January 28, 2024 Essay: Unclean Spirits

Jan 22, 2024

“It’s the American way.” So said a friend as we pondered the many demons that seem to be torturing our society—family estrangement, addiction, loneliness, indebtedness, pornography, violence, militarism, conspiratorialism, racism, “the Big Lie”, among many others. This week’s gospel invites us to contemplate Jesus’s authority to rebuke and cast out the unclean spirits that maliciously seek to undermine us and drive us apart. He is the one power who can destroy them, as the demons themselves acknowledge.

Mark opens the scene with Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue, a word that had dual meanings for ancient Israel, referring to both a building where the community gathered for prayer and the community itself. One possessed was shunned and kept apart, lest the uncleanness contaminate others, which makes it particularly ironic that the evil spirit chooses to manifest itself here. It’s as if this little devil of division is flaunting its destructive impact. Jesus, by healing the poor man, restores him to communion with his neighbors, his faith community, and his nation. Cut off from his “synagogue”, the unclean man was dead; he is alive again through the healing grace of Jesus.

Like the possessed man at Capernaum, “the American way” has become characterized by alienation from each other, an alienation that has infected our politics, our churches, our families. Reliable research reports, for example, that nearly 30% of Americans are estranged from a family member, 1 in 5 condone using violence against their fellow citizens to further political agendas, and 1 in 4 young adults report feeling lonely and without significant connection to others. Moreover, nearly a third of us believe the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. While talk of demons and evil spirits might be gauche among the intellectually sophisticated, it does seem that there is a divisive, deceiving, malevolent force at work among us.

Our time is not the first the world has faced the dark power of “unclean spirits.” In August of 1942, when the Nazis appeared to be winning, the eminent and insightful Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote, “Is there still a chance to save ourselves from this spiritual decay? Yes, but a miracle will have to happen. And miracles only happen when one believes in miracles. Small islands like mountaintops would have to grow out of the chaotic sludge; islands of contemplation and of a sense of justice. Perhaps a new world will develop from these islands.” Jung understood that powers of demonic darkness were wrapping their tentacles around a vulnerable world, but that light could ultimately prevail if intentionally chosen and cultivated.

Communities such as our parish can be these islands of which Jung wrote. We together serve as a counter-witness to these “unclean spirits” through our ministries of solidarity and justice, through our breaking the bread and breaking open the word, through our dedication to lives of prayer and morality, and through our commitment to being a place where all are welcome. Jesus empowers us, as the Body of Christ, to cast out these demons, but as with all miracles, it will require our cooperation with Jesus’ healing grace. We are called to make a daily choice to say “yes” to the way of Christ, and “no” to “The American way,” my friend sighed over—when that American way means collusion with the unclean spirits.

Our journey to healing begins by bringing ourselves before Jesus with those unclean spirits that torment us—the spirits of hatred, anxiety, isolation, mistrust, violence, fear, and all that keeps us separated from others and ourselves. Naming and facing these within and without, allowing God’s healing light to penetrate those darkest places of the heart, can transform us into channels of grace for our world. I invite you to spend time in prayer this week with Jesus, the exorcist of unclean spirits.

— Brian B. Pinter, Pastoral Associate