And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure.
One little word will fell him.
In the name of the eternal Word, spoken through the prophets, and in these last days made incarnate in our Lord, Jesus Christ.
“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”
That question is asked at every baptism in our church. Even if you were baptized as an infant, or, like me, came from a diﬀerent denomination—I was baptized at age eleven after a traveling evangelist led a week-long revival at our little church in New Mexico—we are all asked to renew that commitment when others are baptized.
That question harks back to ancient Christian practice in which the baptized were required to reject Satan “and all his works.” Sometimes baptism even included a prayer of exorcism: Satan was to have no more power over the person being baptized into Christ.
But the language of “the evil powers of this world”—that’s new. It owes a lot to the New Testament scholarship of the twentieth century—indeed, to the historical experience of the catastrophic, systemic evils of that century. And it also owes, I think, to the writings of one of that century’s most astute observers, an Episcopal lay theologian named William Stringfellow.
William Stringfellow is one of my theological heroes. He was what most of us would probably call a radical;1 but he was by profession an attorney, and he went about his theology and his advocacy with equal precision. Stringfellow helps us think about good and evil and, as we hear about Jesus the Exorcist this morning, about the demonic.
Stringfellow practiced law, much of it pro bono, in Harlem, fighting for his clients’ rights against the systematic and institutionalized racism in the banking industry, housing, education, healthcare—you name it. Because of his theological writing, he was invited to Harvard Divinity School, and lectured on the urgency of taking seriously the biblical language of “principalities and powers.” The theologians politely corrected him: “That’s just ancient mythological thinking, it has nothing to do with the real world.”
Then Stringfellow spoke at Harvard University’s law school. The “principalities and powers,” he said, are real-world institutions and systems that shape our world, perpetuating their own power in the name of some higher principle, even as they aﬄict the lives of human beings. The law faculty and students leaned in. “Yes,” they said, “that exactly describes what we struggle against every day: Systematic forces, seemingly beyond anyone’s control, that blight and devastate people’s lives. Principalities and powers? That’s completely realistic language.”2
When we renounce “the evil powers of this world,” we’re using language Stringfellow gave us. It deserves a closer look.
It’s so much easier to personalize evil, to reduce it to the scale of someone’s individual temperament. —Like the bumper sticker: “Mean people suck.” (Of course they do, they’re “mean people”!) Psychologists tell us this is the way we think at a fairly early developmental stage. It’s the moral perspective of a second-grader (not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you’re in second grade): The world is made up of good people and bad people and that’s why they act the way they do.
As we grow up, moral thinking gets more complicated.
I was probably in second grade that cold night in New Mexico when my father took me out on a pastoral call. We met a family who had driven across country with everything they owned in their car, coming to take a new job at the natural gas plant outside of town and to move into company-owned housing. But while they’d been on the road, the gas company shifted production elsewhere and cancelled the job; the family were suddenly alone in the dark, with no job, no prospects, no place to spend the night. They found our church in the phone book.
Dad called around to find a motel for them and charged a room on his discretionary fund. I stood with the family, in the dark, in the cold, way past my bedtime—but it was past bedtime for all of us; the diﬀerence, I knew, was that I had a warm bed to go back to. The children didn’t say anything; they were exhausted and afraid. So were the mother and father. And I realized, even then, that the moral calculus of dividing the world into good and bad people was inadequate. They haven’t done anything wrong. They don’t deserve to be cold or hungry or afraid. The world is more complicated.
But increasingly, we are encouraged to think in just that simplistic way about almost every issue of consequence.3
Some of us are tempted to excuse public figures when they say or do reprehensible things because we’ve liked them, or think they’re on “our side”: surely they’re “good people” on the inside, and that’s all that matters—so leave them alone! Or to take another example, a slogan I’m sure you’ve heard a hundred times: “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Now, we won’t resolve gun safety policy this morning; but think about what that slogan implies, that we can easily tell the good guys and bad guys apart, and just hand out guns to the good guys. But the profound and consistent historical experience of U.S. gun violence is that as a society, we insist on putting high-powered weapons of war in the hands of “good guys” who then, mysteriously, become “bad guys” without anyone noticing, and for reasons we are helpless to understand. That’s almost a requisite part of the narrative now: “We didn’t know they were bad guys”; so we’re oﬀ the hook.
