Looking back on it now, the 1973 movie “The Exorcist” is laughably cheesy.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know the story. A demon possesses a twelve-year-old girl named Regan. Under demonic control Regan spews pea green projectile vomit on a priest, turns her head 180 degrees, levitates, and does unseemly things with a crucifix.
Silly and over the top as it seems now, that movie freaked my sixteen-year-old self out. Newly in possession of a driver’s license, I had driven my friend Rick and me to the theater. At my insistence, Rick joined me in repeating the Hail Mary all the way home.
As a priest, I got a few calls to do an exorcism. You might not know this, but there is a rubric in the Book of Occasional Services instructing priests what to do with such requests. Call the bishop!
I used to be grateful for that rubric. Now that I’m a bishop, not so much. In our tradition, there are no official manuals for restoring order to spiritual chaos or for bringing wholeness to disintegrating souls.
Hollywood portrayals of demonic possession tend toward the cartoonish.
In the movies an evil spirit usually takes up residence in some hapless individual’s body, either banishing the person’s true soul to some place of exile or simply overpowering it in place. That demon then wreaks havoc with the victim’s body.
Strange things happen in life. And the sort of possession favored by the movie industry may well occur. I have not experienced it.
However, with some regularity I see people lose self-control under the influence of rage.
Often, the most insignificant things sets them off: a harmless word, the look on someone else’s face, a political disagreement. A generally compassionate person heaps blame on others to offload their own frustration or disappointment. A usually pleasant companion becomes an intimidating bully.
Fear also transforms people.
A person we know well turns into a stranger we don’t recognize. Racist, homophobic, hateful words escape their lips that could not possibly flow from the heart we’ve come to know and trust and love. Fear-driven people are frequently not responding to an imminent danger. Instead, they are compelled by threats that they imagine might occur in the future.
A perceived loss of control often triggers fear and anger. Paradoxically, that very anger and fear then take control of the whole person. Anger- and fear-driven people are no longer in their right mind. A spirit we do not recognize inhabits, animates, and distorts their life.
The work of the Gospel is to restore all things. That’s what Jesus does with the demon-possessed man among the Gerasenes. He brings the man back to his right mind. And Jesus came to restore not only individuals, but to heal and to renew the whole world.
It is not only individuals who have a spirit. Back in my philosophy days I frequently came across the word Zeitgeist. Spirit of the times or spirit of the age. On analogy with individuals, communities are also animated by a spirit that defines who they are.
And, like individuals, a community can be possessed by a social corrosive, self-destructive spirit. A spirit that betrays the community’s true identity.
The United States is beset by a spirit of fear and anger. And that spirit has unleashed an epidemic of violence in our land.
Just this past week Orlando has been added to the heartrending list of massacre sites. It joins Sandy Hook, Mother Emmanuel, San Bernardino, Virginia Tech, the Grand Movie Theater in Lafayette, and scores of others. So far in 2016 there have been over 130 mass shootings. The United States suffered 372 of them in 2015.
Arming ourselves, building walls, repelling desperate refugees will not exorcise the spirit of violence. Responding to violence with violence simply multiplies violence.
In Jesus, God came to us on a mission. God’s mission is to heal the world, to restore shattered relationships, to right injustice, to end oppression, to vanquish want, and to bring peace to individual hearts and among all the peoples of the planet.
Jesus continues the very same work today that he began before his death and resurrection. We are his hands and his feet for that work. We, the Church, are Jesus’ Body. As the late Marcus Borg put it, without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.
Instead of violence—even violence that we tell ourselves is justified—Jesus explicitly teaches us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek.
The Gospel tells us to welcome the stranger. It says nothing about erecting barriers to protect ourselves from people who are not like us.
A spirit of rage and violence has crept into the American soul. We see this in the epidemic of mass shootings. We see it in the fact that anyone born in this century experiences America as a nation in perpetual war. More rage and violence will not exorcise such a spirit. On the contrary, anger and brute force feed that spirit.
Love exorcises fear and anger. Love exorcises violence.
It was Jesus’ own path. It is the path of dying and rising. Jesus defeated the powers and the principalities of his day—and eventually our own day—on a cross.
Love is costly. But the resurrection assures us that love wins. Love alone exorcises fear and rage and violence. Love alone will restore us to our right mind.