Sunday 14 June 2020
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
In the Gospel of Matthew, the author organizes most of Jesus’s sayings into 5 compact, thematic sermons. The Gospels of Mark and Luke contain a lot of the same material, but it’s all sprinkled here and there around the gospel. Matthew edits Jesus’s words together into five big speeches. The first, and best known of them is the Sermon on the Mount, which takes up chapters 5-7, and covers the basic ethics of Jesus.
The second one starts here in the passage we have assigned today. It sends out the twelve apostles and gives them instructions for how they should do ministry. “Jesus called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirit to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness.” Jesus is about to send them out to do exactly the same things that he has been doing for the last two chapters: announcing good news, healing people, and casting out demons. They’ve been learning by example; now it’s time for them to try out what they have learned. It’s time for an internship, for some experiential learning.
Both Mark and Luke contain a version of this same story. They all say that Jesus sent the apostles out two-by-two, so they’d have a partner to help them. Matthew, though, actually tells us who went with whom. As Matthew names the apostles, he presents them in two-person mission groups. The first group is Peter and his brother Andrew. Then another set of brothers: James and John. Philip and Bartholomew go together. Then Thomas and Matthew. Thaddaeus goes with the other James. Finally, Simon the Cananaean, elsewhere known as Simon the Zealot, and Judas, Jesus’s betrayer. I sometimes wonder how the practicum went for that last pair. One of them came from a group that advocated the violent overthrow of the government, including through targeted assignation; the other one conspired with the governing authorities to arrest and crucify Jesus. I’m curious what that pair was like in the mission field.
Jesus sends them all out with some instructions: “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons.” Proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. Heal the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons.
Again, it’s all the things that Jesus has been doing himself. Healing, crossing social barriers, casting out demons, and announcing the nearness of God’s kingdom. Matthew calls it the kingdom of heaven. Both Mark and Luke say the kingdom of God. Matthew seems to have a special reverence for God’s name, and so chooses a different word, heaven. But it can be confusing for readers. By the kingdom of heaven, Matthew does not mean something that is far away or something that we enter after we die. The kingdom of heaven is the way that God’s realm is invading our world, the way that heaven is being made manifest right here on earth. When we talk about the kingdom of heaven, we are not talking about something that happens in heaven. Instead, we are talking about something that the forces of heaven do on earth. We are always speaking of the “on earth as it is in heaven.”
And so, when we talk about the kingdom of heaven, we are talking about precisely the things that Jesus sent his apostles out to do. The kingdom of heaven is characterized by the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, the breaking down of social barriers, and the casting out of demons. It is those things that build up the human spirit and the human community. It is those things which draw the world toward God.
And the one I want to focus on today is the throwing out of demons. That’s not usually what I would focus on. In fact, the casting out of demons is usually the part of the passage that I would just gloss over. Because we don’t tend to believe in demons, do we? At least not in the way that the ancients did. They thought that the whole world, and everything in and around it, was animated by spirits of various kinds. Good spirits, evil spirits, even someone indifferent spirits. But they thought of nearly everything as being possessed by spirit. It wasn’t just Christians and Jews who thought this way, it was many others as well. Just as real as the physical world was the spiritual world, maybe even more real.
But that is not how we tend to understand the world. For us, it is the physical world that constitutes the real world. Most objects are inanimate—that is, they don’t have any spirit. Most phenomenon are explained by scientifically measurable processes, not through the work of invisible beings. When we sin, it is the result of a bad choice, not the temptation of an evil spirit. What the ancients called demonic possession, we understand as a chemical imbalance in the brain, and instead of treating it with exorcism, we generally recommend medication or talk therapy.
Demons and demonic possession are generally not part of our modern understandings of the world. Except for the occasional horror movie, in which demons are always battled by Roman Catholic priests, we hardly use the language or imagery of demons at all.
References to the devil or demons aren’t very common in our prayers or liturgies, either. The closest we usually come is in the baptismal vows. The Lutheran version includes the words, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” The Methodist version says, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” Spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers of this world are pretty broad terms. One could imagine what they actually mean in a number of different ways. I’m guessing that most of us don’t imagine them as actual spiritual beings, called demons, who move about and act in our world.
