by Ellen Sims
text: Mark 1: 21-28
I don’t like demons. Well, who does? I mean I don’t like to draw upon that concept from a long-ago culture when I theologize. Besides, we are too quick to “demonize” one another as it is.
But hatred and harm in this world need to be named. And in Jesus’s culture, evil was named as a demonic entity. Maybe we are in line with Jesus’s practice of commanding a demon to desist when we claim authority to name and confront evil. Our Gospel reading suggests that Jesus’s authority was different from that of the scribes, who merely quoted from traditional sayings and texts. Jesus, in contrast, offered a “new teaching” (v. 27). Evil, often ensconced in power, gains ground when we accept the status quo unquestioningly and remain silent. Jesus saw deeply into people and into the way of the world and brought fresh insight. Although he was not officially a person of authority, he was viewed as an authority-“as one having authority” (v. 23). And 2,000 years later, Jesus’s life and teachings still speak to us with authority.
As followers of Jesus, we take our authority from the one who exposed and expelled evil by speaking out in truth and drawing to himself through his compelling compassion people like a man with an unclean spirit. We are “authorized,” as Jesus was, by a baptism in which God named us “Beloved Child.” In Mark’s first chapter it’s a short line from Jesus’ baptism, to his call to the first disciples, to his first sermon and exorcism.
In a recent article in The Christian Century, the Rev. Ismael Ruiz-Millan recalls ministering to people in a park in Tijuana, Mexico, where he encountered a man not so different from the disruptive man in our Gospel story. Next to the park was a bridge the locals called the Bridge of Doom. It was a place where desperate people who had tried unsuccessfully to cross the U.S. border existed like ghosts, neither dead nor really alive. This man was one such ghost. And Ruiz-Millan recalls approaching him to offer him food.
But the man began screaming: “I killed some people just for fun, and if I want to, I can kill you right now in front of all these people!”
Ruiz-Millan admits he still feels “shivers of fear” when recalling the exchange. But after a long pause, he replied to the man: “I don’t know why you did all that, but please know that God loves you, and because I have experienced God’s love in my own life, I can tell you that I love you, too.”
What gracious words. But they did not calm the man who named himself a multiple murderer. He grew more agitated. Soon he began “screaming in despair, ‘No! No, that is not possible. I am a bad person; no one can love me.'”
Ruiz-Millan insisted he did love the man through the power of God’s love.
“Miraculously, the man’s demeanor changed drastically . . . and he started to cry” and allowed the minister to pray for him and for his family he’d not seen in years. (1)
Ismael Ruiz-Millan spoke to a violent man with the kind of authority that does not come from wearing a clerical collar or a law enforcement badge or by attaining a degree or holding a public office. His authority was rooted in an inner conviction and a sincere compassion. The man who named himself a murderer recognized an authority guided by God’s love.
This week 156 women attested to abuse by a medical “authority.” These 156 women, abused when they were children in the care of Dr. Larry Nassar, claimed their own authority to quell evil with truth-telling and self-compassion. You may have heard or read some of their statements that ring with authority. They drove out the demons that had been tormenting them for years by claiming their rightful authority over their own bodies and spirits.
Olympic gymnast and gold medalist Ali Raisman, now 23, spoke defiantly at Nassar’s sentencing:
“You have not taken gymnastics away from me. I love this sport, and that love is stronger than the evil that resides in you, [and] in those who enabled you to hurt many people.”
Love is stronger than evil. Indeed. Preach it, Ali.
These young girls — now, of course, grown women — had NO authority, no power when they were originally brought as children to Nassar for care. He was the authority. Michigan State University was another authority. As was the Olympic Gymnastics organization. When many of these girls DID report to the “authorities” — to parents, to the university, to coaches — they were not always believed.
But their voices rang with authority this past week. (2)
When evil enters spaces that we assume are safe, even sacred, it is all the more harmful. Note that in our Gospel story an unclean spirit entered the synagogue itself and confronted Jesus as he taught from holy scripture. The church today is not immune to forces contrary to God’s ways of lovingkindness. So even in this sacred space, we might observe or commit acts of divisiveness, agitation, disrespect, unkindness. Let us remember that we have the authority to name harmful behavior and address it with another church member with kindness while being open to the possibility we’ve misunderstood what transpired, but also with clarity and assurance that our perspective matters. We are authorized to speak out in love. We will be most ready to hear the ones whose voices are marginalized. Let us remember that Open Table has a Safe Church policy that, for instance, prohibits anyone other than a child’s parent from being alone with a child and that equips us to report sexual harassment or abuse.
