Formations 05.02.2021: Our Demon-Haunted World

Matthew 12:22-30

We modern Americans have outgrown belief in demons. To borrow a phrase from physicist Carl Sagan, we no longer inhabit a “demon-haunted world.” We no longer have room in our worldviews for invisible forces of chaos. We have no patience for concepts of pervasive evil insinuating itself into people’s lives and bending them toward destruction.

Nope. We’re beyond all that.

Except, of course, for fascism, nationalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, consumerism, rape culture, and every other kind of structural inequality. We know those things are real and that they are pervasive. We watch their results play out every night on the evening news.

The problem with these evils is that they get awfully slippery when we try to pin the blame for them on individuals. That’s because we’re all part of systems—family systems, church systems, cultural systems—that exert an incredible, though not always visible, influence on how we think and act.

Deep down we understand this, don’t we? We could lock up every Klansman who ever burned a cross, but it wouldn’t do a thing to remove the unconscious racial prejudices that have been baked into our culture for 400 years. Or, as someone far more spiritually perceptive than I am once put it, “For 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” (Eph 6:12).

In Matthew 12, Jesus heals someone who has been afflicted by demons. Do stories like this puzzle you? I’ll admit that they puzzle me. We’ll each have to figure out for ourselves what we think demons really are and how they interact with our world. I would simply suggest that all of us know what it’s like to be the victim of forces beyond our control.

At any rate, Jesus’ opponents seem more upset that he cured a demoniac than that the man had been suffering in the first place. When they accuse Jesus of being in league with demons, though, they tip their hand. Who in this story is most comfortable with structural inequalities that put some people on top and leave others at the bottom? Hint: I don’t think it’s Jesus!

And Jesus exposes the illogic of their charge. Doesn’t Satan have a self-preservation instinct? (Doesn’t racism?) Why would Satan work against his own interests?

In this exchange, Jesus describes his ministry in terms of spiritual conflict. He is casting out demons, overthrowing the powers of evil that hold people in bondage. You know all those invisible forces that insinuate themselves into our lives, into our culture? Those things have got to go—along with the suffering they inflict. If the Pharisees could accept this, they would realize that Jesus’ acts of deliverance are in fact signs that the kingdom has come to them.

Discussion

  • How does systemic, structural evil result in suffering for individuals?
  • How does Jesus address this suffering? In what sense is everything that Jesus does in the Gospels an act of spiritual warfare?
  • What does it mean that Jesus casts out demons “by the Spirit of God” (v. 28)?
  • What is the Holy Spirit’s role in the healing of body, mind, and spirit? What is the Spirit’s role in confronting structural evil?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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