SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: All-powerful God, in Jesus Christ you turned death into life and defeat into victory. Increase our faith and trust in him, that we may triumph over all evil in the strength of the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’” Mark 3:22.
Demonizing one’s opponent is as old as the Bible. The scribes in this Sunday’s gospel use demonization to “shut Jesus down.” “Sure,” they say. “He casts out demons and works miraculous cures. That’s easy when you are in league with the devil.” Once they have put Jesus in the devil’s camp, they can safely dismiss everything he does and says. Why would you waste time arguing with the devil? Why would you believe anything that comes from the mouth of one possessed by the devil? No need to engage with Jesus, think about his parables, wonder at the healing power at work in him or consider his remarkable claim that God’s reign has drawn near. He is of the devil. You don’t negotiate with the devil; you don’t talk to the devil and you certainly don’t listen to the devil. The devil is the enemy of all good. The only appropriate response is to silence him.
Demonization is still very often the method of choice in our politically polarized culture. One’s political opponents are not merely people whose policies are misguided, whose priorities are distorted or whose leadership skills are wanting. They are intrinsically sinister. They are “squads” of non-white women manipulating a senile president elected by fraudulent means. Their goal is to undermine America, replace “American values” (whatever those are) with the values of “multiculturalism” (whatever they are). Our opponents are bound and determined to take our guns, bibles and lightbulbs; to implement Sharia law, build cancer causing windmills, slow down our toilets and take God out of the pledge of allegiance. Just as you don’t negotiate with the devil, you don’t negotiate with people whose goal is your destruction. Compromise in this circumstance only drives you closer to capitulation. So you fight your opponent, giving no quarter. You block them at every turn. Such is the politics of demonization in which everyone finally loses because nothing of importance gets done.
Of course, religion makes good use of demonization as well. And we are a good deal less subtle about it. Ecclesiastical history is stained with the blood of victims demonized as heretics and infidels. The Inquisition, the Thirty Years War and the church’s complicity in the Holocaust are just a few illustrations making the point. Jesus had to fight his own disciples’ impulse to demonize more than once in his ministry. When his disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven to “nuke” a Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus, Jesus had to rebuke them. Luke 9:51-56. When the Apostle John wanted to silence a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name because “he was not following us,” Jesus had to remind him that “anyone who is not against us is for us.” Mark 9:38-40. The “other” is not necessarily the “enemy.” Moreover, even when one chooses to be an enemy of a disciple of Jesus, the disciple is instructed not to be an enemy in return. Luke 6:27-32. No one, however horrendous their words and conduct may be, is beyond the redemptive reach of God’s love.
Jesus has some harsh words for his demonizing opponents: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin. Mark 3:28-29. There has been no shortage of debate over exactly what constitutes “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” For my part, I believe it is the sin of demonization. Demonization puts an end to any possibility of argument, discussion, reconciliation and peace. It cuts off all lines of communication. When persuasion, compromise and coexistence are off the table, there remains but one solution: silencing, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Once you classify someone as “of the devil,” no insult, act of cruelty or violent attack is off limits. Demonization effectively closes the door to the Spirit’s call for repentance, reconciliation and peace.
Let me be clear about one thing. While disciples must never demonize another human being, they must always uncover, bring to light and condemn demonic ideologies-and that might very well alienate those who hold them. The call to reject demonizing one’s opponent does not suggest one should tolerate the opponent’s demonic beliefs. Nor should it be used as a cover for false moral equivalencies and “what-aboutism.” To state but one example, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive congressperson whose views you might not endorse, is not simply the flip side to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s harassment of teenage gun violence survivors, blatant antisemitism and outright lies. Racism, bullying and dishonesty are not simply alternative political positions deserving of respect in what some leaders of my church like to call “our community of moral deliberation.” You don’t give oxygen to racist ideologies and crackpot conspiracy theories by “deliberating” over them. There is quite frankly nothing over which to deliberate. Nothing to discuss. The only faithful response when confronted by a demon is to cast it out.
That said, it is critical to distinguish between the demon and the possessed. People enslaved to demonic ideologies, hostile as they often can be, are not the enemy. Saint Paul reminds us that “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.” Ephesians 6:12. The devil, of course, would prefer that we believe our enemy is of flesh and blood. Nothing pleases the devil more than to see us at each other’s throats, rending each other’s flesh and shedding each other’s blood. But Jesus knows better and so should his disciples. Those possessed by the hateful ideologies of white supremacy, nationalism and sexism are to be pitied, not hated. We are called upon to liberate them from bondage, not to destroy them.
It helps to recall, as a good friend once reminded me, that “nobody is ever only one thing.” People in bondage to hateful ideologies are frequently angry, frightened souls. Those whose marriages are failing, whose careers are heading south or who have experienced other painful reversals in life are primary hosts for demonic ideologies. Such ideologies put a face on their fears, provide a target for their pent up anger and give meaning to their unexplained suffering. As such, they function as a sort of sick type of religion. In my own encounter with such persons, I have sometimes found it helpful to get them talking about themselves, their struggles and experiences rather than getting drawn into a dead end argument with their weird belief systems. When you do that, you discover that beneath the strident bigotry they project, there is a world of hurt and insecurity-as well as an openness to being heard and understood. But to get there, you sometimes have to go around to the back door or find a side enterance.
The minute we lose sight of our enemies’ humanity, the image of God in them that no evil can completely erase, we have demonized them. In so doing, we hand the devil a victory by allowing ourselves to be transformed into the mirror image of what we claim to despise.
Here is a poem by Wendell Berry I have cited before and do so again here. Berry illustrates how forgiveness saves us from becoming the “monsters” we see in our enemy, destroys the enemy’s power over us and sets us at liberty to recognize the enemy’s humanity.
If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,
how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then
is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go
free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not
think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.
Source: Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (c. Wendell Berry, 1994; pub. by Norwood House Press, 2013). Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. You can read more about Wendell Berry and sample more of his works at the Poetry Foundation website.
 Incidentally, I think God would be just fine with the last proposal.