That is certainly not how I tend to imagine the world. I suppose I am usually agnostic when in comes to the devil. I don’t tend to think that it is necessary to think that the devil exists, nor is it necessary to think that the devil doesn’t exist. But either way, the devil does not take up an important place in my faith or its practice. It seems like it is enough to renounce evil and to resist the forces that defy God. I don’t generally find it interesting or useful to speculate about whether those forces are actual spiritual beings or something else. It sounds a bit fanciful, and I don’t see how it is particularly necessary. After all, isn’t the idea of the devil just a way of excusing my own bad behavior.
Or perhaps the line from French philosopher Charles Baudelaire, made famous in the movie, The Usual Suspects, is true: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world that he doesn’t exist. Because there may be a negative side-effect for those like me who tend not to believe in a devil or demons. It can lead us to forget that there are in fact spiritual forces of wickedness at all. It can lead us to believe that sin and evil are really just the direct result of sinful or evil human choices. And I wonder if that can provide a rather naïve notion of sin and evil. Because perhaps evil is bigger and more cunning than just the automatic result of human choices.
What I mean to say is that—whether or not there are really demons out there—there are some forms of evil that function as though they were demons. That is to say, they function on a scope much larger than conscious human choices. They act as if they have their own consciousness. They behave as if they could plot and plan and scheme for themselves.
And one of those demons is the evil of racism. Until recently, when many white people heard the word racism, we thought of hooded klansmen or swastika-waving Nazis. We thought of racism as an intention act, motivated by racial hatred, that was designed and intended to inflict harm on someone because of their race. In other words, unless someone was willing to say that they in fact hated other people because of their race and that they were actively working to harm or hold other people back because of their race, then it was not racism. A cross-burning in front of the house of a black family is racist. Using a racial slur is probably racist, but maybe not if it was intended as a joke. But the fact that black and brown students are 10% less likely to graduate high school than white students isn’t racist, because it doesn’t proceed directly from an act of hatred. That was the logic.
And so it was easy to imagine that racism doesn’t exist. I, as a white person, don’t see overt acts of racism happening. I don’t think of myself as being racist. And after all, we had a black president. Doesn’t that mean that racism is over and done. Yeah, there might be a few ignorant people out there still waving the racist banner, but surely that’s a small minority. It makes me wonder if the greatest trick racism ever pulled was convincing white people that it doesn’t exist.
In the wake of the public deaths of so many black and brown people in the last few years, some of us have begun to see things differently. The death of George Floyd has seemed to be a turning point, after which the majority can no longer pretend that racism doesn’t exist. Many white people are only now coming to terms with our own whiteness and the ways that our whiteness privileges us and harms others. We are learning about concepts like white normativity, white privilege, white supremacy, and white fragility.
White normativity is the assumption that many or most white people have that our lived reality is not white, it’s normal. It’s the assumption that the white way is really just the normal, American way. We don’t think of ourselves as white, but just as people, or just as Americans. And it means that when people deviate from the white “normal,” they are seen as somehow not fully American. The American melting pot means that “new” people should abandon their old culture and conform to mine. But I never have to think of myself as white, because I don’t acknowledge how my whiteness makes me different than others. I don’t have to acknowledge my whiteness at all. I just think of myself as normal. That’s why we can talk about ethnic food, but we don’t really talk about white food. That’s white normativity.
White privilege is the idea that because of my whiteness, I am afforded certain privileges that are not afforded to people who are not white. Doors open for me that don’t open for others. I am given the benefit of the doubt when others are not. And here’s the deal, I don’t have to ask for that privilege; I get it whether I ask for it or not. I don’t even have to accept the privilege. In fact, most of the time I can’t even tell that I’m receiving that privilege. Our society is sufficiently segregated that I may never see a person of color not receiving the privilege that I think of as just normal. And in fact, the person who is dealing out white privilege may not consciously acknowledge that that’s what they’re doing. No one on the hiring team thinks that they’re being racist, but somehow those résumés for Jerome and Antione and LaKisha never seem to make it to the interview stage. That’s white privilege. It happens even when the white people involved don’t think they are being racist or prejudiced.