Note that Jesus’s expulsion of the demon in the synagogue brought on convulsions and loud cries (v. 26). To name what is wrong in the church is wrenching. To identify destructive systems and forces at work in the church or other institutions and relationships requires clarity and courage and a real sense of authority. How churches love hierarchy. But I hope what we are building here is a de-centered community that grants voice and authority to all who want to serve as brothers and sisters. We make our decisions through prayerful group discernment. Our leaders volunteer for roles of service rather than being elected. You want to serve on the church council? There’s no vote. You simply learn about that role and volunteer for the work if you feel you are able to make that commitment. Each of us is authorized and encouraged to be supportive of our church’s mission.
We may also be called beyond our faith community to exercise our authority in moral matters, in relationships, and in the socio-political realm. An “unclean spirit” may disrupt a situation or our society. An unloving force might threaten God’s peace and compassion. Both Jesus and Rev. Ruis-Millan felt empowered to reach out to someone in the grip of something evil. Maybe the demons Jesus and Ruis-Millan confronted were lodged in memories of abuse or trauma the tormented men had experienced themselves years before and then perhaps transmitted to others. Maybe the demons they were fighting were systemic abuses too hard to pin down to a particular incident or person but instead were a continual experience of being treated as a nonperson. And so the murderer in Tijuana and the demon-possessed man in Capernaum and Larry Nassar in Michigan seemingly lost their humanity. If only we were able to recognize this process of dehumanization in others before time has robbed them of the memory of their true self as God’s beloved child. Sadly, we don’t know what happened to the man in the park in Tijuana in the story that Ismael Ruiz-Millan told. We never learn what happened to the man screaming at Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum. We don’t know if those two troubled men found peace. We don’t know if Nassar has yet genuinely confronted his horrific actions or if he ever will. Likewise, we usually don’t know if our words of challenge and compassion have real and lasting impact on the others. Often we must leave the rest with God.
Last week in an article titled “White Evangelicals, This is Why People are Through with You,” John Pavlovitz, a former Evangelical minister, blasted Evangelicals for supporting political positions completely at odds with the teachings of Jesus. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“Your willingness to align yourself with cruelty is a costly marriage. Yes, you’ve gained a Supreme Court seat, a few months with the Presidency as a mouthpiece, and the cheap high of temporary power — but you’ve lost a whole lot more. You’ve lost an audience with millions of wise, decent, good-hearted, faithful people with eyes to see this ugliness. You’ve lost any moral high ground or spiritual authority with a generation. You’ve lost any semblance of Christlikeness. You’ve lost the plot. . . . I know it’s likely you’ll dismiss these words. The fact that you’ve even made your bed with such malevolence, shows how far gone you are and how insulated you are from the reality in front of you. But I had to at least try to reach you. It’s what Jesus would do.” (3)
I agree. We at least have to try. And we can begin by trying to answer this clichéd question: What would Jesus have us do?
I think Jesus would encourage us — from youngest to oldest — to claim our spiritual authority. That doesn’t mean we scold people in “Church Lady” fashion, pointing fingers at those who don’t live up to our standards. Instead, we engage in courageous acts of compassion, taking the side of those who are marginalized: like the men talking crazy in a park and in a synagogue and the young female athletes who don’t even have words for what has been done to their bodies and spirits. We stand with the immigrants facing deportation. We stand with Wedgewood Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, whose rainbow striped church door was once again spray painted over in a hateful anti-LGBGTQ message last week. We stand with whoever are the scapegoats of the hour. We stand with racial minorities who have endured generation upon generation of oppression and bigotry. We stand from a place of compassion and without presenting ourselves as heroes. We stand in support of those with a story to tell, who have wounds needing attention, who are recovering from bad religion. We stand . . . as those with authority.
We will interrogate evil even as we declare that God loves every single sinner on this planet. We will pray in and work for the fuller reign of God. We will persist as imperfect people opening up room for compassion, courage, and truth-telling. And we will live into this vision as those who have authority. As if we do. As followers of Jesus.
(1) Ruiz-Millan, Ismael. The Christian Century (January 3, 2018) 23.