Please read Mark 1:29-45 for background.
“And [Jesus] cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” Mark 1:34 NRSV
Demons do their best work in the darkness. Demons crave anonymity. Demons seek to control and dominate others by outing them in some way. Demons isolate their victims, cutting them off from help, healing, and hope. Demons weaponize Otherness and make enemies out of neighbors. Demons show up even at times and in places we wish were safe and holy. Demons are parasites that can only live within human hearts in communities that sustain their presence with some combination of fear and allegiance. The more demons are tolerated and embraced, the more their power grows.
I think you can substitute “bullies” for “demons” in that paragraph, and little would change. I think you can substitute “white male supremacists” in that paragraph, and little would change. I think you can substitute “white nationalist cultural Christian republicans (WNCCRs)” in that paragraph, and little would change. I am not competent to label any bullies, white male supremacists, or WNCCRs as demons. That’s well above my pay grade. But I am certainly willing to suggest that such people are open to and under demonic influence.
How does Jesus deal with demons? Jesus tells the demons to shut up and go to hell (Mark 1:25). Jesus does not allow the demons to hide in the dark. Jesus does not allow them to go unnamed. Jesus does not allow them to control and dominate him by saying his name. Jesus does not surrender to their attempts to make him Other and Odd and Out of bounds. Jesus is not surprised to find them in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus cuts off their source of shape and sustenance. Jesus confronts and expels them.
Jesus does not engage the demons in theological dialogue. Jesus does not treat them as having one opinion among many in the crowd. Jesus does not permit any kind of equivalence between the work of the demons and his work of help, healing, and hope. Jesus does not give the demons a platform, a microphone, or a vote. The burden of proof is not on Jesus to show that the demons should shut up and go to hell. It’s either that, or people are in bondage. There is no compromise, no meeting of the minds, no mediation, or adjudication.
“Be silent and come out of him!” (Mark 1:25). Shut up and go to hell.
The bullying behavior of WNCCRs infects a number of “mainline” white Christian congregations and denominations in the United States. Not only are these congregations infected with this ideology, many of the opinion leaders and elected leaders in such bodies now openly advocate for this ideology. The ideology is not new, but the visible nature of the debate is. It’s not that WNCCRs have suddenly found a voice. That’s never been the issue. Instead, what is new is that there are people in those congregations and denominations (and outside of them) who are now pushing against this centuries-old system of power.
For five centuries, for example, few people actively suggested in such places that white supremacy is a bad idea, bad religion, and bad politics. The system of power had no need to defend itself. Now that has changed a bit. And some leaders in congregations and denominations ask with a straight face, “What exactly do you have against white supremacy?” If we try to answer the question, we have immediately stepped out of bounds. That is simply not a legitimate question for Christians to ask. The only responsible reply is to order the questioner to shut up and…sit down (we’re generally not in the “go to hell” business these days).
That response will be met with gasps of horror and protests that this isn’t fair. Legal procedures are always the fallback position when the system of white male supremacy is under attack. I worked for some years with conflicted congregations. I learned that when someone approached me with a highlighted and annotated copy of a congregation’s constitution (especially the section labeled “Church Discipline”) that things were not going to end well for someone. Demonic power embraces legalism when it serves that power – and abandons it the moment it does not.
When someone asks, “Pastor, what exactly do you have against white supremacy?” the community must tell that person to be quiet. If the community will not do that, then it is time to wipe the dust off one’s feet and move on.
Now, some will protest that this is not pastoral. This response lacks compassion. This response does not allow for or believe in the possibility of repentance and amendment of life. The biblically alert will point to Jesus’ words in the parable about digging around the roots, adding some fertilizer, and seeing what happens in the next growing season.
This is a misapplication of Law and Gospel (in good Lutheran terms). Allowing more time for amendment and growth is appropriate in the presence of repentance and a desire for such amendment. That’s Gospel. Making a clear break with bad behavior (with the hope that such clarity might provoke real reflection and repentance) is appropriate in the presence of a commitment to continue on the current course. That’s Law.
Behaving as if systemic racism in a congregation or denomination is one theological option among many to be considered requires application of the Law.
We always risk the remedy of Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.” He knew well the price of appeasing the demons. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession,” he wrote, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Some will protest that the people in power need time to adjust to the new reality. Perhaps we can moderate our language or tone. Perhaps we can use vocabulary and categories that are less offensive and abrasive. Perhaps we can have dialogue, conversation, study, and even prayer, as we wait for the Holy Spirit to work on the hearts of those in need of conversion. If any of that would work in this case, one might think we would have seen some results over the last few centuries.
Ijeoma Oluo says it well. “How often have you heard the argument that we have to slowly implement gender and racial equality in order to not ‘shock’ society,” she asks in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. “Who is the ‘society’ that people are talking about? I can guarantee that women would be able to handle equal pay or a harassment-free work environment right now, with no ramp-up. I’m certain that people of color would be able to deal with equal political representation and economic opportunity if they were made available today. So,” she asks, “for whose benefit do we need to go so slowly?”
The answer to her question is obvious. The system of white male supremacy in our congregations, denominations, and country drags its feet in hopes of wearing out the opposition. The argument is that any other strategy will “shut down the conversation.” Oluo’s final question hits the bullseye. “How can white men be our born leaders,” she asks, “and at the same time be so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?” (pages 7-8).
When pleas for patience and process fail, the final refuge is the raw exercise of power. Someone may threaten to withhold offerings and starve out the pestilent pastor. There may be systematic campaigns of intimidation through emails, letters, rumors, and ugly meetings. Sometimes the intimidation is physical – in the form of death threats and physical confrontations. What we see writ large in our political system, as WNCCRs attempted a coup d’état on January 6, 2021, is writ small in numerous congregations every month.
Over the years I have participated in efforts to resist such power structures in our white, male, supremacist congregations. We’ve won a few and lost too many. In the few wins, one result was that the bullies went elsewhere and took their marbles with them. In the losses, one result was that the victims went elsewhere, or (much more often) simply went nowhere. In my experience there is no healthy solution that maintains the membership status quo of a congregation or a denomination.
Bullies must be outed, isolated, confronted, and corralled, or they must go. Demons must shut up and go to hell. I’m not optimistic that this will happen in most places. With James Baldwin, I fear that most of us have been white too long to be able to change. But I know that some white mainline Christian congregations and denominations are led by courageous and capable people who are at least up for the fight. And I will do what I can to help and support that fight.
No matter how it shakes out, we will see losses in membership, participation, and funding in such congregations and denominations. If I had to guess, I’d say the losses (if we make anti-racist progress) will run to about twenty percent. I suspect the losses will be the same if we double down on our white male supremacy. I make that estimate based on attitudes in the general population – attitudes that come with us to worship in our congregations.
I wish it weren’t so, but I fear that this is the bill outstanding for centuries of complicity. I have hopes that at least some in the Church are ready to pay up.