Unclean Spirits in the Modern World

A Homily given at St. Hilda’s Anglican Church in Sechelt, BC on Jan 31, 2021.

Those of us who have been coming to church for a while end up hearing the same stories over and over. I think that sometimes we hear these stories so often that we fail to notice how odd they are. History is strange. There’s no getting around it. People back in ancient times used to say things happened that by today’s standards sound more at home in a fantasy novel than in a history book.

Consider the story in Mark 1:21-28. Jesus goes back to Capernaum, which is the home base for his ministry. On the sabbath day he goes into a synagogue and begins teaching. So far so good. But then he sees a man with an unclean spirit. In other words, this man was demon possessed. The unclean spirit recognizes Jesus and is afraid. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

The NRSV says that Jesus responds to this by saying to the unclean spirit “Be silent!” That is very polite. The Bible is sometimes translated so as to not ruffle any feathers. I think it would be better translated as “Shut up!” Jesus says, “Shut up, and come out of him.” Apparently, Jesus is simply not interested in carrying on an extended discussion with a demon. The spirit comes out of the man, and everyone is amazed. Apparently, Jesus has enough power that even the unclean spirits obey him.

We cannot simply ignore these tales of exorcisms, seeing as they are an important part of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark. If we simply ignore this aspect of Mark’s story, what will we be missing? But what are we to make of this sort of tale in the 21st century? There are at least four different ways that this aspect of the story of Jesus has been understood in the modern world.

Some think demon possession is merely an ancient superstition that has no place in modern thinking. How do we understand and interpret these stories? We don’t. We ignore them. They do not speak to a modern human scientific mode of understanding. They come from ignorant people and have nothing important to say to us today.

By this view, this is a meaningless text that has nothing to say to us today. I might as well stop writing now, as I am wasting all of our time by continuing. However, I do continue to write, because I think these odd little stories might have something to say to us.

There is another camp of people that argue that demon possession is a real thing that still happens today. These stories are relevant because they speak of something that actually occurs. I am a new priest, and as I orient myself to my new position, it was recommended to me that I read the “Policy Manual for the Diocese of New Westminster.” While not exactly a thrilling read – it is not going to displace John Grisham, Stephen King, or Margaret Atwood any time soon – it does have some very helpful information for a new priest like myself. It also has a surprise or two. For example, it has a section on exorcisms, which it defines as “the explicit or implicit intention of casting out evil spirits, or the healing of malign or demonic possession…”

Someone presumably is either hedging their bets in putting this document together, or else there is a clear indication that the possibility of demon possession is a real thing. I am reminded of the statement from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

When I was a younger Christian, I belonged to a conservative group that definitely believed in demon possession. One of the pastors told me with great assurance that the musician Neil Young was demon possessed. I am not sure how he came to this knowledge. I wondered at the time if it was really just because he really liked Neil Young’s music, even though he believed that he should not enjoy secular music.

Movies like the Exorcist, the Conjuring, Insidious, and Hereditary keep the idea of demon possession alive in people’s imaginations. So, while some might embrace the possibility, my hunch is that most people do not think demon possession is a real thing.

Within the “Policy Manual of the Diocese of New Westminster” it is clear that only people trained and approved by the bishop may perform the rite of exorcism. And more importantly, it states “exorcism will be considered only in conjunction with professionally qualified therapy, not as an alternative, and only as a last resort.” The manual makes it clear that what is understood to be demon possession may in fact be better understood as some sort of psychiatric disorder or illness. This brings us to the next way of understanding these passages in the New Testament.

Demon possession in the Gospels is often understood as an ancient way of understanding what today we would call psychosis. Schizophrenia, epilepsy and other illnesses were not understood in the ancient world, and so they reasonably used the categories that they did understand. People concluded that some acted oddly because they were possessed by unclean spirits. So, Jesus was not really casting out demons – he was rather healing people with severe mental illnesses.

This accepts the basic account as presented by Mark, and the other Gospel writers, and simply translates an archaic and outdated way of understanding something in modern terms. The problem with this is that it removes aspects of exorcism that seem to be important to Mark and the other Gospel writers. Exorcisms are never spoken of in Mark in terms of “healing,” and this is important to Mark.

This brings us to the fourth way that exorcism stories are understood. Some understand demonic possession to be an ancient mythological way of speaking about systemic evil. Systemic evils are harmful beliefs and actions that come from society as a whole. When the world we live in is bad, it is hard for us as individual to be truly good.

Demons might be a metaphor that comes to mind when we consider Nazi Germany, or residential schools, or innocent black people being gunned down by police.  Demons provide for us a way of speaking about this extreme sort of evil and sin that we see in society.  

Demons can be a useful metaphor for the disordered and harmful parts of creation, presumably including the disordered and harmful parts of our own selves? They can represent for us what is wrong in individuals and in societies. However, they do not represent mental disorders or illness. That, I think, is an unhelpful and misleading comparison. Those who struggle with various mental disorders or illnesses need our compassion, and comparing them with demons is, well, not helpful.

Demons, I think, present a better metaphor for the darkness in human hearts and human societies. The darkness is not us, in our true selves, but rather something a distorted version of ourselves that we have adopted.

One of the questions asked of candidates for baptism in the Anglican tradition is, “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” Baptism sets us on a road – and puts a task in front of us. All that which diminishes life or devalues creation is something against which we are to fight. Demons represent the evil that we have been commissioned in our baptism to overcome, in our own lives and in society. They represent that which diminishes life and prevents flourishing.

We might not believe that there are such things as demons, but we can be sure there is such a thing as evil. We see it every day as we move towards a desolated planet. Sometime, evil hides in little things, like indifference towards climate change, or apathy towards injustice against the first peoples of this land. Demons may not be real, but if there were, that’s where they would be.

We are called to fight evil in ourselves and in society. We fight, but we have no enemies. This is because we remember that the oppressor is a victim first. I believe everyone who commits evil has lost touch of themselves long before they did the evil. We hope to call people back to themselves, back to their truer selves, and back to the grace and love of God. But we are not neutral in the battle against evil.

Unfortunately, we do not have the power to simply cast out the evil within us and outside of us. It would be great if it was that easy, but it is not that simple. The struggle against darkness is never ending, and yet it is what we have been called to.

We have a task before us. We have not been called to merely enjoy each other’s company, as wonderful as that is. We have been called to join with the holy spirit of God to resist all that diminishes the fullness of life. May we join together with all who have gone before and pray “deliver us from evil.”

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