Unshackled Conversation

There is a saying of Jesus that makes him sound like a master thief. You may prefer thinking of him as a master teacher, but this still sounds like an excerpt from Burglary 101: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”[1]

This saying is a rather curious way to describe the mission of Jesus, and it is how he himself sees it. He has entered the strong man’s house. Following his baptism, Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan, and now he’s returned, proclaiming the good news of God. He has tied up the strong one, and now he is ready to plunder the house. It may sound like burglary, but in truth it’s an invasion whose purpose is to free those in the house from foreign occupation. Jesus returned from the wilderness not to edify, entertain, or enlighten his audience – as much as we enjoy that – but to liberate us, to set us free from the power of sin, free for life under God’s reign.

Jesus is in the house, and the anxiety level among demons and evil spirits is high. They know him, and they know the purpose of his intrusion: to tie them up and throw them out. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” they shriek. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus is in the house, their time is up, and they know it. No matter how much they cry and whimper, they can neither evade nor resist his authority. Jesus speaks, “Be silent, come out,” and the man is free.

To spread this freedom, throughout all of creation, is the ministry of Jesus. He is not just another teacher or preacher; Jesus is a Holy-Spirit-empowered invader who reclaims the house that has become a playground for demons; he reclaims the place as the home of God’s people. Those who encounter him are astonished, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” This teaching goes way beyond the best of tradition, it goes beyond building on the wisdom and authority of the past for the sake of the future. This teaching is like the voice that spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai. This is new teaching that does not become just another tradition; this is the voice that brings about newness; this is the voice that interrupts the flow of time with the fullness of fulfilment.

Jesus is not just a terrific new teacher. He speaks, and it comes to be; his words bring a new reality into being.

He speaks, and the oppressed are unburdened.

He speaks, and the possessed are unshackled.

He speaks, and the wounded are healed.

He speaks, and sinners are forgiven.

He speaks, and the evil spirits obey.

Jesus is in the house, the reign of God has come near, and it’s hard to say whether it’s songs of angels or the fragrance of new life that fill the air.

The first century world was full of demons and spirits; they regularly interfered in human life, often capriciously. It was common knowledge that they did control human behavior because they were more powerful than human beings. Most of us no longer use this kind of language; our world is not inhabited by demons and other spirit beings. But that doesn’t mean we no longer experience powers in our lives that are stronger than ourselves, ungodly powers that oppress and enslave us.

Some of you know about my friend Ruth who used to think that all those demons-and-spirits-stories in the Bible were just prescientific hocuspocus – until she did an internship with the Salvation Army. She spent time with homeless men on the streets of Hamburg, men whose lives were in the grip of powers they couldn’t escape on their own. Most of them had lost all contact to their families; many struggled with alcohol or drug addictions. And one day it clicked for Ruth.

I know there are all kinds of sociological, medical, and political explanations for the circumstances these men find themselves in. But to most of them it’s a hopeless fight against very powerful demons; they have given up and surrendered. Jesus is the only one who can save them, in a very real way. They don’t need new and better scientific explanations, helpful though they may be; they need people who love them enough to care and face the demons with them. They need to know that there is somebody who hasn’t given up on them and who is stronger than their demons. I know that One, and it’s up to me to embody that hope for them.

I used to think that demons were little more than an imaginative way to understand mental illness or oppressive political systems. But faced with the almost success of the Nazi genocide of European Jews, I keep returning to pre-scientific notions of the demonic. Sure, there are historical factors and political reasons and economic causes and cultural circumstances, but those kinds of explanations can only do the work of trying to grasp what happened from great distance, and to me, such distance feels like betrayal. I need the One who has bound the strong one to help me face the demons.

Robert Lifton is a psychiatrist who conducted interviews with Nazi doctors who had worked in the death camps. He had a conversation about this work with Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor.

