A sermon preached on June 23rd at Southminster Presbyterian in Beaverton, Oregon. Based on the lectionary text, Luke 8:26-39.
Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium
As the soul of systems, the Powers in their spiritual aspect are everywhere around us. Their presence is inescapable. The issue is not whether we “believe” in them but whether we can learn to identify them in our actual, everyday encounters. The apostle Paul called this the gift of discerning spirits. When a particular Power becomes idolatrous—that is, when it pursues a vocation other than the one for which God created it and makes its own interests the highest good—then that Power becomes demonic. The spiritual task is to unmask this idolatry and recall the Powers to their created purposes in the world. But this can scarcely be accomplished by individuals. A group is needed—what the New Testament calls an ekklesia (assembly)—one that exists specifically for the task of recalling these Powers to their divine vocation. That was to be the task of the church, “so that through the church (ekklesia) the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities [“principalities and powers”] in the heavenly places“ (Eph. 3:10). And the church must perform this task despite its being as fallen and idolatrous as any other institution in society.
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) J
Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.
So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
For Citizenship John O’Donohue
In these times when anger
Is turned into anxiety
And someone has stolen
The horizons and the mountains,
Our small emperors on parade
Never expect our indifference
To disturb their nakedness.
They keep their heads down
And their eyes gleam with reflection
From Aluminum economic ground,
The media wraps everything
In a cellophane of sound,
And the ghost surface of the virtual
Overlays the breathing earth.
The industry of distraction
Makes us forget
That we live in a universe.
We have become converts
To the religion of stress
And its deity of progress;
That we may have courage
To turn aside from it all
And come to kneel down before the poor,
To discover what we must do,
How to turn anxiety
Back into anger,
How to find our way home.
Casting out demons or unclean spirits is one of the things Jesus does. He does it several times and the stories are repeated in the gospels. As uncomfortable as modern people are with demons or unclean spirits, even the Jesus Seminar said that exorcism was one of the things that the historical Jesus did or was believed to have done.
Demons and unclean spirits are not particularly easy to discuss. Many people, more than you might think, believe in the reality of demons and unclean spirits. Many religious groups take quite literally demon possession and the need for exorcists. On the other hand, most progressive Christians think of demon possession as mental illness or some other type of affliction. Jesus was able to provide some kind of psycho-somatic cure.
I find myself mostly in the progressive camp. I have thought that stories in the Bible regarding demon possession reflect an ancient way of speaking about psychological afflictions that we modern folks describe in scientific as opposed to spiritual ways.
Then I read Walter Wink. Walter Wink, who died in 2012, was a biblical scholar and a peace activist. He wrote a series of three books on “the Powers” and demons and unclean spirits, all the weird stuff of the Bible. He showed me that reducing stories and concepts of spiritual powers to modern categories that might be more manageable and believable missed the message of these stories. There is more being said in these stories than what modern psychology can answer.
Wink said that while this is ancient pre-modern language, and we don’t need to believe that there are actual demons and unclean spirits bouncing around the world, hopping in and out of people’s psyches, nonetheless, these spirits represent something very real in both ancient times and in our time. It is more than ancient superstition. It is more than mental illness.
Walter Wink wrote about this in terms of institutions. Institutions have a spirituality. They have a soul. All institutions from schools to churches to corporations to nations have a spirituality. This is a good thing. These institutions are created to do their jobs and the soul or spirit is that driving animating force that guides the institution in its work.
However, these animating spiritual powers are also fallen. They can succumb through greed and envy to change course. Rather than serve the larger good that they have been created to serve, they become demonic. They become unclean and these institutions begin to serve themselves or they serve the interests of those who have “possessed” the institution. These powers need to be named, unmasked, and engaged.
The titles of Walter Wink’s trilogy of books on this topic are respectively, Unmasking the Powers, Naming the Powers, and Engaging the Powers.
The church’s task, its mission, is to do this work of spiritual discernment. That is to unmask, name, and engage these spiritual dimensions of our institutions. This is not easy work. It is not without danger. One of the principles of our Presbyterian denomination is for the church to undertake its mission even at the risk of losing its life. We discussed that at our session retreat.
Jesus did not get in trouble because he cured people of mental illness. He got in trouble because he named, unmasked, and engaged the spiritual powers of institutions that had become demonic, namely, the Roman Imperial State and the Jewish Temple. The goal of this work, of the work of Jesus, and the church that he summoned, is not to destroy the institutions but to set them aright. This is the work of the Holy Spirit or God.
All of the New Testament including the Gospels, can be read as this contest of powers, the powers of institutions, Rome and the Temple, for the most part, and the power of Jesus who was sent by God the Father to save the institutions and the people they are created to serve and to announce the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is what the world looks like when the spiritual powers of institutions are doing their work according to their created purpose.
The story of the Gerasene demoniac, which is the lectionary text for today, is a case study in the type of exorcism that Jesus practiced. This is a parable. It would be hard to imagine this happening in any literal sense. Luke is showing us a parable of the work Jesus did. He is through parable showing us the meaning of the contest of powers between Jesus and the demon.
