Revisiting Spiritual Warfare as a Progressive Christian

Lectio divina on this morning’s second reading from the Daily Lectionary.

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you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. (1 Thess 5:5)

Of course, Indigo Girls fan that I am, I immediately started singing this song in my head:

My place is of the sun and this place is of the dark
and I do not feel the romance, I do not catch the spark.
By grace, my sight is growing stronger
and I will not be a pawn
for the Prince of Darkness any longer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about spiritual warfare lately. You know, angels n’ demons n’ stuff.

When I was part of the charismatic movement in college, I obsessed over this topic in a literalistic sense. Once I left behind the conservative theology I formerly held, this is one of the things I stopped thinking about.

In recent years, I have been returning to the language of my tradition with a new set of eyes. This has come as I have re-engaged with traditional liturgy, mostly through the Book of Common Prayer and the Rule of St. Benedict.

The funny thing, especially for one who identifies as a theological “liberal”, is that the transformation process is a two-way street. Yes, I am a bit revisionist in the way that I engage with the language of my tradition. I read a lot of Marcus Borg and use catchphrases like, “I take the Bible seriously, but not literally.”

My worldview shapes the way I interact with the liturgy. But the opposite is also true: The liturgy also shapes ME and the way I interact with my worldview.

I am not a strict religious naturalist. The philosophical term that most closely aligns with my personal belief is panentheism (Google it). I believe that the mythical language of my tradition gives me access to a dimension of reality that is not accessible (for me, anyway) through the rational processes of the scientific method. As one sister is fond of saying, “There’s a THERE there,” when it comes to theology.

(EDITORIAL NOTE: Dr. Renee Lee Gardner, Formation Minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo and my personal source for this quote, has informed me that the phrase originates with novelist Gertrude Stein.)

It has been quite easy to affirm that idea in pleasant matters related to God, Christ, and the Sacraments. But what about the darkness: i.e. sin and the demonic?

Several recent events have coalesced to lead me back to the language of spiritual warfare.

On a personal level, I have sat with dear friends who wrestle with addictions and broken relationships. On a social level, I am watching with deep lament the bitter hatred that seems to have taken hold of my country and manifested itself through the Trump campaign.

My partner recently attended the Why Christian? conference in Chicago and participated in a breakout session on Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare for Progressive Christians led by Richard Beck, author of Reviving Old Scratch.

Other thinkers who have been informative for me on this subject have been my seminary professor Bob Ekblad, Walter Wink, William Stringfellow, and Rene Girard.

There seems to be a real substance to evil that exists at the personal and social levels. These forces of darkness do not bow to human reason or willpower. In short, they are stronger than we are. So, how do we resist them?

I am still working that out. Do demons possess the quality of objective, personal existence, as I do? I don’t know yet. Can these forces be ultimately tamed by discipline, legislation, education, and non-violent direct action? I tend to think not. There is much about which I remain agnostic.

I have no problem seeing demons, as they are portrayed in religious art, as psychological projections of these forces. But that does not mean they are mere fantasies. I cannot deny that the struggle itself is real. There’s a there there.

Liberalism, in its justified excitement about the universe and human nature, has not “given the devil his due” when it comes to the reality of evil. As C.S. Lewis famously commented in The Screwtape Letters, the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world that he did not exist.

G.K. Chesterton, in his critique of modern theology in Orthodoxy, wrote:

“If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”

I think the time is coming for liberal and progressive Christians to take sin and the demonic as seriously as we take the reality of God.

More importantly:

I do not believe we enter into this struggle of spiritual warfare alone. I believe I have touched, at the heart of the universe, a loving presence that is constantly leading us in the direction of shalom: peace and justice.

When we dream of a world that is free from hate, exclusion, greed, and indifference, we are not making this up. This is not liberal idealism; it is truth.

I believe that God is at work in us and in the universe itself, harmonizing the discordant noise of the tohu va bohu (Heb. “formless void”) into a symphony that reflects the beauty of the Trinity.

This is the work that Christ came to earth to complete: “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8).

