me, “those people are evil.” Even though I never watched the video as I refused to watch the other videos of beheadings and executions that came prior, a deep revulsion rises within me – not only for the act of violence itself, but toward the perpetrators, and I discover a hard limit to my willingness to practice empathy. I refuse to put myself in the shoes of the murderers.
And there it is, despite my insistence that I do not believe in demons, I do not believe in personified evil, part of me thinks the people who burned that pilot alive are evil personified. They are the demons.
I’m a pastor and I know my scripture so I know this is a trap. I know that I am supposed to get the plank out of my own eye before I start looking at specks in other people’s eyes, but in what universe could we possibly call burning a human being alive a “speck”!
Later in the week President Obama at a Prayer Breakfast issued a reminder that the seeds of violence and fundamentalism exist in all religions, and urged us to be humble and remember our own history of religiously justified violence as Christians – not just long ago with the Crusades and inquisition, but recently in our own country with its legacy of slavery and segregation.
That many people were offended Obama would make such a comparison reveals how many people have the same thought I had – that ISIS is evil. Of course, it is offensive to be compared to something you think is evil, but that doesn’t mean the comparison is untrue.
Historians and bloggers wrote pieces expanding on the point that Obama made with an even more apt comparison: the example of lynching. From the end of the Civil War until the 1960’s at least 5,000 black men and women were murdered by mobs in scenes of brutality every bit as gruesome as the ISIS murders. The victims were often tortured in such extreme ways I will spare you the description, but the sufferings of Jesus of Nazareth were slight by comparison.
Moreover, these were not quiet and secret crimes done by a few anonymous extremists. These were often public events attended by everyone in the town including police and elected officials, women and children. One photograph from a lynching in Waco shows a crowd of smiling white men and women standing over the charred corpse of their victim. No one is wearing hoods. There is no sense that this was an illicit act. They acted with total impunity, with the complete support, or at least utter indifference, of their society – our society.
The purpose of learning about such horrific crimes in our own recent past is to induce humility in us. To remind us that we are susceptible to the same darkness that we judge in others, but the insidiousness of our subconscious belief in demons is such that as I looked at the photo of those men and women about the same age as my grandparents I did not empathize with them. Instead I heard that voice from my heart speaking again – “those people are evil.”
“Those people” – those smiling white faces, the working class, and middle class people from all over my country, who speak my language, and share my culture, a scarce two generations ago, some of whom are still alive today… They could hardly be more similar to the majority of us in this room right now and yet I know that comparison will be uncomfortable for you as it is for me. It is more comfortable to think of them as other, as belonging to the past, symptomatic of a problem we already solved.
When you get to the root of it, the reason it is so tempting for us to believe in demons, to believe that other people are evil, is because it protects our sense of our own innocence. If evil is personified, if it exists “out there” then we are separated from it. We don’t have to see the way we are bound up in it, participate in it, even celebrate it.
We may intellectually disavow their existence, but we believe in demons alright. We just don’t call them Beelzebub or Belial or Legion. We call them Nazis or Communists or Terrorists. If you’re a conservative then George Soros and Hilary Clinton are your demons. If you’re a liberal then the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch are your demons. The crowds that did the lynching felt justified because in their eyes the black man they were murdering was a demon. When I think of those crowds I feel justified because in my eyes they are racist demons.
The whole time that we are demonizing one another this very process of demonization is what enables us to commit the most heinous acts while believing ourselves as pure as Portland’s un-flouridated tap-water. We demonized the Germans and the Japanese as we unleashed hydrogen bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We demonized communists as we deforested Vietnam with Agent Orange, impoverished Cuba, and funded coups and planted dictators all over the world. We demonize terrorists as we wage illegal wars under false pretexts, perpetuate a continual siege of the Middle East via drone warfare, abandon constitutional principles like habeas corpus, engage in torture, lie about it, and punish the whistleblowers while holding no one responsible for the torture itself.
Since our policy of intellectually disavowing demons while treating one another demonically has been an utter failure, I propose a different approach. I propose we presume that we are ourselves possessed and begin seeking out exorcism. Every time we hear that voice telling us that that person or group of people over there is evil and beyond empathy, I suggest to you that what you are hearing is the voice of the demonic inside you.
It’s time to presume that demons are a domestic issue, not a foreign policy matter. Demons are mundane, not exotic. They’re inside us, not inside them. When Jesus went is described in the gospel of Mark casting out demons the text doesn’t indulge in Hollywood special effects or treat it as that extraordinary an event. Jesus heals some folks, and casts out some demons. Like a dentist doing some cleanings and repairing a few cavities. A normal day’s work.
The process of exorcism isn’t a supernatural affair with holy water and projectile vomiting. And it certainly isn’t done with drones, or by lynch mobs. Casting out demons is done by recognizing the influences that turn us callous, selfish, and judgmental – and then extricating those influences from our lives. Casting out demons is about removing the temptations and the capacity for violent exclusion of people who frighten us.
Casting out a demon might involve getting rid of everything you own which was created with resources which were unethically harvested, or manufactured by an exploited labor force.
Casting out a demon might involve building relationships with racial/ethnic minorities, listening to their stories, and making their struggles your struggles.
Casting out a demon might involve selling your investments in the stock market, renouncing a system which increasingly benefits only a select few people while impoverishing billions, and giving the proceeds to the poor.
But that sounds awfully hard. Maybe we prefer to go back to not believing in demons, instead.