Jesus and his entourage go to the land of the Gerasenes. They are confronted by this guy who is possessed by a demon. It is intense. He is naked. He is bound by chains that he breaks. He lives in the tombs. The demon recognizes Jesus. It does not want to leave. The demon has a name, Legion. What is legion? According to Miriam-Webster, a legion is “the principal unit of the Roman army comprising 3000 to 6000 foot soldiers with cavalry.”
The country of the Gerasenes much like Galilee and all of the area is occupied territory. The demon Legion represents the occupying force. Legion, the demon, tells Jesus not to cast it into the abyss, into the Pit, nothingness, but to a herd of swine, unclean animals, yes, but also the livelihood of the people of the Gerasenes. Legion, the demon, before disappearing to where ever, drowns all these pigs. That raises the attention of the people, who come to check it out and are afraid. They ask Jesus to leave because of their fear.
This is a parable. You have an occupying force. Roman soldiers occupy the country of the Gerasenes. Who eats pork? Not Jews. The soldiers do. So you have an economy of swineherders who derive their income from servicing the occupying forces. It isn’t good. The unrest of this situation is represented in the guy who is naked in the tombs, good as dead. There is no controlling this Legion. They try to bind him, they try to make peace with this thing, but he breaks the chains.
Jesus comes. Fixes the problem. But destroys their economy. Jesus, it is time for you to go now. This is scary. What will Rome do to us now? What will we do now? Rome is an occupying force but it is all we know. We would rather have Legion than you, Jesus.
At the end, we have the man, clothed and in his right mind, no longer living among the tombs, but now he is a witness. He is telling about Jesus and the work Jesus has done. We don’t know what will happen. Will people hear this witness or will they prefer Legion because they are afraid? That is the question to us.
This parable, as all parables, are open-ended. What do you think? What will you do?
Here are a few questions:
Why are these people afraid of Jesus?
Why is liberation scarier than oppression?
What will it take for them to let go of their fear?
What will it take to let go of Legion?
Dare we ask these questions in our own time.
We know what President Dwight Eisenhower warned the American people in 1961 about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. He said:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
That was Eisenhower in 1961.
By any measure, what we have today in terms of the military-industrial-finance-intelligence-media complex is Legion multiplied by orders of magnitude. Just this past week, we barely avoided a war with Iran. Iran is not the enemy of the United States. Iran is the enemy of Israel, maybe, and that is only because Iran supports the just cause of the Palestinians. Iran has nothing to do with America. America needs to end the sanctions against Iran and the suffering it has inflicted upon those people through these sanctions.
Iran is not attacking America. There is no fight. Americans would have had to have been tricked into a war with Iran. Just like we have been tricked into every war. To back that statement up, I refer you to theologian David Ray Griffin and his book, The American Trajectory: Divine or Demonic?
So why is it that we have to be tricked? Caitlin Johnstone, an Australian, suggests that Americans have to be tricked because Americans are basically good people. We don’t want wars. So we have to be deceived every time into supporting them. “They”, that is the demon, of the military-industrial-finance-intelligence-media complex only has to convince the American people that the American military-industrial institution is exceptionally good and that the latest war escapade will save other people from bad dictators or whatever. Through the power of propaganda this scheme works again and again. Caitlin Johnstone says that Americans are the most propagandized group of people on the planet. Billions and billions are spent on corporate media all along the left-right spectrum to support the war machine.
To use Walter Wink’s analysis of the powers and the spirituality of institutions, he might say that America has a demon. Our nation has become possessed by Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex that is now more powerful than congress and the presidency. Our trajectory is endless war and the manufacture and sale of the implements of war. It has nothing to do with whether individual soldiers are good or bad or Americans are good or bad, it is about the spirituality, the soul of our nation. The Powers, Wink would say, and he did say it about America, are fallen and no longer serve the purpose for which they were created.
It is the task of the church, even to the extent of losing its own life, to unmask, name, and engage these powers, so that the Holy Spirit might redeem them and redirect them to their divine mission. It is good to have a military. The military exists to protect a nation’s borders from real enemies, not manufactured enemies. The military does not exist to invade other countries under false pretenses.
But we are scared. How can this preacher say this? He is speaking against the red, white and blue! No I am not. I am speaking against the demon that has possessed our nation. We need to cast it out. That is the mission of the church. That is the activism of the church.
That is what Jesus was doing. That is what his followers were doing. That is what got him killed. That is what got his followers killed. But God raised him from the dead and in that ongoing resurrection, God awakens all of us to wipe the film from our eyes and see what is real. We are called to discern the difference between the divine and the demonic and unmask, name, and engage these demonic powers. It is the church’s business.
I will suggest that it was because of the alternative media, people who have been working to unmask, name, and engage the demonic spirituality of the war machine, that the false flag against the Japanese tanker was named as such. Iran didn’t do it despite what the White House said. It was a false flag. It was because people pointed it out and did not just believe the propaganda fed to and through the corporate media that we might have been saved at least for a day from another war.
My point is that unmasking, naming, and engaging the demonic is not an impossible task.
But it is a courageous task.
It is the church’s task.
May we embrace it.