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Mea Culpa and Not Blaming the Devil

Date: 19/07/2015/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

There are weeks, we minister to the heart, there are weeks we minister to the spirit, and there are weeks we minister to the mind. Some weeks we are lucky, we minister to two and sometimes, possibly, all three. This week we continue our series based on a chapter of “We Make The Road By Walking,” the book by Brian McLaren we are using as a book study. I want to start with an excerpt from the chapter so we get an idea of what this week’s chapter is about.

“Jesus told his followers to “count the cost.” He promised that those who walk his road would experience push-back, even persecution. And he often described that push-back as demonic or Satanic in nature. Some people today believe Satan and demons to be literal, objective realities. Others believe they are outmoded superstitions. Still others interpret Satan and demons as powerful and insightful images by which our ancestors sought to describe shadowy realities that are still at work today. In today’s terminology, we might call them social, political, structural, ideological, and psychological forces. These forces take control of individuals, groups, and even whole civilizations, driving them toward destruction.

Think of it like this: You can have a crowd of normal, happy people dancing in a popular night club. Suddenly someone shouts, “Fire!” and people panic. Within seconds, everyone stampedes towards the exits. Soon, some people are being trampled—even killed—in the chaos, which means that others are doing the trampling and killing. None of the happy dancers in that club would have been seen as heartless killers before the scare. But we might say “the spirit of panic” possessed them and drove them to violence. That spirit had a will of its own, as it were, turning peaceful, decent individuals into a ruthless, dangerous mob that became every bit as dangerous as the threat it feared.

Now, imagine a similar spirit of racism, revenge, religious supremacy, nationalism, political partisanship, greed, or fear getting a foothold in a community. You can imagine previously decent people being possessed, controlled, and driven by these forces, mind-sets, or ideologies. Soon, individuals aren’t thinking or feeling for themselves anymore. They gradually allow the spirit of the group to possess them. If nobody can break out of this frenzy, it’s easy to imagine tragic outcomes: vandalism, riots, beatings, lynchings, gang rapes, house demolitions, plundered land, exploited or enslaved workers, terrorism, dictatorship, genocide. Bullets can fly, bombs explode, and death tolls soar—among people who seemed so decent, normal, and peace loving just minutes or months before.”

It is a powerful chapter. I want to invite you to read that chapter 48 later at your own time. I have written my sermons as companion pieces to explore ideas and issues that were brought up in the chapter, and yet try to avoid repeating what has already been said in the chapter.

I know many people believe in the workings of Satan and demons to be literal, objective realities. I am not here to ridicule those people – i think there are things that are beyond our understanding. But too
often, we blame on the Devil too quickly when there are perfectly logical explanations about what is going on. Too often, we blame on the Devil when we don’t want to take responsibility for our own
culpability. “The Devil made me do it.”

It is easy to label things we don’t understand as things of the Devil. I want to caution against that – we need to eliminate other possible explanations – especially the ones that incriminate ourselves – before blaming the Devil for the things that happen in life.

Too often, we read what is meant to be figurative to be literal. I don’t think Jesus meant it literally when Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in
mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” In my opinion, I think Peter represented to Jesus the temptation not to do God’s will and avoid what that entails – pain, suffering and death. The Bible
isn’t meant to be read only literally. Some people might think – Miak is very unbiblical. This is the liberal progressive perspective and not spiritual or biblical at all. I humbly beg to differ – my
perspective is grounded in biblical interpretation.

When I was in seminary, in May 2009, i had the privilege of listening to Rev Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of President Obama in Trinity United Church of Christ. He said that there was one constant from Genesis to Revelations – and that was the Bible was written by oppressed people in a time of oppression.

Just look at Genesis. What did God create? God created the Heavens and the earth. First, it was light – day and night. Then the sky. Then the land and the seas. Then the vegetation. Then the two great lights. Not the moon and the sun, but two great lights.

Rev Wright asked what was the experience of the people who wrote Genesis? They experienced oppression under the Egyptians. What is written here is subversive – instead of writing the sun and the moon,
they have written it as the greater light and the lesser light. He argues that it is written as a subversive way of saying that the gods the Egyptians worshipped – the sun and the moon – are just the greater and lesser light that Elohim created.