The Church, Christ’s Body on earth and in heaven, has been given the necessary weapons to effect this warfare. But how do we do this? How do we wage war on war itself? How do we exclude exclusion? How do we oppress oppression? How do we kill death?

We have a spiritual arsenal at our disposal. We have the prayers and the Scriptures. We have the sacramental rites of Anointing, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Reconciliation. Each deployment of these weapons plants a flag on the battlefield against death, indifference, isolation, anarchy/oppression, and bitterness (respectively).

The primary difference between these weapons and the weapons of the world is that they bring life, rather than take it. We wage a very different kind of warfare than that of the world. St. Paul writes:

“Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

And again:

“The weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

More importantly, we have the Sacrament of the Eucharist as the “principal act of worship,” according to the Book of Common Prayer. In this celebration, we return tangibly to the truth that we are one with each other, for we are all one in Christ. The Eucharist is the ultimate act of resistance against the forces of darkness, within and without.

The Church might even think of the Eucharist as our “nuclear option.” Its effect is 180 degrees opposite to that of an atomic bomb:

In a brilliant flash of light, the vaporous forms take on solid substance and come to life. Communal structures are formed and built up by a shockwave that makes no distinction between man, woman, and child; soldier or civilian. The fallout creates a radioactive zone where sickness is healed and life enriched. When people remember this event, they will celebrate the many lives that were saved.

Finally, in the Sacrament of Baptism, the Church has its D-Day on the soil of the world. In a world-system based on institutionalized injustice, Baptism is treason. In it Christians pledge their allegiance to new a new regime, the kingdom of heaven. It is an Exorcism and the beginning of an invasion against the occupying powers of darkness.

In the baptismal rite of the Book of Common Prayer, we recite:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
I do.

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
I do.

Above all, I trust in the divinity that I have experienced, as a Christian, in the person of Jesus Christ. God becomes real to me in the story of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. Whether all of this turns out to be literally factual or mythic symbolism is beside the point, I experience it as true and believe it.

I trust that the presence of the living Christ is at work in me and the world to bring us inexorably toward the goal of union with God.

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

Until then, the peaceful insurgents resist:


Image by Florian Siebeck. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

As many of you already know, in the years immediately following my graduation from seminary, I worked as a counselor at the Addictions Crisis Center, which is part of the Rescue Mission of Utica.  This is a great program.  They serve as the “first line of defense” that people come to when they’re beginning their recovery from dependence on drugs or alcohol.  They offer food, shelter, medical care, treatment, and counseling to folks in the earliest stages of recovery.  Some of them would even show up on our doorstep still under the influence of whatever substance they had been using.  As one friend of mine put it, “Basically, [we] meet people on the worst day of their lives.”

One of the most interesting (and often frustrating) things about people in those first few days away from their substance of choice is their adamant (and sometimes violent) resistance to the treatment, which was usually their last, best hope for healing and recovery.  They would kick, scream, and test every rule and boundary of our program.  Their substance of choice had such a hold on them that they would fight the treatment process, even after they realized they had a problem and voluntarily checked themselves in to our facility. 

Working with them for two years gave me a new appreciation for the meaning of the term possessed.  My clients’ addictions, their compulsive, uncontrollable desire for drugs or alcohol had taken over their rational faculties so thoroughly that they perceived our attempts to heal them as an attack.  The addiction owned them in a manner of speaking and led many of them to do all kinds of destructive things to themselves and others.  Most people in our facility had sacrificed money, friends, jobs, houses, and relationships to appease the false gods of their addictions.  There are many things worth sacrificing for in this world, but I think we can all agree that recreational substances are not among them.

A lot of people in the general public, people who don’t struggle with addictions, wonder why these folks can’t just stop what they’re doing and make better choices.  What most people don’t understand is that it’s not a moral issue.  Addiction is not a choice; it is a disease.  The electro-chemical processes in the brain have literally been hot-wired and hijacked.  And just like an airplane hijacked by terrorists: it’s not going where the pilot (the rational, moral part of the brain) wants it to go.  They are not in control.  They are possessed and they need help.

