What Have You to Do With Us?: Demons and Authority
Episode 2 – February 2, 2018
Belle of the Fall – “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding?” (Nick Lowe Cover)
Arbirk – “Love is in Despair”
Reading No. 1
Mark 1:21-28 – Jesus Casts out an Impure Spirit
Read by Margaret Burkholder from Cochrane, Ontario
Reading No. 2
“On Laws” from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Love for the World
Part of each episode of the Living Presence Podcast will feature a section where we lift up people and places who can use our alliance, our attention and some hope. (If you are from a United Church, this would be similar to “Prayers of the People” or “Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession”).
The idea and our hope are that listeners from all over can send in the people and places they would like to bring to our attention, and I would love it if YOU would consider sending something in to be aired. You can either a) record something with the voice recorder app on your phone and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org OR b) call 289-903-0019 and leave a voicemail OR c) Leave a written comment and I will read it on the air.
THIS WEEK WE LIFT UP:
- The staff and their families from Save the Children in Afghanistan
- The Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nations
- People of East Gwillimbury
- The family and friends of those in Toronto’s Gay Village who are saddened by the murders of 5 (and probably more) men from their community
So…demons…yay! I heard one commentator last year refer to this story as just a “run of the mill” exorcism and I remember thinking at the time, “Holy crap – like, what kind of work are you in where any kind of exorcism is just ‘run of the mill’???”
But demons…what kind of demons? Are we talking about actual, literal, spiritual beings? Metaphorical demons? Does it matter?
Now, it’s very possible that I might have a different relationship to the word “demon” than most people. My very first childhood pet was named “Demon”. Demon was a tiny little tortoiseshell cat. She wasn’t very intimidating. But she did have an unfortunate habit of pooping in my uncle’s shoe when he came to visit. Just his shoe. Nobody else’s and nobody knows why. But she was very cute and, contrary to the opinion of my uncle, she certainly wasn’t evil. I even wrote a song about this legendary Cat and Man rivalry for my children, and I’ll post it with the show notes on the Living Presence Ministry website.
I spent some time this week thinking about the different ways we, speaking from a Western, English speaking perspective, represent or personify evil…the different kinds of demons we wrestle with throughout literature, film and other aspects of popular culture.
We have our personal demons, like the Dementors in the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling has commented many times that the Dementors – tall, cloaked, scaly creatures that chill the air and make everybody around them feel as if they will never be happy again – are a personification of the depression and despair she experienced while living on social assistance as a single mother after the breakdown of her marriage. Dementors can literally suck your soul, a fate we’re reminded often throughout the series, is worse than death.
And then, there is the representation of systemic demons, like the Pale Man in the Guillermo del Toro film, Pan’s Labyrinth. According to del Toro, the Pale Man represents “institutional evil feeding on the helpless”, and that it is no coincidence that this demon like character is both pale in skin color and identified as male. There’s also the Black Riders in the Lord of the Rings series, with Tolkien using the Nazgul to represent humankind’s susceptibility to the demons of power and greed.
And then, our existential demons, like perhaps the Nothing in the Neverending story, representing apathy, and our unfortunate tendency to discount creativity and imagination.
There’s also an intersection of these three distinct concepts of demons – the systemic injustice often leads to individual despair. Apathy allows for the the rise of those seeking power at the expense of others. But, it’s easier to think of these abstract concepts – these demons – as evil characters. And thinking of them as characters also makes it easier to imagine that they can be defeated. It’s easier to battle something we can see and recognize. At least we’ve got a shot at getting rid of them.
What’s interesting about all these characters is that they are not merely “bad guys”. Each of them serve an evil that is even greater than they are. They are not the main antagonists. They are not Voldemort. They are not Sauron. They are not a humanity who has given up on embracing childlike wisdom. They are merely the servants and messengers of a greater evil and danger. So I wonder, in this story, what is the greater evil we’re meant to fear even more?
But for now, we have this demon – this impure spirit – suddenly showing up in a Synagogue in Capurnam. Jesus has been teaching – and people have been amazed. The demon, through the man he is possessing, immediately recognizes Jesus for who he is – “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One from God.” I love this…”Have you come to destroy us?” Who is us? Are you here to destroy us -all the demons of the world? The despair? The injustice? The apathy? The disconnection? Some of it? All of it?
