Our dog Ace is sweet, gentle and patient. He has a cat-like way of showing affection. He’s enthusiastic about walks and runs. When he gets excited, his tail wags in a twirling pattern we call the “windmill.” Ace has a wonderfully soft, extra furry spot under his chin. His ears perk out sideways in the cutest way when he’s listening. Ace is a very good dog. Even so, we had begun to worry about him when there was stress in our house. He was clearly growing more and more anxious. He withdrew. He barked for no apparent reason. He was protective, and somewhat aggressive when a member of the family was noisy or upset.
Some friends knew of a coach who helped their dog with difficult behaviors. We had our first session with her a couple of weeks ago. She told us she was going to teach us to “speak dog.” I chuckled at first, but I’m laughing no more. It really works. She instructed us to growl at Ace to set boundaries: “Bah!” Though it’s a strong statement, an authoritative noise, she assured us that, to Ace, it doesn’t sound angry or mean. This growling says: “You stop what you’re doing. I am the big dog here and I’ll handle this threat. You are safe. Settle down.”
Authority. Unclean spirits. Exorcisms. These are complicated and difficult subjects to deal with especially across the cultural divide between us and Jesus. And yet, I’ve become more and more convinced that today’s Gospel text is profoundly relevant to our time. In order to understand this story, we have to enter into its worldview. We have to set aside the fact that today we might render a different diagnosis and prescribe other cures. To put it simply, people in those days believed in demon possession. Faith healers who restored health by casting unclean spirits out of people were extremely common. And yet, there’s also way more to this story than Jesus freeing an individual from a demon. In Binding the Strong Man, Ched Myers puts it this way:
Is Jesus simply “curing” the physically sick and the mentally disturbed? If so, why would such a ministry of compassion raise the ire of the local authorities? . . . The demon in the synagogue becomes the representative of the scribal establishment, whose “authority” undergirds the dominant Jewish social order. Exorcism represents an act of confrontation in the war of myths in which Jesus asserts his alternative authority. (p. 143)
Now, we have to be very careful and clear here. This power struggle between Jesus and the scribes is not a conflict between Christianity and Judaism. It is the effort of a faithful Jew to reclaim the life-giving power of his own Jewish tradition. As I said last week, this epic power struggle, this contest between one way of being and another, is the focus of the Gospel of Mark. One commentator points out that the word “authority,” exousia, in Greek, is related to exesti: “it is free or it is permitted.” The authority of the scribes is bound by the interpretive traditions handed down to them and limited by their alliance with the violent repression of Rome. Jesus, on the other hand, embodies a humble, yet compelling authority—an authority that is authentic and liberating because it is grounded in a direct connection with the source of all life. Jesus is not beholden to the conventions of culture or the powers of empire. He is free to embody, for his own time, the ways of love and justice taught by the great prophets of Israel.
In his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem explains that generational trauma (described in our opening video) is embedded, in different ways, in all of our bodies—black bodies, white bodies, police bodies. Our embodied patterns of trauma responses are a primary (and generally subconscious) driver of our collective imprisonment in the system of white supremacy. That’s why healing racism has to happen in our bodies as much as in our thinking brains. There’s so much in Menakem’s work to understand and practice in our bodies. I am only a beginner, not someone who can be your guide. So I urge you to pick up the book for yourself.
Menakem says that we must learn to work with the “soul nerve” which he describes as:
the largest organ in your body’s autonomic nervous system, which regulates all your body’s basic functions. The largest part of your soul nerve goes through your gut, which has about 100 million neurons, more than your spinal cord. . . . When your body feels relaxed, open, settled, and in sync with other bodies, that’s your soul nerve functioning. When it feels tight, constricted and self-protective, that’s your soul nerve too. . . . One of the main purposes of your soul nerve is to receive fight, flee or freeze messages from your lizard brain [as opposed to your thinking brain] and spread them to the rest of your body. Another purpose is precisely the opposite: to receive and spread the message of it’s okay; you’re safe right now; you can relax. (p. 139)
Menakem unpacks how these responses of the body, centered in the soul nerve, continue to reinforce white supremacy, in all types of bodies. He explains that the ongoing trauma responses of white bodies are rooted in both witnessing and perpetuating the violent control of other bodies, over thousands of years. He says to white folks:
Your body puts each new body it encounters into one of two categories: safe or dangerous. And many white Americans—no matter what they think or believe—put unfamiliar Black bodies into the dangerous category. This makes it difficult for their bodies to settle when Black bodies are nearby. This sense of danger does not come out of nowhere. But it doesn’t come from Black bodies—even though, to white bodies, it feels like it does. It comes from the ideas and images that were created, perpetuated and institutionalized over hundreds of years—all for the benefit of powerful white bodies. (p. 206)
Exorcisms are not exactly common in this culture. For most of us, the notion of casting out demons is pretty far outside our comfort zones, I would guess. And yet, isn’t an exorcism exactly what the doctor ordered? Don’t we need the power to authoritatively remove an evil from our bodies? When it comes to the forces that wound us and harm creation, we cannot remain neutral; we must take sides. Those of us who are white did not have a choice about our skin color or about the privilege and power given to us by the torture of other humans. But white folks do have the choice now, to take responsibility for this situation, and to commit to the life-long and multi-generational work of repairing this harm.
The cleansing and healing of exorcism, as Mark makes clear, certainly involves a struggle. And yet, the contest is not a violent one. It is not the harsh and frightening experience we may imagine. It is, in fact, an invitation to anchor ourselves in the deep peace of relationship with God and with each other. Resmaa Manakem describes his own experience with this transformation, saying:
Over time, I learned to access a settledness that is always and already present. I usually call it the Infinite Source, but it doesn’t require a name, or an explanation or a belief. This settling of nervous systems, and this connection to a larger Source is vital to healing. . . . If you’re white, you may discover that when you can settle and manage your body, you won’t feel a need to manage Black ones—or a need to ask Black ones to manage yours. You’ll also be better able to manage, challenge, and disrupt white body supremacy. (p. 152)
Just as our dog Ace needed authoritative limits to feel safe and secure, so too, we humans need the help of the divine and each other’s encouragement to set boundaries that stop the forces of harm.
In Jesus’ “inaugural exorcism” he freed a man with an unclean spirit. He also showed his followers and, indeed, showed all creation that we have the authority to say a firm “no” to the death-dealing ways of inequality and exploitation. He taught us that we can be free. Ancient forces and patterns of harm need not overwhelm us. Connected to the Infinite Source, as he was, we can liberate ourselves. We can make space for what is good to flourish. We can say a clear, powerful and joyous “yes” to the ways of life. Amen.