~ Ephesians 6:10-18/Matthew 16:21-23 ~
I heard a most extraordinary sermon the other day. Well, actually it wasn’t a sermon but it felt like it. The eulogy for John Lewis delivered by Barak Obama. It appears that our former president is quite biblically astute, for his eulogy was strewn with biblical references and allusions. From the very first sentence, we knew we were at church. Quoting James, “consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” He mentioned John the Baptist, the Old Testament prophets, the Apostle Paul (“Do not be afraid”). He spoke of the movement, the march, for civil rights as “not yet over, that the race is not yet won,” alluding to Hebrews 12. Truly, a sermon of the best kind wrapped in a stirring tribute to the life of John Lewis.
However, there was one biblical phrase that could have slipped your attention because he did not dwell on it. But he used it very deliberately when he said, “This idea that any of us, ordinary people, a young kid from Troy can stand up to the powers and principalities and say no this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just.” As you might have already noted, the phrase ‘powers and principalities’ comes from the Ephesians passage Ed read earlier: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Now, upon hearing these words what might come to mind are images of wars in heavenly realms between angels and demons. Spirit beings, independent from humans, living in the unseen world yet at work in our world, influencing us in diabolical ways. Popular novels, like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, present such images. Such ideas make for dramatic HBO series.
Indeed, Jesus, as did the gospel writers, as did the Apostle Paul, did not shy away from speaking of personal demons. Jesus spoke of the devil, spoke of Satan. The gospels write of Jesus’ time in the wilderness where he was personally tempted by the devil. In his letters, Paul spoke often of Satan’s influence. Certainly they all believed in a supernatural, spirit being called Satan.
And so we come to our gospel reading for today. Now that Jesus is identified as the Messiah, by Peter nonetheless, he continually tells the disciples that the meaning of this is that he needs to go to Jerusalem, where he will be arrested, tried and executed. This bothers Peter greatly and so he pulls Jesus aside to rebuke him about entertaining such ideas. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” And Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan!”
But wait! If Satan is a supernatural, personal being, where is he? Has Satan entered into Peter, spiritually possessing him? Is Peter somehow Satan? Or is it possible that Peter’s rebuke is Satanic-like, in the spirit of Satan? Could it be, in this case, that Satan is a power or a force working to influence Peter’s thoughts? Could it be that Satan isn’t a personal spirit being after all?
So, I guess it’s at this point I should put my cards on the table. I really don’t believe in a personal devil, a spirit personality with the name of Satan. I don’t believe there is a personal being that whispers in our ears all kinds of tempting things to do wrong. But I do believe in the spirit of Satan. I believe there is a demonic force working insidiously in the world to wreak all kinds of evil. I guess you could say that I take these ominous words penned by Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the eve of World War II quite seriously:
How can one close one’s eyes at the fact that the demons themselves have taken over the rule of the world, that it is the powers of darkness who have here made an awful conspiracy?
Again, I believe not so much in “demons” per se, but in the terrible force of evil at work in the world. Indeed, in how the “powers of darkness” pervade and control the powers of this world. There seem to be a legion of powers that oppress people and hold them captive. And these powers are at work in a multiplicity of ways. The Christian ethicist William Stringfellow notes that the demonic powers of evil infect “all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols.” There is this sense that these entities are more than the sum of their parts, which would be the people who live them.
How to get a sense of what I’m talking about? John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a novel about the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. In chapter five of his novel Steinbeck provides a moving account of the work of the powers. The tenant farmers of Oklahoma are dealing with the worst drought in centuries. The owners of the land have decided that they must foreclose on the tenants and kick them off (similar forces are at work in our present circumstances). Hear how Steinbeck describes this happening:
Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants— insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them.
After some discussion, the owners get to the point and tell the tenant farmers they will have to get off the land. The farmers protest that they are poor and have worked the land for generations. The owners reply:
We know that—all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man…(It’s) the monster.
Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.
We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
So, as Steinbeck so poignantly depicts them, even the institutions created by men to do good have turned into monsters, with a spirit and life of their own, beyond human control. The demonic powers are not simply personal, spiritual beings floating around in the air, but are embodied and active in the concrete realities of our world, like Steinbeck’s monster.
Much like Steinbeck’s story, the ‘principalities and powers’ that President Obama said John Lewis and we, ordinary citizens, can and should stand up to is the monster of systemic racism. That is, indeed, what John Lewis spent his life standing up to. Like Steinbeck’s monster, systemic racism is endemic to our world, the world we call America. It is above and behind and infused in our world. It is so much with us it is like fish in water, we are not even aware that it exists, much less that it determines the way we think, speak, and act. This monster called systemic racism captures us not only from without but also from within. And it is more than the sum of its parts; it is more than we humans. There seems to be an alien worldly characteristic to it, something from the spiritual realm. Imagine if we rework some of Steinbeck’s dialogue (I’ve also made it more gender neutral):
We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’’ the monster. ‘Racism’ isn’t like a human.
Yes, but ‘racism’ is only made of humans.
No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. ‘Racism’ is something else than human. It happens that humans hate to be called racist, and yet it’s ‘racism’ that does it. ‘Racism’ is something more than human, I tell you. It’s the monster. Humans made it, but they can’t control it.
When Ephesians says that we struggle “against principalities, against powers, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” I believe that to mean we are fighting the forces of this world, spiritual and material, that infect us with ideologies that purport to claim that some people are worth more than others. We struggle against system racism.
When Ephesians says that we are to put on the whole armor of God, it isn’t talking just about individual spiritual matters, so we won’t be tempted by the devil to engage in personal sins. No, the armor we, the church, are to put on is the call to discern and engage both the structure and the spiritually of oppressive racism and whatever institutions enable it.
The question of discernment is crucial. Because racism is so much with us, baked into our institutions, our culture, and, yes, us individually, it is hard to see except in its most egregious forms and actions. It is understandable that we, you and I, would want to make sure that people know we are not racist. But we all participate in the system, even if we aren’t all that aware. So, discernment is part of our call. That means listening, paying attention, reading, and self-reflection, corporate and individual. It means not being afraid to confront our own ignorance and complicity.
Engagement is our call as well. In his eulogy, Obama quoted John Lewis: “If you don’t do everything you can to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have.” We, the church, need to be that engaged. It is our spiritual calling. Yes, as the Apostle Paul put it and as Obama reiterated, we are “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” It is our spiritual calling to press on.
As President Obama wound down his eulogy, he spoke of hope, of encouragement. He spoke of happenings this summer.
We see it outside our windows, in big cities and rural towns, in men and women, young and old, straight Americans and LGBTQ Americans, Blacks who long for equal treatment and whites who can no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of their fellow Americans. We see it in everybody doing the hard work of overcoming complacency, of overcoming our own fears and our own prejudices, our own hatreds. You see it in people trying to be better, truer versions of ourselves.
We do this, he said, “not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.” There is nothing more I could add except to say, ‘resist the monster’. Amen.