We know that most of the women who have been killed by guns in this country are killed by their domestic partners, men who probably were regarded as “good guys” until they pulled the trigger.
My point is that we need to think in a more complex way about the issues facing us. Gun policy is wrapped up with toxic ideas about patriotism and masculinity and power and race and resentment and what some men feel they deserve; it’s dangerous when we think only in simplistic terms of “good guys” and “bad guys.”
It’s a mistake, too, to hear the biblical language of demons in individualistic terms. You know: That person has a problem, that person is the exception, that person must be possessed; and when the demon is cast out, everything will be fine.
That’s the logic of so-called “deliverance” ministries that have, for decades, coercedgay and lesbian and transgender people into believing they were so terribly out of place because they were possessed by demons. There are still legislative battles across our country seeking to protect these so-called ministries under the guise of religious freedom. Know that the Episcopal Church rejects such ministries. We understand that love comes from God; the ways we experience love for and from others is not the eﬀect of demons.
Stringfellow, and others, encourage us to understand the demonic as a social reality, an aspect of a sick community or society, of pathologically distorted institutions and systems. Listen to the way Jesus talks in this morning’s Gospel (even as his own family members insist he’s lost his mind). He wasn’t trying to cure sick individuals so they would fit in better with the world around them. He seeks to break Satan’s kingdom, to bring down his house. He is the burglar “binding the strong man”—Satan—so he can plunder his home. The world, Jesus suggests, is “possessed.” His goal is not to help people adjust to it, but to free them from the powers that distort and ravage their lives.4
But we know that the demonic may not take fantastic form. Philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke of “the banality of evil”5 to describe the machinery of the Nazi state, the weight of thousands of intricate, interlocking decisions and acts of cooperation or acquiescence carried out every day, every hour, across Nazi Germany, by ordinary people who kissed their children goodbye every morning as they went oﬀ to work, who were devoted to their country. The monstrosity was collective: The demonic consisted in what people could be persuaded to do in the name of necessity and responsibility and love of country.
So the language of our baptismal covenant—that call to renounce the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God—is meant to call us to attention, to clear deliberation, to analysis, to discernment. How are we at risk of taking part in terrible evil?
Well before he preached at a royal wedding, our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, issued a joint statement with other religious leaders entitled “Reclaiming Jesus,” meaning “reclaiming” him from Christians who support very un-Christian policies in his name. We are living through “perilous and polarizing times,” the statement declares, in which the church is called upon to stand up for what is right and reject false and dangerous ideas.6
There come times—and they are always easier to recognize in hindsight—when silence is complicity in great evils.
One such evil has been much in the news in recent weeks. Last week the United Nations oﬃce on human rights declared that the “zero tolerance” policy our government has declared along our southern border—including forcibly separating children from migrant parents and putting them in detention centers, or eventually, according to the White House chief of staﬀ, in “foster care or whatever”—is a systematic violation of human rights.7 Others have called it “state terror,” of the sort we used to associate with Nazi Germany or the Stalinist USSR.8 Administrators of various federal agencies have called it a “necessity” and a “deterrent” to criminal behavior,9 and television pundits have debated it for hours on end as if it’s just another of those intractably complex legislative problems. At every level of city, county, state, and federal government, we see debates whether local police and sheriﬀ oﬃces should be required to act as immigration enforcement agents.
In our own parish, those of us who have gathered around the work of ISAIAH have heard from our own about the observer campaign in immigration courts, where people are summarily sentenced to deportation or sent back to prolonged detention, without criminal charges, without legal defense, without any recourse to communication with their families—with literally no one but the courts knowing where they are.
Immigration policy is complex, and I don’t propose to resolve it this morning. But I do want to echo our presiding bishop (and others) in perceiving here a moral imperative that should be beyond negotiation. Such policies, our church (and many others) have declared, are “deplorable” and must be rejected.
The deeper question is about the fundamental dignity of men and women and children who have come to our country seeking refuge from violence and misery. We talk about these people in terms of being “legal” and “illegal”; candidates for public oﬃce talk about the necessity of “protecting our borders” or “protecting our jobs,” as if migrants were the chief threats to these. And already in this campaign season, we have heard candidates telling us that people in our country without specific documents should not have access to education or food or health care; that they have no rights to these necessities.
