There is a poignant story in the gospel of Mark where Jesus encounters a young man tormented by a demon.
The boy’s father, who desperately wants Jesus’ disciples to help him, has reached the point of exhaustion. The disciples cannot free the man’s son from the demon. The simple question we face at this moment in the United States is can we be freed from our demons?
The murders of Alton B. Sterling, Philando Castile, the five Dallas police officers, and the other black men killed last week who did not make the news show us our oppression. The problem with invoking the demonic is that such invocation has been used as a rhetorical band-aid to cover a wound far too serious to imagine recovery. Yet we must invoke the demonic now not to cover over what Wendell Berry called the racial wound but in order to understand the kind of resistance we face to our liberation.
“Racial antagonism structures our imaginations as does our love of weapons. The former creates our enemies, and the latter constructs a false sense of independence and freedom.”
I don’t know if we Americans, especially Christians in America, want to be freed from our demons. The late New Testament scholar Walter Wink defined the demonic as an array of human and supra-human forces aligned to destroy life. The demonic was both individual and structural, personal and collective, sentient and mechanical. Wink’s expansive way of writing about the demonic sought to capture the dynamic interplay of our being oppressed by evil and our making ourselves tools for evil’s use. Some yield to evil, and others receive the suffering inflicted by such yielding.
The demonic moves in and through human interactions, social processes, and ways of thinking and acting so deeply inculcated in us that we could rightly call them ways of being possessed. The demons hide right out in the open. The words of the famous song, Demons by the band Imagine Dragons, remind us that we don’t have to look too hard to find the demons:
I wanna hide the truth
I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside
There’s nowhere we can hide
No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
Walter Wink said that in order to overcome demons you must name, unmask and engage them. So let me name three demons that must be faced. There is the demon that hides in our diversity as a society and fosters racial antagonism. There is the demon that hides in our love of weapons and our myth of independence and makes us worshippers of guns. Finally, there is the demon that hides in our concern for safety and addicts us to fear and forms our obsession with barriers. We all understand these demons, but what we fail to admit to ourselves is that our demons are useful—and no one really wants to get rid of a useful demon.
These demons make us money.
Politicians, pundits, news outlets and advertisers all play with the tensions, conflicts and frustrations between black and white people. They use racial antagonism to boost ratings, to draw attention to their products and to keep viewers. We are constantly afflicted by the media with yet another “conversation” between opposing racial viewpoints that yields no light and generates no new ideas. Its only purpose is to increase our consumptive desire for more such interactions. We need interaction and conversation, but these endless media events offer us nothing to build on. They only set us up for the commercials that dance between the comments.
“We have learned to structure our fear geographically and unleash it through police violence set up to protect our spaces. Land developers, civil engineers, city planners, real estate agencies, builders, insurance companies and a whole host of others all profit from our barrier-building and fear-mongering.”
Racial antagonism structures our imaginations, as does our love of weapons. The former creates our enemies, and the latter constructs a false sense of independence and freedom.
One of my neighbors was in a Target store recently and encountered a man wearing a holstered gun. When asked by my neighbor why he carried this gun in Target of all places, the man—neither a police officer nor a security guard—said that he needed to take care of himself. Yet guns have never created independence, only entrapment. Too many people in this country believe the myth that a gun frees me from those who I fear and who I hate. This old myth fuels the worship of the gun and its unprecedented record sales in this country.
We imagine the gun creating a barrier around my land and my body, my home and my people, protecting me from any form of invasion. While safety is a legitimate concern, a gun carried by a scared police officer or a scared customer in Target does not insure it. We create barriers by the way we construct neighborhoods, carve up communities, and channel resources, goods and services along racial lines. Such barriers feed our fears and teach us to live comfortably in the racial lies that have guided the thinking of so many Americans for centuries. We have learned to structure our fear geographically and unleash it through police violence set up to protect our spaces. Land developers, civil engineers, city planners, real estate agencies, builders, insurance companies and a whole host of others all profit from our barrier-building and fear-mongering.
“We have been in a racial cold war for centuries, and now a real war beckons us.”
Our way forward? Exhaustion. The only way to free ourselves of these demons is to reach utter exhaustion, and come to the point where the money we make through race and violence is less compelling than the desire for life together, life truly joined in common hope of flourishing. Sadly, I don’t believe we have reached the point of exhaustion yet.
But make no mistake, we are headed for exhaustion. We have been in a racial cold war for centuries, and now a real war beckons us. We are headed toward the moment when we all fully embrace the condition of perpetual war where the only thing that we share is a quest for money and unbelief in the possibility that people will change.
Of course, some of us are already exhausted, and we would all do well to remember the words of Jesus to his disciples when they asked why they could not cast the demon out of the young man. His response was “this kind comes out only by prayer.” Later, monastic scribes added the words “and fasting” to this verse, which I take to be a helpful amendment. Prayer and fasting in relation to our current moment in this country translates into refusing to listen to voices that drive our racial antagonism and instead listening for those voices that speak our hopes. It also means finally entering the kind of fasting that we Americans have refused.
We need a gun fasting. It is time to give up guns. We need not only prohibitions against war weapons in our streets, but also gun-buy-back programs, and gun-destruction community parties. Yet more than these, we need new police practices that make the use of guns the absolute last resort. More than all of this, we need to declare a time of an actual gun fast. No more hunting, shooting competitions, gun sports, range shooting practice, gun buying, gun shows, etc., until we see a 50 percent reduction in gun violence in this country. I would prefer to see Christians give up their guns, but for so many such a request feels like giving up a family member, their culture, their identity. So let’s take a smaller step: fast.
A holy fast clarifies one thing: that one’s love of God and neighbor is more important than the things we need for life and health. It is time for us to show such love by denying ourselves something we need neither for life or health—our weapons. Every Christian in this country ought to make a solemn vow today to either get rid of their weapons or to put them away.
I have been in turmoil not only because of the shooting of these two black men, but because of the killing of these police officers by a young black man. Yet the temptation to hate and to kill is real. Like so many black men, I have never had a positive experience with an on-duty police officer, even though I have always been a law-abiding citizen. Only my love for God and my love for my neighbor—including police officers—keeps me from hate. But that temptation to hate and kill is profoundly present to us all at this moment.
The demons tempt us to violence, but there has always been a way to resist that temptation. We must follow the way of a God who will not release us either to our demons or to our despair.