Originally posted to Facebook on Sept. 21, 2016. It has only suffered minor edits in transplanting it here.
I just finished reading Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch, a book about the devil and spiritual warfare for people who question, if not totally reject, literal notions of demons and angels.
It cautions against overpoliticizing and over-metaphorizing those concepts because the Bible talks about them not just in relation to political power, but also to internal moral struggles found within each person. Fighting for social justice is spiritual warfare, but so too is loving others – emptying yourself for them, fighting daily against the fear of death and the fear of loss and the love of money and country and possessions that militate against radical, sacrificing love. Lots of food for thought in that book, for those who believe in a literal Satan, and for those who don’t.
Beck believes we should recover a language of the demonic, understanding that powers greater than humanity do indeed ensnare us. Call them what you will, but Nazism, Stalinism, systems of fascism and totalitarianism and apartheid are demonic. More, they are demons that burrow into the fabrics of societies and require active struggle, both collective and individual, to defeat and defang.
Our society, more than at any point in the past 50 years, is actively doing battle against the demon of Racism.
It’s a demon born to justify the much older demon of Slavery; together, they were carried aboard ships across the Atlantic. They planted deep roots in America’s urban centers and in southern labor camps. They joined with the demons of Materialism and Consumerism to build an economy unrivaled in the world. Together, they unseated whole nations, destroyed families, murdered millions. A physical war was required to break the partnership and loosen the hold of Slavery on our society. But Racism persisted. It persists. It is weaker than it was, but it is wilier. When Martin and Malcolm and Stokely and others helped to cast it out of our laws, it sank deeper into our cultures. It wrapped itself in a flag and called itself Heritage.
It remains the demon we are most likely to condemn – and least likely to confront.
When African Americans, who have been robbed and devalued by Racism for more than 400 years, stand up (or kneel down) to protest that, yes, their lives matter, too, it whispers instead that all lives matter. It hisses that Slavery has been dead a long time. It chatters about black-on-black crime, about saggy jeans, about insufficient compliance, about respect. Racism loves respect. Racism knows all about places, and who should respect them. Who should stay in them.
How do we defeat this demon? How do we end its reign over our society? I admit I don’t know. In a week where a black pastor was shot to death after his car stalled in a road, in a week where the son and campaign adviser of a major-party presidential candidate compared war-torn refugee families to poisoned candy, I’m afraid I have very few answers. My heart has grown heavier with the urgency of needing to take action juxtaposed against the despair that no action would help.
But this comment from Don McLaughlin at the Abilene Christian University Summit in 2014 came across my feed this morning: “It is killing us in Ferguson. It is killing us in Iraq. It is killing us in our impoverished inner cities. It is killing us in our sin-soaked suburbs. The insistence on knowing people functionally without knowing them personally is killing us in our churches.” And it came together with Richard Beck’s discussion about love as the ultimate weapon against the demonic.
When we place people in functional buckets without getting to know them personally – and therefore opening ourselves to the possibility of love – we will not defeat these demons that have haunted us so many years.
Jesus calls us to love, and to love means to sacrifice. What does that mean practically? I don’t know.
How can I love better? Not just African Americans, whose lives – which include friends and the children of friends – I can affirm without reservation do matter; not just Syrian refugees, whose plight demands our attention and our action. But those I have a hard time loving right now – those who would condemn African Americans for seeking long-denied justice in our society, and those who would deny Syrian refugees a home out of misplaced fear or political opportunity. How can I avoid knowing them functionally and love them instead?
How can I sacrifice for those so possessed by the demon of Racism that their words and actions are utterly repugnant to me – while still loving and defending those who would be hurt by those words and actions? This is the great dilemma for followers of Yahweh and followers of Jesus dating back thousands of years: How to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. How do we transform ourselves and our society? How do we fight the demons of our society without falling prey to the ones within us?
I don’t have answers to these questions. But 2016 is telling us they are questions we need to be asking.