Notably, Jesus doesn’t answer. He just says, “Shut up and get out.” And the demon albeit begrudgingly, obeys. Kinda like my toddler. The demon does what it’s told, but throws a bit of a temper tantrum first.
This is the first public display of Jesus’ ministry and AUTHORITY in Mark’s gospel. I mentioned in last week’s episode that John was the last Gospel to be written. This week’s reading is from Mark. Most scholars believe that Mark was the first gospel written – penned approximately 40 years after Jesus’ death. The language of Mark was that used by common people, and it reads a little bit like an action movie…it’s face paced and the story quickly moves from one important event to the next. We often see glimpses of an angry Jesus, which might be why I enjoy Mark so much.
In this story, Mark is setting up a common theme – the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leadership. To be clear – this is not a conflict between Jesus and the Jewish people – Jesus was, after all, was Jewish himself – but rather between Jesus and the class of the religious elite. In this story, the Teachers of the Law – also called the Scribes in other translations – are amazed. They are amazed Jesus is able to teach and command with an authority that goes beyond their own – that goes beyond simply being an authority of the established code and law. In Mark’s story, Jesus’ authority goes much further, and the Scribes are not necessarily all on board. They are threatened.
This story reminded me of my experience in psychotherapeutic training a couple of years ago. Before I started my journey with the Living Presence Ministry, I was a student of psychotherapy at a school in Toronto. I’ve always felt my calling is to be and work with people in transformative and relational ways, but I’m also fairly introverted. In short, I am a friend to the human condition…I just prefer humans one at a time. So after almost a decade of intense psychodynamic depth therapy, and going through a period of personal discernment, I decided psychotherapy was the career path for me. I was excited to learn more about a subject I was passionate about, from teachers who were authorities in the field.
Unfortunately, things quickly fell apart. On the first day of training, my new colleagues and I were told we were not to speak to each other or contact each other outside of weekly small groups and monthly lectures. So, no emails. No texts. No phone calls. No coffees where we could discuss the readings, or our thoughts about various perspectives on psychoanalytic theory. Except…we wouldn’t have been able to do much of that anyway because we were strongly discouraged from reading any material outside of what our school assigned to us.
The no contact rule was justified to us as a means of teaching us about boundaries. “Don’t read anything we don’t give you” was justified as a way to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed and confused. It felt suspiciously problematic, and…I was just coming out of 3.5 years of being on dedicated Mama duty…where the closest thing to intellectual conversation I got to experience was in describing the viscosity of my baby’s poop. I was craving the kind of conversations my husband was having with his colleges in Divinity school. I was craving friends. So…I was kind of devastated with the whole thing.
But being asked not to read articles outside of what we were assigned was because…well…I’m not really sure our teachers would be able to speak to anything we might haved asked that veered off their rehearsed script. And they were terrified of looking like they didn’t know what they were talking about because it demonstrated that although they possessed authority by the nature of their position, and that they had the power to hold us back or prevent us from practicing, they were not truly authorities on psychodynamic psychotherapy. They didn’t possess the deep, embodied knowledge that comes with time and the passion to constantly learn as much as we can about a given topic, and to do enough of their own self work to understand their own triggers and weaknesses. The difference between claiming authority versus actually BEING an authority on their subject. And it made them sensitive to any whiff that me might be catching on that their authority was manufactured out of the power they held over our careers. So, the no contact rule soon began to feel like a tactic utilized to prevent us from organizing – so we couldn’t get together and say to each other, “This feels really messed up to me. Does it feel messed up to you?” There are a few of us who have left the school who have since come together. We had no idea others were feeling the same way until we got out.
Claiming authority as opposed to BEING an authority. The point Mark is trying to make to his audience is that the authority of Jesus in this story is embodied and comes from something far greater than books and law – it comes from the Creator. Mark might as well be saying, “Hey! Listen to this guy! He knows what he’s talking about!!” Jesus doesn’t promise to get rid of all the demons – Mark was astute enough to see that injustice and despair still existed in his time. But Jesus recognizes the demon. The demon recognizes him. The leaders recognize Jesus threat. And on the story goes…and continues…with Harry, Ofelia, Bastian…and all the other friends sitting on my bookshelf.
The Ballad of Uncle Chuck and Demon the Cat
(a rough guitar/vocal scratch track I made for my kids…)
The Living Presence Ministry is a community ministry of the United Church of Canada