The gospel of Mark shows Jesus confronting the underlying evils that get into human life. Let’s call them “unclean spirits” [Mark 1:2]. And before we start pretending that we modern people are so much more enlightened than our ancestors, consider how of late we understand the world at large. We may not often speak of demons and devils at work, but when we see the chaos we face we have no trouble blaming malignant forces working behind the scenes, whether that means the conservatives or the liberals or the Russians or the Chinese or the hate groups or the Koch brothers or Monsanto or CNN or Fox News or the 1% or whoever.
Also notice that those dug-in manipulators of human life are just fine with business as usual. They are quite comfortable doing what they do. It’s only when Jesus shows up that the trouble begins, and the demons know it and throw a tantrum.
“They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” [Mark 1:21-25]
When evil is confronted and told to go away, there will be convulsions and shouting, and maybe what we are living through is the exit of a whole lot of long-term resident demons from the body politic. That would be a good thing.
But Jesus also tells a parable about such confrontations, and it’s a good idea to keep it in mind.
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” [Matthew 12:43-45]
Remember that evil does not belong in the human soul, or anywhere in God’s world. It works like a squatter who finds an empty place and settles in, slowly destroying all that is around it. Yet squatters can be turned out, even when they have taken over.
We are facing an opioid-addiction crisis right now. It’s serious. More people are dying per year in Pennsylvania by overdose than died of AIDS-related illness any year during that epidemic. Thirty years ago, we faced a surge of addiction when crack became available and there are a lot of similarities. Let me share a story about that, and about how Jesus works to bring wholeness, not just in the past, but in our own day.
At the time that crack cocaine appeared on the streets, I was with the Frankford Group Ministry, which was four United Methodist churches who worked together closely in that section of Philadelphia. Two blocks down from Central United Methodist Church there was a row of houses that was owned by an absentee landlord who lived in Florida and did not particularly care what happened up here as long as the rent was collected regularly. The neighbors did care. The church cared. We had kids who came to our after-school program who lived in two of those houses. Let me add that the school also cared, and so did the business-owners who backed up to these places. They had become crack houses. People were going in, smoking a pipe or two, then spreading out into the neighborhood, desperate to find money for their next hit. Prostitution was up, and disease with it. Robbery and burglary were up. And, just like today, babies were being born, addicted to illegal drugs from the womb. Have you ever held a child like that? The withdrawal symptoms linger on for years, and the side-effects for a lifetime.
The neighbors came to the church to ask for help. The church contacted the city’s Bureau of Licensing and Inspection, and they went through those buildings with a fine-tooth comb. Six months later, when there had been no proof of remediation on the many violations they cited, we loaded up this old junker of a 21-seat church bus and drove down to Center City with signs and matching T-shirts to attend what would otherwise have been a routine license approval hearing. The judge who was presented with the list of code violations looked up at the group and said, “This isn’t about the missing smoke alarms, is it?” then proceeded to issue the maximum fine for every item on the list. Three months later, the fines were still unpaid, but a deal had been worked out whereby the properties were donated to Habitat for Humanity, squatters were evicted, and owners-to-be worked sided-by-side with volunteers to rehabilitate the houses and make them into homes.
Even so, let me say this: that was a partial victory only. There is also the question of the people who had squatted there. Are they not also like empty houses where something terrible was happening? They moved somewhere else, but their problems went with them.
It is not enough simply to address their drug use or anyone else’s and say, “Stop!” although you have to begin there. You have to ask what it was that led them to make the foolish decision to start down that path and then address that; hence Jesus’ warning that if you don’t keep watch, the demons’ return is worse than the original situation. Until someone is given hope of a way out of poverty, both economic poverty and poverty of the spirit, they will stay stuck. Until someone grasps the depth of their dignity as a child of God, they will lack the self-respect to say, “No,” to someone who would draw them into self-destructive ways. Until people hear that message clearly and unambiguously, we’ll just go from one addiction crisis to another. “Just say no,” doesn’t prevent anything. “You are better than that, and here’s why,” is what makes a difference.
Nor is it just about drug addiction. There are all sorts of situations where you might look at someone and say, “What has gotten into you?” Maybe you’re looking into the mirror when you say that. I could suggest a list of unwelcome visitors that we nevertheless invite: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. The seven deadly sins open the door to a world of chaos, and they’re always lurking there just beneath the surface like a virus in the system that stay dormant until some moment of weakness lets it latch onto a vital organ and endanger someone’s life.
But there are also questions we ask at baptism which, if you ask yourself at those moments, will be of great help:
“Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they may present themselves?”
and, with that,
“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior [meaning, among other things, that you are not able or expected to save yourself] and put your whole trust in his grace [again, meaning that he is both capable and willing to do the job]?”
As somebody pointed out long ago and far away,
“He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey.” [Mark 1:28]