Specifically, I've argued that we should combine the weakness of God with a warfare worldview. The emphasis on the weakness of God gives this theology its progressive appeal, and union with a warfare theology gives it its energy and biblical richness.
The point in making this connection is that I think in failing to connect with the Christus Victor themes in the bible progressive theology has become too philosophical and abstract. As I said in Part 1, people want a real fight and progressive theology often fails to give them one.
True, progressives are fighters, they fight for peace and justice everyday, they just have trouble connecting that fight to the biblical narrative. Why? Because a lot of the biblical narrative is embarrassing or hard to swallow. In light of that, this series was an attempt to make some connections between progressive thinking regarding the weakness of God and the warfare worldview of the bible to provide a way to speak about and act upon the weakness of God using the "fighting words" of spiritual warfare, words generally found only among Christian fundamentalists.
Because here's the deal. Progressives love Jesus. Love him. The Jesus of the gospels may be the only thing progressives like about Christianity. Jesus is often the only thing keeping progressive Christians in the faith. Progressives love Jesus.
But the truth of the matter is this: If you don't get the battle between Jesus and the satan you don't get Jesus. So if progressive Christians want Jesus they are going to have to figure out a way to get their heads around the fact that Jesus was, first and foremost, an exorcist.
Acts 10.38You don't get Jesus until you get the battle he was fighting. No gospel makes this more clear than the very first gospel, the gospel of Mark. Highlights from Mark Chapter 1 where the proclamation of the Kingdom is signaled by Jesus' power over demons:
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him, he went around doing good and healing everyone who was oppressed by the devil.
1 John 3.8b
The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God:This victory over the satan was the sign of the inauguration of the Kingdom in our midst. Jesus succinctly summarized this:
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
[After calling his first followers, Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.
Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!”
The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”
News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”
So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
Matthew 12.28And this power was also the key sign of the expansion of the kingdom:
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Luke 10.1-3, 17-18I'm aware that this facet of Jesus' ministry, this defining feature of the Kingdom of God, makes progressives squirm. But the fact has to be faced that the proclamation of the Kingdom is intimately associated with the casting out of demons. A Christus Victor warfare theology sits at the heart of Jesus' life, ministry and teachings. And if you don't get this about Jesus you just don't get Jesus.
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves..."
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven."
And, incidentally, to bring in another voice, N.T. Wright agrees with me on this. If you've read any of Wright's books on Jesus, scholarly or popular, you know that Wright argues that Jesus saw his real enemy to be the satan, that the battle with the satan was the battle Jesus was fighting and calling his followers to fight. And again, if this is so, then I think by eschewing the paradigm of "spiritual warfare" progressives have pulled the plug on their connection with Jesus.
I'm arguing that it's this pulling the plug on Jesus' battle with the satan that has de-energized progressive theology and set it adrift in a search of alternative energy sources such as postmodernism, Democratic politics or "death of god" theologies (in various guises).
To be sure, progressives are not going to see the work of exorcism the same way a Charismatic faith-healer would. Progressives aren't going to see themselves as casting out literal devils. But as I've been arguing, progressives do need to see themselves as doing battle with dark satanic forces, as participating in a battle between two rival Kingdoms. And as we noted in the last post, this battle isn't about "flesh and blood," demonizing out-group members. The battle is against wickedness in "high places," a battle against the oppressive, violent and dehumanizing mechanisms of the world.
[Interlude:Here's an important thing to note about all this. In this talk about exorcism I'm not trying to force a pill down the throat of the progressive Christian. This isn't about me "adding on" some mythological mumbo-jumbo to social action and activism. As we've noted, if you take the weakness of God seriously, and many progressives do, you are thrust into this battle. The battle is logically implied by your progressive theology. As we've noted, the weakness of God is what makes the warfare worldview possible.