White supremacy. It sounds like something that only exists in some militia camp in Northern Idaho, but it isn’t. White supremacy is all of the systems and structures in society that ensure that white people remain in control of society. Even if we got rid of all of the people who actually admit to being white supremacists, white supremacy would still be there, because it’s been baked into the system. White supremacy isn’t even all that threatened when a few people of color achieve great things or take on positions of power, because then it can claim that system really isn’t racist. We have a black president. That must mean racism is over. But that hides the fact that white supremacy is still very much intact.
Think about this: we have the most diverse Congress ever. In fact, the way some news outlets report it, you would think the entire Congress is made up of just women of color. 31% of the US population is white men. 31%. In the most diverse US Congress in history, what percentage of US Senators do you think are white men? Got that number locked into your head? It’s 69%. White men are 31% of the population, and we’re 69% of the senate. That means we’re getting 223% of the representation that we should have, all things being equal. But all things aren’t equal. When you look at men and women across all of Congress, it’s not quite as bad. White people are 61% of the population and 78% of Congress. We’re getting 128% of the representation we should have, all things being equal. The numbers are about the same in the police force: 77% white. White supremacy is the system and structures that keep white people in power to a greater degree than our numbers would warrant.
Finally, white fragility. If you haven’t already, pick up the book by Robin Diangelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. It’s really good for helping us unpack our dysfunctional relationship with race. I’ll quote just a small bit. Diangelo notes that “After the civil rights movement, to be a good, moral person and to be complicit with racism became mutually exclusive. You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist.” This meant that racism was defined as only overt acts of racial hatred. Good people weren’t racist. Only bad people were racist. She continues, “While making racism bad seems like a positive change, we have to look at how this functions in practice. Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow—a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go—to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior. In this way, the good/bad binary makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us, and the inevitable ways that we are conditioned to participate in it. If we cannot discuss these dynamics or see ourselves within them, we cannot stop participating in racism. The good/bad binary made it effectively impossible for the average white person to understand—much less interrupt—racism” (72).
White normativity, white privilege, white supremacy, white fragility—this is what I mean by saying that racism acts like a demon. It is working even when we don’t notice it and even when we don’t think we’re a part of it. It causes harm while simultaneously convincing us that no harm was committed, or if it was, it’s just an outlier, and certainly I am not a part of the problem.
But in the last few years, and especially in the last few weeks, racism’s camouflage has started to fail. More and more white folks are beginning to see it for what it is. We are beginning to be able to acknowledge its presence and call it by name. We are beginning to allow ourselves to hear the stories of the lived experience of people of color and to actually listen, actually believe. Footage from a cell phone has forced us to acknowledge what was there all along, but we refused to see. We can see the demon, and we can name it racism. And it is time to cast it out.
It won’t be easy. After all, it’s been possessing this country for more than 400 years. And people have tried to exorcize it before, but it keeps coming back, more clever, more subtle, more crafty, pulling that greatest trick of convincing us that it does not exist.
It is not something that white people can do for people of color, as some kind of gift or charity. A benefactor still holds on to the power. But it isn’t something that people of color can do without white people changing, either. Somehow, someway, we must do it together.
For me, as a white person, that means acknowledging my own whiteness and learning about the ways that it effects how I perceive and move through the world. It means acknowledging and pointing out the very real harm that racism does—it’s a matter of life and death. It means going out of my way to listen sympathetically to the voices of people of color—not by demanding answers to my racial guilt or shame, but by doing my best to hear people speaking from their own contexts. It means decentering myself to allow space for others. It means doing what I can to acknowledge and renounce my privilege. It means doing the hard work of self-reflection to see the ways that I am racist and the ways that I participate in racism even when I don’t actively intend to. And it means accepting that it is going to be messy, and I am going to screw up over and over again. I’m going to feel uncomfortable, and even when I try my best to do the right thing, it won’t always be the right thing. Sometimes when I try to help, it will hurt. And just when I think I have escaped it, I need to be willing to see where it still has hold of me.
And as our baptismal vows tell us, it means accepting the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. It means renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of this world, and repenting of our sin. It means renouncing the devil and all the forces that defy God.
Jesus gathered them and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. He told them to proclaim the presence of the kingdom of heaven, to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons.
We have seen the demon of racism. We are beginning to name it and to recognize its features. By the power of Jesus Christ, let us cast it out. By the power of Jesus Christ, let us cast it out. By the power of Jesus Christ, let us cast it out.