They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
Mark 1:21-28, The Message translation
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]I have devout Christian friends who often post on Facebook about battling with Satan, detecting Satan’s presence in a stalled car or an unsent email. I say this not mockingly; most often, the friends report Satan’s presence as resulting in an internal battle that is waged between feelings of angry frustration and calm acceptance. In this way, their beliefs are very similar to the true meaning of jihad, the internal struggle that unfolds when we wrestle with our emotions in the face of adversity.
These friends, in the main, believe that literal demons must be expelled from a person; that is, external forces that can overtake our bodies and distract us from the work of God must be expunged. On the whole, I do not share this pneumatology. But the Bible speaks of demons. Is there another way to frame their existence?
For some of us Christians, battling demons means facing our belief that demons are not real.
The Greek word translated as Satan is Σατανᾶς (satanas), and literally means “adversary.” Well before Satan became a red skinned, impish demon with a bifurcated tail that carried a trident, Satan was understood to be that which sets itself against God, an adversary or a stumbling block. Through popular imagination, demons (δαιμόνιον or daimonion) and the devil (διάβολος or diabolos) became conflated. Satan and the devil are treated as one and the same, and demons are minions of pure evil. In truth, the word διάβολος means “slanderer” or “accuser,” and often takes on the connotation of being a treacherous accuser.
The biblical evidence, when removed from the context of Dante and Milton, reveals an understanding of evil as internal in origin.
Each one of us, endowed with free will, has choices to make in our lives; we can give in to the forces of selfishness, greed, indifference, violence, and anger. Or we can choose compassion, patience, love, and understanding.
Expelling demons, then, is not the work of a priest who chants incantations and prayers over our bodies, but rather the diligent investigation of the self, an internal journey into the heart of what it means to be human. If we are created in the image of God, who are we to be? How are we to act? For Christians, that is revealed definitively in the person of Jesus Christ.
Yet, objectors will note, the Gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus expelling demons. And this is most true. As the preeminent biblical scholar of blessed memory, Dr. Marcus Borg, pointed out, a central part of Jesus’ identity is that of an exorcist. But when we look at exorcism passages, we notice a most human experience. The demons know who Jesus is—prophet, teacher, preacher, healer, messiah—and they “accuse” him. They attempt to be adversaries to the work of God. Yet Jesus calls them out.
So, too, when we follow in the Jesus Way, are we able to call out those forces that keep us from good self-care, compassion toward others, and justice-orientated work. In God, we are able to indict ourselves, to see that which we need to rectify and reconcile. We are able to drive out those demons that plague us.
I know people who swear that literal, physical demons exist. And I do not deny the possibility. There is much I have not seen, and the spiritual realities of the world are incredibly complex.
In my own experience, though, I see demon possession as being allegorical for the internal battle we all must wage when we pick up our crosses and follow Christ. The stories of Jesus expelling demons are very truthful to me, even if I doubt their factual veracity (at least if we understand the demons to be external forces under the control of a Satan that resides in hell).
Regardless of our particular pneumatological hermeneutics, it is clear that we need one another for strength and support. Living into the light can sometimes seem impossible when we are cloaked in darkness. That is precisely the time when God sends people into our midst to help show the way.
The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, currently serving First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, a More Light PC (USA) congregation in Ohio. An academic, Aaron has taught at numerous universities and is best known for his book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. He is passionate about social justice and interfaith, ecumenical work. He also serves as Interfaith Campus Minister at Sinclair Community College.
Image Credit: “Put on your Happy Face” by Flickr user Simon.