If a progressive pushed me and asked, "What do you think is going on with the demon possession in the gospels?" a sketch of my answer is as follows:
If we bracket the question about the literal existence of demons and demonic possession (I don't want to rule that out for people), I think a lot of our physical, social, political and mental illnesses are produced by internalizing the "spirit of the age," a spirit the New Testament describes as "satan." That is, the cultural air that we breath (the "spirit," "breath," "wind") is toxic and it harms us in a multitude of ways, like breathing in pollution. The spirituality of our world ("the present evil age") creates physical problems like hypertension and obesity. It creates eating disorders, anxiety, depression and addiction. It creates abuse, oppression, violence, and war. It creates economic exploitation and ecological ruin. It creates prejudice and hate. It creates resignation, apathy, and callousness. The list goes on and on.
An all this gets worse as oppression increases. (I'm thinking here of the Roman occupation and the demon "legion.") Oppressive environments have toxic--even lethal--physical, psychological and spiritual effects upon people. Anyone who has walked among the poor and oppressed have seen, first hand, the psychological and spiritual devastation. Oppression creates resignation, despair, criminality, addictions and in-group violence and exploitation. (That's one of the darkest effects of oppression: how it causes oppressed groups to cannibalize themselves while the powers that be sit on the sidelines.) There's a reason the lower classes in America are more likely to be obese, addicted to nicotine, play the lottery, be raped or be arrested. Can we separate the political from the moral/spiritual in these instances?
In short, the "spirit of the age" when it is internalized makes us sick, in all kinds of ways. So it's not surprising to me that in Jesus's day people would manifest, at the very least, these sicknesses in psychosomatic ways that were described as demonic possession in that time and place. And nothing much has changed. Words have changed, but empirically we are facing the same sorts of sickness that Jesus faced. And I think we "cast out" and heal this sickness in the same way Jesus did: radical hospitality. Our sickness is rooted in a fundamental alienation and estrangement. We are "empty" and we fill that emptiness with the "spirit of the age." That spirit then becomes our spirit, the spirit that animates and vivifies us, the spirit that gives us life. But life isn't what we experience. What we experience is sickness.
So healing comes by exorcising this spirit--at every level of causality, from the moral to the structural, as these from a gestalt--and being filled with "the Holy Spirit." This is why we see Jesus breathing on his followers after his resurrection. Jesus is replacing their spirits with his spirit, a spirit characterized by his love, mercy, welcome, community, embrace and solidarity. This is why the inauguration of the Kingdom is associated with exorcism. The Kingdom only comes when the "spirit of the age" is cast out and replaced with the Spirit of Jesus. This is the fundamental practice of exorcism that continues to this very day. When the Spirit of Jesus fills us Satan is cast out and the Kingdom of God is found "within" us and enjoyed "in our midst."]
In short, to be a progressive Christian is to recognize that spiritual warfare is your native and natural language. You were born to be an exorcist. Conservative and fundamentalist Christians have no business talking about spiritual warfare. If you have a high view of God's omnipotent providence and sovereignty you can't have a coherent view of spiritual warfare without implicating God directly in evil and the work of Satan. That is the key point made by Greg Boyd in God at War. And I think he is exactly right.
Warfare implies God's weakness. Weakness implies spiritual warfare.
There are, as we've noted in this series, a plurality of forces in the world. Evils exists in the present age because God is the weak force of love in the world, the power of the cross. And wherever that love reigns the Kingdom of God is in our midst. And the Kingdom comes with the power of exorcism, the casting out of devils, the casting out of the satanic forces of sin, violence and oppression. The Kingdom is found in our midst when we "receive the Holy Spirit." This is a Christus Victor view of salvation where salvation is experienced as deliverance from evil through the power of the cross.
Participating and working for that deliverance is the proper work of the Kingdom and the proper work of the exorcist.
That is what is looks like to follow Jesus, what it means to be a Christian. It means imitating the one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God to be in our midst, following one who went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.
May you go, and do likewise.
...To explore more on how progressive Christians can come to see themselves as "exorcists" I recommend the following resources:
Ched Myer's Binding the Strong Man
Walter Wink's Powers Trilogy: Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers
John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus
William Stringfellow's An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land
Sara Miles' Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead
Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity
Please recommend other sources in the comments.