I’ve been rereading Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers that I first picked up some twenty-five years ago. I was particularly struck by a passage that reflected a lot of my own thinking in recent years. Who knows, maybe I got it from him in the first place. It has to do with the reality of the demonic. I’ll get to what he wrote in a moment.
In the meantime, the question has come up sooner or later in every bible class I’ve taught: Are demons real? What are demons? Of course it comes up! It’s not a silly question. Demons are mentioned with some regularity in the gospels. Moreover, popular culture is inundated with demons as characters in fiction and fantasy. The Western world pretends to enlightenment that knows better, but it’s a thin patina. Much of the rest of the world lives in the certainty of demons everywhere all the time.
I’ve preferred to answer by speaking of the demonic as a spiritual reality rather than demons as creatures apart from humanity. It hasn’t always been a satisfying answer for a couple of reasons. It requires some abstract thinking that many find uncomfortable, and it doesn't excuse humanity from responsibility for hosting the demonic, sometimes with religious conviction and enthusiasm.
That brings me to what Wink wrote that clarifies the question, at least for me.
The very demons themselves, so long regarded as baleful spirits in the air, are pictured by the Gospels as abhorring decorporealization. When Jesus orders the “Legion” of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, they plead to be allowed to possess a nearby heard of swine. The historicity of the conception is guaranteed regardless of the historicity of the event. The unclean spirt can find no rest without a physical body in which to reside. …They are, in short, the name given that real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations.
The reality of the demonic does not require demons as creatures, nor does it deny the existence of demons as spiritual manifestations of evil in all of its forms. Are they things of heaven or things of earth is a question that makes no sense because they are not things in our ordinary sense of what a thing is, and there is no boundary that separates the heavenly from the earthly, even though we find it useful to pretend that there is. Where do they come from? I suspect that they come from us. We bring them into being and sustain them with the nourishment of our individual and collective behavior. Once brought into being, they may go on in the lives of persons, institutions, offices, crowds, informal gatherings, and congregations for years, perhaps for many generations. We create them and nourish them, but they take on an existence apart from us.
How do you get rid of demons, or at least tame them? Remember Martin Buber’s I and Thou? Demons thrive when we treat other human beings as things rather than persons. Whenever we dehumanize a person, a class of persons, or whole populations of persons, we create demons and the environment in which they flourish. When, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant in my tradition, we respect the dignity of every human being, we take away everything that demons need to exist. We are no longer hosts for the demonic, nor do we encourage environments in which the demonic can live in others.
What was it that Jesus did to dispose of demons? He restored persons to their place in society, and to the possibility of fullness of life. The oppressed were blessed, and the margins that made for the marginalized were removed. Most important, he embraced each person with God’s love. Not only can we do the same, we are commanded to do the same. It isn’t always easy, but I think we must also have the courage to recognize and call out when we encounter the demonic being created and nourished by others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. are examples of what that looks like. Most of us are not called to become martyrs in that fashion, but last Sunday I heard a powerful sermon by Bob Nelson at Holy Innocents in Lahaina in which he boldly named the demonic of the current presidential contest. It took courage to preach that sermon. I imagine it did not go down well with some of the visitors in this tourist dominated congregation. But he was right.