Deuteronomy 18:15-20 † Psalm 111 † 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 † Mark 1:21-28
A video form of this meditation can be found here.
We know the old adage about first impressions and how deeply they imprint an expectation. Such is the case here, I suspect. This is, after all, the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry—the first impression. It is his inaugural act on the heels of assembling his leadership team.
Inaugurations say a lot, I suspect, about our leaders. And each of the gospels underline something a little different about Jesus. Matthew begins with the Sermon on the Mount, presenting us with a version of Jesus who is a definitive teacher. Luke offers a vision statement of social renewal—Jesus as the one to bring good news to the poor. John skips the ceremony and goes straight to the wedding party at Cana and a sudden abundance of good wine to show us a savior who came for life abundant.
Mark’s Jesus is a little like Marshawn Lynch was back in the day, I suppose—he’s all about that action, boss. He leaps into the fray. He starts where we are today, in the synagogue—at church, if you like—with a new teaching, with authority. But it isn’t just about words, certainly not empty words, not words alone. These words evoke something big. They have power. They change everything.
You know. It’s pretty standard stuff when it comes to what we’ve come to expect in worship, I suppose. A teaching that leads to a loud encounter with an unclean spirit. Screaming. Convulsions. Pews flying. An exorcism. You know Tuesday, or, I guess, Sunday, as it were.
Ok, maybe not so common if we’re being honest—at least not in a literal sense.
I am struck though that in the story, it isn’t the drama of the moment, the screaming, the convulsing, the ruckus, that lasts; it is the first impression that remains—a new teaching, an uncommon authority, a deep truth, and the power to change things that seem so deeply ingrained and embedded, the power to shake us to the core. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
I suspect we all know this convulsion that comes with new discoveries, new realizations of the demonic in our midst and in us, of being confronted with deep truths that have always been there right before us, if only we had the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the courage to be exorcised.
I spent my last week doing quite a bit of reading and it was devastating in the best possible way—an exorcising of demons that result from the only thing powerful enough to force them out—the encounter with truth in the face of disfiguring threats.
That, at least, is the way our faith seems to understand these things. Our Brief Statement of Faith says in this way:
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture[i]
And idolatry, simply put is untruth, a lie, a big lie about human life and all creation as it relates to God and to all things Holy. And the exorcism Mark imagines here is its unmasking, and the new possibilities that result.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a writer with the surgical precision that, for me at least, echoes the transformational authority of Jesus’ teaching in Mark. In her book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States she exorcises the mythology of White exceptionalism that tainted much of the history I was taught in school.
She says it plainly: we are typically unable or unwilling to allow our own notions of American exceptionalism to be challenged by the same objective examinations we apply to other national origin stories.
It isn’t so much that I didn’t know better. It was always there, I think, the suspicion that the narratives we were fed were flawed—stories told with a useful slant—that we are possessed by a myth of American exceptionalism that justified a history of horrific violence to achieve wealth and privilege for those who are called white.
What we are experiencing now—the convergence of the concurrent challenges of a world-wide pandemic, extreme economic inequality, a cry for racial injustice more than 400 years in the making, and a climate crisis that threatens our very existence—are forcing something of a reckoning.
We’ve heard enough—bits and pieces—that we know the truth in our bones, and yet one of the hallmarks of privilege is that we can avoid the truth telling for a long time, but always to our peril. If we are to find our way, our salvation, it will only come through an honest reckoning.
“In the founding myth of the United States,” the author writes:
the colonists acquired a vast expanse of land from a scattering of benighted peoples who were hardly using it—an unforgivable offense to the Puritan work ethic. The historical record is clear, however, that European colonists shoved aside a large network of small and large nations whose governments, commerce, arts and sciences, agriculture, technologies, theologies, philosophies, and institutions were intricately developed, nations that maintained sophisticated relations with one another and with the environments that supported them.[ii]
The Americas were populated not with a smattering of small, primitive tribes. The indigenous people were farmers and the land was far more developed and cultivated and sculpted than the history books I read taught us.
