A Fight on Our Hands

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 4
January 28, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Jesus' exorcism of an unclean spirit teaches us about the spiritual dimension to evil and the role of the church in fighting evil.

What do we do when we see a great evil? What actions do we take in the face of brutal injustice? Bryan Stevenson decided to dedicate his life to fighting injustice. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he started the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization that investigates cases where people had endured wrongful convictions by the courts. The EJI specializes in death penalty cases. He wrote a book entitled Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.1 The book centers around the case of Walter McMillian, an Alabama man falsely convicted of murder, but several other people appear in the book, highlighting the wide extent of the problem.

One man's fight against injustice

In November of 1986, someone murdered a young woman named Ronda in a dry-cleaning store in Monroeville, Alabama. The only daughter of a prominent family in town, Ronda seemed an unlikely crime victim. The town felt outrage. As the weeks and months ticked by with no arrest, law enforcement began to feel the pressure. An illiterate man named Ralph implicated Walter in Ronda's murder. The story had gigantic holes in it, but with no other suspects, the police pursued Walter as the murderer. The police had evidence that Ralph and Walter had never met, but they ignored it. Having anyone in custody quieted the pressure from the town. The sheriff made the outrageous move of putting Walter in the death row unit of an Alabama prison while he awaited trial. No legal precedent allowed a prisoner to languish on death row awaiting a trial, but Walter had to endure such suffering.

Walter's trial lasted only a day, with a public defender who made no effort to point out the absurdity of the case against him. Stevenson took on Walter's case after his guilty verdict. Stevenson worked tirelessly to demonstrate the flaws in Walter's case. Despite compelling evidence that Walter had not committed the crime, the appellate courts turned down every avenue for Walter's release.

Stevenson and Walter faced a maze of problems: racism, apathy, the mendacity of the media who portrayed Walter as an obvious criminal, closed mindedness and a justice system more interested in getting the case off its plate than in finding justice.

In the rest of the book, Stevenson lays out the many other problems he faced, such as the depersonalization of allowing male guards to gawk at women prisoners taking showers. In one prison, even the chaplain was guilty of sexual misconduct with the women. The lack of available health care for pregnant women caused miscarriages that were labeled as murder, sending grieving women to prison because their babies died. Other attorneys doing the same kind of work had died by receiving bombs in the mail. Stevenson himself received bomb threats.

A reader of the book might look at these problems and see how they intersect. The problems and the evil behind them seemed to feed on each other. The reader can look at the underlying problems and call them for what they are, the evil of the world. We can call them the things that ruin our lives and keep us from finding fellowship with each other. Racism, misogyny, apathy, antipathy toward the poor and, of course, the murder itself that set everything in motion -- these all form part of the evil of the world.

Jesus' exorcism of an unclean spirit

Mark presents a story about evil that may seem strange to our eyes and ears. While Jesus teaches in the synagogue in Capernaum, a man with an unclean spirit confronts him. The unclean spirit within the man seems to act as a kind of "spokesdemon" for the whole panoply of unclean spirits. It's as though this spirit drew the short straw to take the fight to Jesus on behalf of all the others.

His first words issue the challenge, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" Just to be clear, that's trash talk. This unclean spirit seems to want to put an end to Jesus' ministry before it even started. The narrative does not make clear exactly what the unclean spirit had in mind for this encounter. Did the spirit want to intimidate Jesus, scare him into running off or warn him of the consequences of continuing his work? Did this spirit come to issue the equivalent of a bomb threat? Later in the Gospel of Mark, a storm arises which threatens to kill Jesus and his followers. Because of the use of the word "rebuke," and the Old Testament belief that the sea was the home of demonic forces, as referenced in Daniel 7, the storm could be interpreted as an attack from the unclean spirits.2

Instead of intimidating Jesus or causing him to flee, the encounter ends with Jesus effortlessly casting the unclean spirit out of the man. Jesus displays his power over this unclean spirit and the whole collection of them. By placing the story near the beginning of his gospel, Mark identifies part of Jesus' mission as battling unclean spirits and the demonic world. A significant part of Jesus' mission in Mark is healing and exorcism.

The mission of the church

How do we as contemporary Christians in a scientific age understand passages like this from Mark? We cannot dismiss this passage as a fluke. The language of unclean spirits, demons and powers fills the New Testament. A version of this story itself appears in Luke as well as Mark.3 Matthew refers to the casting out of demons also.4 John refers to Satan as the "ruler of this earth"5 The author of Ephesians, from the Paul tradition, says that we need the whole armor of God because "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."6 Clearly, we must come to grips with this story and its understanding of the evil in the world.

We might acknowledge two extremes in the church. On the one hand, we have churches that hold exorcisms, even for curable illnesses. To that branch of the church, every bad thing is demonic. On the other extreme, we know of Christians who simply dismiss this language as pre-scientific superstition.

Perhaps we can take this language seriously without succumbing to the understanding of the first extreme. Perhaps the evil of the world has a spiritual dimension. Even if we cannot describe this spiritual dimension precisely, we can believe that the evil of the world comes from more than just what lies in the human heart. We would not argue with the behavioral sciences like psychology or sociology when they describe how awful people can become. Yet, can we affirm a spiritual dimension to the evil in the world?

As Stevenson's book might suggest, the evil of the world seems to work in tandem in surprising ways. Racism, misogyny, apathy, stubbornness all seem to fit together. Trying to fix the system seems like taking on something that resists our efforts. We would not want to say that the individuals involved in Walter's case were filled with "unclean spirits." Yet the problems of the world seem intractable, hard to defeat, even calculating. Every effort by Stevenson to secure Walter's freedom ran into roadblocks. Even when the national media noticed Stevenson's efforts and brought the problems to light, that effort had a downside in that it caused the people in the community to harden their opposition to Stevenson's efforts. Even after Stevenson won his day in court and convinced a judge of Walter's innocence, the system resisted any effort to compensate Walter. The system that existed to hold others accountable did not want accountability for itself.

Even if we lean toward the extreme position that holds the language of unclean spirits as mere metaphor, it is a helpful metaphor. The same problems seem to pop up regularly in life. As irrational as racism is, we cannot seem to put it behind us. We in the church should know that when we try to fight evil, great or small, we will have our hands full. At a minimum, we affirm that prayer and worship form part of the battle against evil. We pray for conditions in the world; we pray for the sick. We affirm a spiritual dimension to our problems in the world.

In Mark, Jesus wins the fight. He casts out the unclean spirit. In whatever way we understand this language, we trust that God will defeat evil in the long run, perhaps only in the final resurrection. This gives the church the challenge to fight evil where we find it. We may not devote our lives to trying to correct the justice system, but we can do what lies at hand. We take heart that Jesus won the battle that the unclean spirit brought to him. We tackle evil with courage, but also with hope. We accomplish what we can, and trust God with the big battle, however we understand that. We take heart that we do not fight alone.