That, to me isn’t the only subversive thing that is in the Bible. Jesus himself was subversive. The New Testament was written when the early Christians were oppressed by the Roman Empire.

When we read Mark 5, when Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac, we often read it as a literal exorcism. My professor Mary Tolbert argues that it is actually a subversive message to the Jews to resist the Roman

Why is the name of the demon or demons Legion, the Roman military term for a unit of 6000 soldiers? This passage could be read as a message that reflects the hopes of the Jews for a Messiah who would exorcise the “demons,” the Romans who occupy their lands.

She suggests that the sending of the demons into a herd of pigs may be a reference to the fact that the Roman centurions wore helmets lined with pig skin, and the pigs rushing down the bank and drowning in the sea is the hope for a Messiah who would drive the Romans out by military force.

We need to do a lot more thinking about issues before we blame it on the Devil. In the past, there was a lot that people did not understand, and they attributed a lot of it to the Devil. Today, we know far more through science and reason. Some of what was described as demonic possession have medical explanations today. Blaming the Devil shouldn’t be the first thing we jump to – rather it should be
the last.

McLaren describes these powers and principalities as “social, political, structural, ideological, and psychological forces. These forces take control of individuals, groups, and even whole civilizations, driving them toward destruction.” He even calls them spirits of “racism, revenge, religious supremacy, nationalism, political partisanship, greed, fear.”

We need to examine how these forces take control of us, and we need to resist and exorcise these forces.

I remember my first trip out of the country. It was the first family trip and my parents brought my sister and I to Thailand. One thing that left a deep impression was the tour guide telling all of us, “Do not give to the child beggars.” It was, and it continues to be difficult to see suffering and not be able to help. Yet the problem is bigger – it is a structural, systemic issue that cannot be resolved
just by us alone. These are the “powers and principalities” that dominate our reality.

We often encounter folks selling packets of tissue at the coffee shop or at the hawker centers. I struggle internally to say no. I wonder if my heart is too callused, too hardened that I have ignored their realities. Sometimes i have encountered folks who just throw the packets of tissue on the table, or ask in a very rude manner as though we have to buy the tissue from them. I wonder if their hearts are callused and hardened from all the rejection they face all day.

This isn’t the work of Satan, nor is it the work of some demonic forces. It is the spirit of indifference, the forces that wear away our humanity one little bit at a time.

My mother shared two days ago while we were having a chat, and she helped me see things in a different perspective. She does discern who she helps and who she doesn’t. And she knows she may be taken
advantage of, conned, cheated – but that’s what the other person have to answer for. It’s just a few dollars to her.

I am rethinking about my own approach to dealing with folks selling tissue to me. It may still be a “No, thank you.” I am not certain – but I want my approach to be loving and dignifying.

The Church has succumbed to these forces over the course of time. It is easy to blame it on the Devil and not take responsibility for what is happening around us. Not only have we made God in our own image, we have made the Devil in the image of those who are different from us, those who don’t agree with us. It is so tempting to attribute all the success and good things that happen to God, and all the failures and bad things that happen to the Devil.

I hesitate attributing success to God because sometimes, we work very hard on what we want and we succeed, not because it is God’s will but our own. When we attribute that success to God, we are legitimise what we do – our will becomes “God’s will”. We, whether we realise it or not, have become God. It requires us to slow down, to reflect, to discern to see if it is God, or our ego – the biggest demon of them all – that is driving our actions.

It is hard to say “mea culpa” – that it is our fault – and acknowledge our participation in a world that is evil, that is corrupt, that causes suffering. But it is only in acknowledging that truth, that we can then invite God to lead us through the Holy Spirit to make a difference, to change ourselves, to change the world.

In the closing questions for the chapter, McLaren writes – ” All of us can’t do everything or fight every injustice everywhere. But we all should have “some skin in the game” on a handful of issues about which we feel a special call to action. Identify some of your issues and look for ways to stand up for them this week.”

May we not only find ways to stand up for them this week, but every week, all the days of our lives. We are not called to be an ordinary church. We should not be an ordinary church. We are called to be an
extraordinary church.