And it wasn’t just the presence of sophisticated cultivars of corn that were planted in vast acreages. Even the forests had been developed and maintained. Stories are told of forests that enabled the unencumbered movement of horse and even stage coach travel because they had been thinned and sculpted by these pre-European rural communities. One geographer notes that, as paradoxical as it may seem, there was much more primeval forest in 1850 than there was in 1650.[iii]
Dunbar-Ortiz quotes the historian William Denevan:
Native peoples had created town sites, farms, monumental earthworks, and networks of roads, and they had devised a wide variety of governments, some as complex as any in the world. They had developed sophisticated philosophies of government, traditions of diplomacy, and policies of international relations. They conducted trade along roads that crisscrossed the landmasses and waterways of the American continents. Before the arrival of Europeans, North America was indeed a “continent of villages,” but also a continent of nations and federations of nations.[iv]
European explorers and settlers did not settle virgin land; they invaded and displaced and ultimately decimated resident populations.
I suppose it was the story of the Presbyterians in Dunbar-Ortiz’s book that convulsed and exorcised me the most, though. You see, it turns out that Presbyterianism in the Americas came in part by way of the Scots-Irish. These early Presbyterians were the primary mercenary foot-soldiers that colonized North America through the most brutal means[v]—extermination and genocide after squatting on unceded Indigenous lands. They perfected counterinsurgent warfare and terrorized with extravagant violence.[vi]
These Presbyterian Scots-Irish saw themselves, as their descendants see themselves, as the true and authentic patriots, entitled to the land through their blood sacrifice.[vii]
It should be noted that their story grew out of tragedy. Trapped in the squeeze of a caste system imported from Europe that, with slavery, became uniquely American, they were used by the elite to rid the land of these pre-European populations. The historian John Grenier in examining our military heritage explains:
Americans depended on arts of war that contemporary professional soldiers supposedly abhorred: razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders… In the frontier wars between 1607 and 1814, Americans forged two elements—unlimited war and irregular war—into their first way of war.[viii]
Rather than racism leading to violence, it was arguably the other way around, Dunbar-Ortiz suggests. The “out-of-control momentum of extreme violence of unlimited warfare fueled race hatred.”[ix]
We want, of course, to associate ourselves with a more heroic story than this. And it is surely true we are all a mix.
Last week I also went back and watched Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda writes George Washington as an heroic figure, and he certainly demonstrated some heroic actions when it came to his leadership in the experiment that became the United States. But we are all products of our time and the choices we make.
As General Washington fought for independence, he had to also face the reality European settlers had created for themselves by imagining the land was their birthright. This created of course an impossible reality for the Indigenous people who had to fight for their survival in a complicated political landscape, sometimes supporting one side and then another.
In 1775, in response to the decisions by five of the Iroquois Nations, General George Washington wrote orders to Major General John Sullivan:
…to lay waste all the settlements around…that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed…
You will not by any means, listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected… Our future security will be in their inability to injure us…and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.[x]
Sullivan replied to his commander:
The Indians shall see that there is malice enough in our hearts to destroy everything that contributes to their support.[xi]
It wasn’t, as I was taught, the unintended accident of small-pox that decimated the original inhabitants of these lands. It was the brutality of our forebears. This may be a new or at least more fully realized knowledge for me now, but others knew it. King knew it, and with him the black and brown people who have forever been subjugated by the white world’s constant campaign for supremacy. “Our nation was born in genocide” he said back in 1963 for those who had ears to hear.
We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode.[xii]
Perhaps this good, hard word causes you to tremble as it does me. But Mark seems to understand that only the authoritative word of truth has the power to rid us of the demonic and its destructive control on us. And our faith understands it is often the Spirit in the voices of those long silenced who hold the keys to salvation, who help us to see ourselves for all that we are, who hold a word of healing that leads us to justice, freedom, and peace.
Let us together have courage, beloved friends. There is great possibility in refusing to run, in holding steady amidst the unknowing and unsettling truths that break apart the myths we’ve told about ourselves and topple the false idols we have erected to assure us that we are exceptional, special, or even just a little better than someone else.
I take comfort in the 1965 inaugural address of John Gardner, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Johnson administration and a chief enactor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act: “What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”
With this God, this is surely true.
[i] “A Brief Statement of Faith” in Book of Confessions, (The Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church USA, 2016), 11.4.
[iii] Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (REVISIONING HISTORY) (p. 45). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Ibid., p. 46.
[v] Ibid., p. 51ff.
[vi] Ibid., p. 59.
[vii] DIbid., p. 44-45.
[viii] Ibid., p. 56.
[ix] Ibid., p. 59.
[x] Ibid., p. 77.
[xii] Ibid., p. 78. The quote is from King’s book Why We Can’t Wait.
St. Andrew Sermons