That’s not just mean-spirited. That’s not just an invitation to the sort of harassment and violence that has already multiplied across the country, often inspired by a particular recent election.10 It’s also a legal falsehood: Human rights are not conferred by citizenship: they are inalienable to us as human beings.11
This is more than a misunderstanding; more than a policy debate. That’s also an outright refusal of the biblical imperative to care for the resident alien, the ger toshav in Torah.12 The blatant contempt shown in everyday political rhetoric for migrants and refugees in our country may masquerade as patriotism, but it is nothing but a massive act of cruelty. It is lawlessness, masquerading as the rule of law. It is the systematic denial of our neighbors’ humanity. And as I understand our presiding bishop’s statement—and the teaching of Scripture and of the Christian tradition—that cannot be for us a policy choice or a matter or debate.
In the past, when whole nations have agreed that minority populations in their midst have no rights—not even to be safe from mortal danger—we feel warranted now in speaking of the demonic. Our baptismal covenant calls us to be alert and aware of the times in which we live, and to be ready to respond in faith and compassion.
May God grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.
1 Stringfellow and his partner Anthony Townes sheltered Philip and Daniel Berrigan in their home after the priests led an antiwar protest that destroyed draft cards with homemade napalm; when the FBI closed in, Stringfellow invited the lead agent into his kitchen for a cup of tea and a Bible study on principalities and powers. In 1969, Stringfellow endorsed the Black Power petition for reparations, which he considered a minimal response on the part of the Episcopal Church; the Presiding Bishop and General Convention agreed to consider the petition—a moment that some historians consider the beginning of the dramatic decline in Episcopal church attendance.
2 Stringfellow’s considerable oeuvre is well represented in A Keeper of the Word: Select Writings of William Stringfellow, edited by his student, colleague, and friend Bill Wylie Kellermann (Eerdmans, 1994). Wylie Kellerman is former rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Detroit, founder of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE), water rights activist, and the author of several works including Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Explorations in Liturgical Direct Action, 2nd ed. (Orbis, 2008), and Principalities in Particular: A Practical Theology of the Powers That Be (Fortress Press, 2017).
3 Lawrence Kohlberg popularized a theory of moral development in Essays in Moral Development (2 vols., 1981) The Philosophy of Moral Development (1981), and The Psychology of Moral Development (1984). George Layoﬀ has applied a simplified version of the theory to understanding U.S. political divisions in Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (1996).
4 A significant body of scholarship looks to modern psychological studies of the symptomatology of oppression, as under colonial or military occupation, as documented by Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (ET 1963);, and Ignácio Martín-Baró, Writings for a Liberation Psychology (ET 1994). (Martín-Baró was one of the Jesuit academics murdered by U.S.-trained Salvadoran security forces on Nov. 16, 1989.) On Jesus as exorcist, Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist (1993); Horsley, Jesus and Magic (2014).
5 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (ET 1963).
6 Read the entire statement at www.reclaimingjesus.org.
7 Agence France-Presse, “UN says US must stop separating migrant children from parents,” The Guardian, June 5, 2018. As the UN spokesperson observed, ours is the only nation in the world not to have signed onto the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
8 Masha Gessen, “Taking Children from their Parents is a Form of State Terror,” New Yorker, May 9, 2018.
9 A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security spoke on “All Things Considered” the week of June 3, describing the zero-tolerance policy as “required” by U.S. law; he couldn’t explain why no previous administration or legislature had drawn the same conclusion. The Attorney General has defended the measure as a necessary “deterrent” against undocumented immigration (Eli Rosenberg, “Sessions defends separating immigrant parents and children,” Washington Post, June 5, 2018).
10 The Southern Poverty Law Center documented a spike in xenophobic harassment and hate crimes, often linked explicitly to Trump, already in the ten days after his election: https://www.splcenter.org/20161129/ten-days-after-harassment-and-intimidation-aftermath-election.
11 Immigration attorneys and ISAIAH representatives were among witnesses who testified before a committee of the Minnesota Senate in Spring 2018 hearings on a bill to make “sanctuary” policies illegal. Attorneys pointed out that there was no legal definition of “sanctuary” and that the fundamental human rights announced in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution (and subsequent jurisprudence) are never conditioned on U.S. citizenship. One senator scolded the witnesses for invoking the Bible, insisting that she could quote scripture, too: “Be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1).
12 For a convenient list of relevant passages, see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2011/06/biblical-injunctions-regarding-aliens-in-our-midst/.