Never Pray Again

Never Pray Again May 25, 2014

The bloggers at Two Friars and a Fool have written a book, Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get To Work, and I was invited to participate in a blog tour about it. See their interview with Carol Howard Merritt for more general information about the book, as well as the publisher’s website.

The chapter I was asked to blog about is “Expel!” The authors suggest that most readers no longer live in a “demon-haunted world” (using Carl Sagan’s famous phrase), and note the strangeness of the “selective spirituality” one will often encounter – since many who do not believe in demons may still think there are “guardian angels” (p.38).

The authors then proceed to take the story of the Gerasene demoniac as a jumping off point, laden as it is with symbolism of empire and occupation, and in conjunction with the work of Walter Wink, to offer a “postmodern demonology” that seeks to tackle societal and structural evils which are every bit as real and as pernicious as demons were once thought to be.

Some of the statements made in this context are striking. For instance (p.42):

The proper response to demonic possession is exorcism. You don’t make friends with a demon. You cast it out. Those who have been dominated don’t need to sympathize with their oppressor, they need liberty. The practice of expelling demons is about judging the fallen powers for what they are and extricating yourself from their influence.We are so deeply locked in and bought in to the Domination System that we don’t see it. We’re fish, and demonic enslavement is our water. It’s everywhere, in everything, and so we are blind to it…

The expulsion of the money changers is then likened to an exorcism.

I had a mixed reaction to the language used. On the one hand, it powerfully pinpoints and exposes the character of domination, and offers a demythologized way to take the language of the demonic seriously in relation to it. On the other hand, we see Jesus rejecting one possible approach to the “exorcism” of powers in his time. He doesn’t drive out the Romans, despite that being what many hoped he would do. He seems to have realized that the only way to drive out oppression is to transform the oppressor and the oppressed alike, lest the latter kill the former and merely become them in the process.

To be fair, the authors show themselves to be aware of this slightly later in the chapter, and we are soon presented with an anecdote about lending support to an abuser, himself a victim of abuse, in the interest of offering support that undermines the attempt to excuse abuse by appeal to the status of victim.

Nonetheless, I found myself wondering about the impact of treating what were once thought to be personal beings as symbols of the evils which result from our individual and corporate actions and interactions as human beings. How are we to do justice to the fact that evil is not just something from which we need to be liberated, but an aspect of our inmost selves as they come to be expressed in thoughts and actions? I am not sure that we can consistently find ways to “hate the demonic but love the demon” (to echo a popular but problematic Christian phrase). But even if the application requires serious thought as to how it may appropriately be fleshed out, it is clear, after reading the chapter, that the authors are seeking to apply Jesus’ vision of liberation from the demonic to our present day. Liberation comes not by destroying human enemies, but by showing the dominating and the dominated a path to transformation that allows us to become equals and implement justice.

The chapter’s point about challenging systemic demons is consistently on target, and perhaps nowhere is the classic language of “casting out” demons more apt than in this paragraph on p.45:

It is not too much to say that we in the post-industrial West live in a throw-away culture. Through standards like planned obsolescence and the focus on cheap goods made by the modern equivalent of slave labor in the global South, and sold in ubiquitous big-box stores heaped with consumer goods for us to gather up and take home, the main thing that our culture currently produces is not scientific breakthroughs or new inventions or music or art – it is garbage.

Precisely because the demons under discussion are not persons, the image of casting them into a lake of fire becomes less a morally problematic one, and more a pure symbol of liberation. While picturing oppressive people being subjected to eternal torture can make one feel good, it ultimately is revealed to be a form of oppression itself. But consigning oppression in the abstract to an ever-burning garbage heap outside Jerusalem is a different matter.

The book club began while I was traveling with students in Israel – a place where systems of oppression, hatred, and violence cannot be eliminated by destroying people but by discovering a different way of being, one that begins by the exposing of the demonic in the way things are. I wish I had found the time to read this chapter while I was there. But now, having gotten to it after my return, I am eager to read the rest of the book. For those of us who have at some point in our lives been steeped in a spirituality that does little other than pray, never fundamentally challenging or changing the structures that are our demythologized powers that be, this book is a breeze of fresh air. I look forward to the conversations that will continue across the blogosphere as others read and join in the conversation!

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