We were discussing Nazi doctors—I had begun to interview them and he had observed a few from a distance in Auschwitz—when he posed this question to me: “Tell me, Bob, when they did what they did, were they men or were they demons?” I answered that, as he well knew, they were human beings, and that was our problem. To which Elie replied, “Yes, but it is demonic that they were not demonic.” [2]

In the face of evil, explanations will not do. In the face of evil we need a different kind of knowledge, one that can ground us in the presence of the redeemer. We need the encounter with the living Christ. There is no room in the house for demons and unclean spirits, but they are here because we are here. We need the encounter with the living Christ, because in his presence they become uneasy and frightened and they resist, but he calls them out and throws them out.

He speaks, and it comes to be.

He speaks, and the oppressed are unburdened.

He speaks, and the possessed are unshackled.

He speaks, and the wounded are healed.

He speaks, and sinners are forgiven.

He speaks, and the evil spirits obey.

In his presence, the demonic cannot keep its grip on power.

When we hear the good news, we are set free and drawn into the ministry of Christ. Like Ruth in her work with homeless men, we learn that new and better explanations are important for our understanding of the world, but not sufficient for doing ministry in it. We must seek to embody for others the liberating and healing presence of Christ.

What strikes me as crucial about the witness of the gospel is its two-fold nature: the battle is won; the strong man has been bound—and the results of that cosmic victory are enacted locally, in everyday encounters, face-to-face. God’s love for creation and humankind is not a global, distant reality. God’s love is not like the wind that blows everywhere, but always concrete like the breeze touching a face.

I was reminded of that earlier this week when I listened to a story on the radio. Immigration has been a contentious issue for years, and the debate doesn’t always bring out the best in us. The temperature quickly rises, the tone easily gets shrill, and conversations turn into ugly shouting matches. In this brief radio commentary, Jose Arreola invites us to a better way.

We had to decide whether we were going north or south to get into California. My friend decided it would be best to go south to avoid the big snow storm up north. But south would take us through Arizona. I really really didn’t want to go through Arizona. I got more and more nervous. I felt paralyzed. My friend kept asking me what my problem was. Finally I told him: I’m undocumented.

I came to the United States when I was three with my family. And Arizona had just passed a law that gave police officers the authority to check people’s immigration status. If we got stopped in Arizona, I could be detained and deported.

My friend is white. He comes from a really privileged, upper-class background. He attended a private high school, the Santa Clara University with me – I went on scholarship. Politically he sees things a little differently than I do. We’ve had our disagreements.

He was quiet for a while. Then he barraged me with questions; I answered the best I could. Silence again. Then he told me about his grandfather. How he hadn’t been able to find work in Ireland, so he decided to hop on a fishing boat and get off in New York. He worked as a janitor without citizenship. Now his son, my friend’s father, is a high-ranking bank executive.

The whole time through Arizona my friend drove like 50 miles an hour. He didn’t even want to change lanes. He told me he wasn’t going to lose his best friend. He wasn’t going to let that happen.

The immigration debate became real to my friend in the car that day. We had a very different conversation than the one politicians are having right now. The minute actual undocumented immigrants are included, the conversation always changes.

Now I’m completely open about my status. I’m still afraid. Conversations don’t always go well. And it’s always a risk. But as long I remain in the shadows, I will never really get to know you, and you’ll never really know me.[3]

Jesus is in the house, the reign of God has come near, and the love of God and neighbor is always concrete. Now it’s up to us to help change the conversation. It’s up to us to do our part in casting out the demons.


[1] Mk 3:27

[2] Robert Jay Lifton, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir (New York: Free Press, 2011) p. 240

[3] My Life Is True works with people at the hard edges of the economy to explain, in their own words, a significant experience or a stubborn problem. Then their two-minute personal stories are submitted as public radio commentaries. For more information, visit www.mylifeistrue.org I heard the commentary on Marketplace on January 23  http://www.marketplace.org/topics/life/commentary/secret-keeps-man-margins-economy