This, in a metaphorical sense, is what I see going on in today’s New Testament reading.  There is no mention in the text of any addictive, mind-altering substances being used.  All we know about the Gerasene man that Jesus encounters is that he “had a demon”.

In pre-modern times, all kinds of things were blamed on the activity of demons (e.g. seizures, mental illness, socially unacceptable behavior, bad luck, other religions, etc.).  They didn’t have the kind of knowledge or diagnostic equipment we have today.  For example, we now know that a person with schizophrenia doesn’t need an exorcism from demons, she needs anti-psychotic medication in order to make the voices in her head go away.  That’s not to say that there isn’t some kind of spiritual element to people’s problems, but I think we have developed a more informed, nuanced, and holistic way of looking at things than our ancestors had.

When people come to me as a pastor, asking for exorcisms (and they do, believe it or not), my first question for them is always, “Have you seen your doctor?”  I often end up making referrals, doing short-term pastoral care, praying with, and visiting these people in distress.  I find that a combination of medication, counseling, and prayer tends to resolve the vast majority of cases where exorcism was initially requested.

I don’t tend to think of demons as beings or entities in their own right.  The image of monsters with horns and bat-wings that take over your mind is the stuff of horror movies.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the reality of the demonic.  I believe I encountered a kind of demonic possession every day when I was a substance abuse counselor.  The people I worked with were possessed by their compulsive need for a particular substance.  The things they did as a result of that compulsion were truly evil, you might even say demonic:  They lied, stole, neglected and abused children, some of them had even hurt or killed others.  Those who found recovery from their addictions often had to own up to and make amends for the horrible things they had done under the influence.

And the amazing thing is that, in spite of all this harm to self and others, they continue to refuse to let go of their addiction.  They cling to their substance of choice as if it were more precious than air.  Many of them would refuse treatment and walk out of our program.  The average recovering addict has to go through rehab four or five times before they finally get clean and sober for good.  Only about one out of every ten clients finds recovery.  The rest go back out, pick back up, and continue to use or drink, despite the consequences.  That’s what I call possessed.

The Gerasene man in today’s gospel reading was similarly resistant to Jesus’ efforts to heal him.  When Jesus commands the demonic spirits to leave the man alone, the man cries, “I beg you, do not torment me”.  Torment him?  Didn’t this guy realize that Jesus was trying to help him?  It was the demons that were tormenting him!  But then again, as we’ve already seen today: people sometimes prefer an old, familiar slavery to a new, unknown liberation.  Getting over that hump is often half the battle of recovery.

The good news is that this doesn’t seem to present a problem for Jesus.  He just keeps at it with this possessed man, this hopeless case, until he has sufficiently separated the person from the problem.  That’s a key difference between Jesus and the people of the Gerasene region.  They just tried to lock him up and forget about him, but Jesus went out to see and to save the man behind the madness.  I think our task, as followers of Jesus in the present-day, is to do the same with those outcasts in our society, those people our culture of achievement has given up on. 

Where God is concerned, there is no such thing as a hopeless case.

Now, it would be easy enough to leave things at that: the addict finds recovery, Jesus sweeps in and rescues the man from the demons, and everybody lives happily ever after.  But life is more complicated than that.

It would be so easy for us to sit here in our (semi)comfortable pews on Sunday and say prayers for those poor addicts down in Utica, never once taking the time to look hard at our own lives.  We tend to take notice of people addicted to drugs and alcohol because (A) those addictions are highly destructive and (B) they’re socially unacceptable.  But there are many other kinds of addictions out there as well, many of which don’t involve recreational chemicals of any kind.  In recent years, we’ve become more aware of behavioral addictions to things like sex, work, food, exercise, shopping, and gambling.  Scientific studies have shown that our brains can’t tell the chemical difference between these behaviors and drugs.  Either way, it’s a massive hit from a neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine that our brains get used to having and eventually come to depend on in order to feel normal.  The best single book I’ve ever read on this topic is Addiction and Grace by Gerald May.  I highly recommend reading it if you want to learn more about addiction from psychological, medical, and spiritual perspectives.

In addition to the aforementioned behaviors, I would go on to say that anything can be an addiction, depending on the place it holds in our lives.  Even good and healthy things like family, relationships, church, religion, country, and school can be addictive.  Whenever we let just one thing take over our whole field of consciousness for extended periods of time, we are in danger of becoming addicted or possessed in the way we’re using that language today.  Spiritually speaking, we are committing the sin of idolatry: worshiping false gods, serving a part of reality at the expense of the whole, or even treating a part as if it were the whole.  We can even be addicted to (possessed by) a certain way of thinking or way of doing things.  This last one especially applies to groups of people as much as individuals.

I find it interesting that, in today’s gospel reading, the demons themselves ask Jesus to let them stay in the area.  They ask to be sent into a herd of pigs that immediately goes berserk and destroys itself.  After that, the people of the Gerasene community approach Jesus and ask him to leave.  Why?  Because, according to the text of Luke’s gospel, “they were seized with a great fear.”

Isn’t that interesting?  When Jesus first tried to help the possessed man, the man cried out in terror, “I beg you, do not torment me”.  He was afraid of the very person who had come to help him.  Now, at the end of the story, that man is “clothed and in his right mind” while the rest of the so-called “normal” people in his community are suddenly terrified of Jesus the healer.

This is another aspect of this story that bears a striking and frankly eerie resemblance to my experience of working with people who have addictions.  More often than not, so often in fact that it became a predictable pattern, my clients would return home after completing treatment to discover that their families no longer know how to relate to them.  In the years while my clients were active in their addictions, their families adapted in order to learn how to function in a dysfunctional environment.  They were used to operating under the assumption that one member of the family would always be drunk, high, or absent.  This is what experts mean by the term co-dependency: one person in the family unit is chemically or behaviorally dependent while all the others are “dependent with” that person or “co-dependent”.  When the dependent person comes home clean and sober, ready to rejoin the family system, the family suddenly has to rethink their old patterns for relating to each other and learn new ones.  This process is difficult and scary because they think they have to maintain the old balance and fulfill their old roles in the dysfunctional family system in order to survive.  It’s not at all uncommon for families to go through stress or even break up when someone is in the early stages of recovery.

The solution is for family members to participate actively in their own recovery process alongside their loved one who is getting clean and sober.  Addiction is a family problem that requires a family solution.  That’s why support groups like Al-Anon exist: to help the co-dependents of alcoholic people with their own recovery

And the same goes for the rest of us in the broader community.  Participating in the work of building God’s kingdom on earth is not just about helping those poor, unfortunate souls who struggle with addiction.  It’s about facing our own addictions and co-dependencies (even the socially acceptable ones) so that Jesus can liberate us from our own demons and bring healing and wholeness to the entire community.

If we are open to that process taking place in us, if we can trust that Christ is here to help us and not to harm us (even when his healing presence feels scary and unfamiliar), then we can say that we are walking the path of faith toward the promised land of God’s kingdom of heaven on earth.

Tortured Soul

The Scream by Edvard Munch

This week’s Bible study discussion was on Luke 8:26-39.

Exorcism is a controversial topic for discussion.  Many people are rightly disturbed by the fact that accusations of demonic possession have been levied against people who suffer from medically discernible disorders such as epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia, and dissociative identity disorder.  Our LGBT sisters and brothers can testify to the fact that accusations of demonic influence are often hurled at those who deviate from accepted patterns of behavior prescribed by dominant religious officials.  Jesus himself endured such accusations during his ministry.

With all this in mind, I approached this week’s discussion on the story of the Gerasene demoniac with not a little fear and trembling.

However the demoniac’s condition is understood, it cannot be denied that this story begins with an encounter between Jesus and a tortured soul.  This person is estranged among strangers.  The story begins as Jesus leads his disciples into Gentile territory on the far side of the Sea of Galilee.  The region of Gerasa was inhabited by people of different race, religion, and politics from the twelve disciples.

As soon as they arrive, they are met by the village idiot, but not the silly contrivance of Monty Python sketches.  This is a truly disturbed and disturbing person.  Those who know may be reminded of Cowboy in Utica or Ross in Vancouver.  Demon spirits, tombs, wilderness, and ritually unclean animals (pigs) give the story a rather menacing tone.  The disciples are probably feeling literally and figuratively “dis-placed” by such an opening to their venture beyond the pale of Jewish society.

I remember the first time I visited the Downtown East Side of Vancouver.  While I was waiting for the church doors to open, a hooker propositioned me on the sidewalk saying, “Ooh!  You look horny for ME!”  Not knowing what else to do, I just said, “No thanks” and nervously pretended to look at something else.  It was a little overwhelming for a southern boy from the burbs who was living in the big city for the first time.  I imagine Jesus’ disciples experiencing similar emotions during their encounter in Gerasa.

Jesus, however, is unphased by Legion’s display of insanity.  The most remarkable thing to me is Jesus’ ability to separate the problem from the person.  The problem is eliminated but the person is healed.  The Gerasene man was previously “demonized”, but has now been “humanized” by the ministry of Christ.

This is quite similar to the approach taken by those in recovery from various addictions.  For the last half-century, addiction has been increasingly recognized as a disease for which a person must receive treatment.  One hundred years ago, someone would have been called a drunk, now we know that such a person suffers from the disease of alcoholism.  In this area, we too have begun to separate the problem from the person.

One member of our community at St. James, who has been in recovery from alcoholism for several decades, was able to identify the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in this story.  Like the demoniac, she too was restored to sanity by her Higher Power.

In the denouement, we read that the Gerasene man is now “sitting at the feet of Jesus”, a remarkable phrase used to describe the relationship between rabbis and their disciples.  The same phrase was used to describe the relationship between Jesus and Mary of Bethany.  What this indicates is that Jesus is interested in recruiting women and non-Jews into his cadre of disciples.  This would be unheard of in that time.

The transformation in the Gerasene man is obvious to those who know him.  In fact, it causes quite a bit of consternation among the locals.  This is not surprising considering that communal systems tend to resist change.

Recovering addicts and alcoholics are able to relate to this as well.  Re-defining family relationships is one of the most stressful parts of recovery.  The family had maintained a delicate balance and rhythm for survival while their loved one was drinking and/or using.  When that person gets clean & sober, the balance and rhythm get disturbed.  There are two easy ways out of this situation: the person in recovery can “pick up” their substance of choice again or the person can leave the family system altogether.

The Gerasene man occupied a certain place in the communal rhythm of Gerasene society.  He was the person upon whom everyone else could look down.  His healing upset that rhythm, causing anxiety in the broader community.  He might face even more marginalization after his healing than he did before.  It would be easy for him to get out of town.  In fact, he tries to do just that when he asks Jesus if he can go with him.  But Jesus doesn’t allow the man the easy way out.  Already a disciple, Jesus sends the man back to his own town.  In essence, Jesus ordains him the first apostle to the Gentile people.  He is instructed to tell them the story of what has happened to him.  Our friend in recovery pointed out that this is not at all unlike the twelfth step in the AA program, where the recovering alcoholic is instructed to “carry this message” to those who still suffer.

This is not just a story about exorcism.  It is the story of a tortured soul who finds healing and purpose through his connection to Jesus.  It is a story about crossing boundaries and encountering real humanity in the most unexpected places.

Do we have enough courage to venture beyond the pale of our “normal” lives and see human beings where there only demons?  Do we have enough insight to discern the difference between people and problems?  Do we have enough faith to let our comfortable systems be upset so we can share in the healing work that God is doing in our midst?

“You’ve got to look outside your eyes / You’ve got to think outside your brain / You’ve got to walk outside your life / to where the neighborhood changes.”  ~Ani DiFranco, “Willing to Fight”