[EDIT: An abbreviated version of this article appears at Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice.]
“Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” Luke 9:1–2, NRSV
“But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Luke 11:20
Two years ago, I drove over six hours each way from Columbus, Ohio, to Lynchburg, Virginia, alone, to attend the Red Letter Revival. My second year of seminary was nearing its end. I was eager to live into the call to social justice that my school taught and that so many of my fellow students committed themselves to. And yet, something was missing. Responding to the persistent tug of the Holy Spirit, I drove those long hours to see what that missing piece might be.
I had followed Red Letter Christians for a couple of months at that point but had never heard of Jonathan Martin. At the event (spurred by an altercation between himself and the campus police at Liberty University), Martin delivered a sermon on the evil of white supremacy in the United States. He named evils at work—and what a faithful Christian response requires—that I had not heard named at my progressive, social-justice-centered seminary. While my school spoke frequently of white supremacy, Martin called it out as an ancient principality. Then he spoke a word I would never hear in a sermon at chapel: exorcism. The United States, he preached, needed an exorcism from the principality of white supremacy.
Now I say I had never heard that word at chapel, but this was not my first exposure to these concepts. I had heard all about principalities, exorcism, and spiritual oppression and warfare at the Pentecostal church in the small, rural town where I grew up. The same church I had to leave as a teenager when my questions got too “dangerous.” When it seemed that in exploring my curiosity about science and sexuality, I was at risk of falling prey to these same malignant forces. When my failure to speak in tongues—to demonstrate “initial evidence” of baptism with the Holy Spirit—seemed to confirm the worst.
I went on to become the first person in my family to go to college. By then I had left behind the Christian faith entirely, convinced it was all fundamentalist, damaging, fear-based hogwash. I did eventually find my way back to Christianity thanks to a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (after I entered seminary as a Unitarian Universalist but before the revival). I kept that part fairly quiet, though. I was no longer living below the poverty line in the middle of nowhere. I had made it. Moved on. Gotten respectable. If I was to be in the church, it had to be the church with both feet in the real world, where real-life racism, poverty, and corrupt economic systems kept people in bondage in the here and now. Any salvation worth recognizing was this-worldly, visible, actionable through collective human effort.
There was certainly no place for mythical principalities. For exorcism. And yet.
For the past several years, our nation has witnessed an ongoing apocalypse in the original sense of the word. The veil is being torn off all the diseased underlying conditions that those who have possessed the privilege of blindness would rather not have to confront, including tangible, nauseating, even murderous displays of white supremacy. These are the very evils that the progressive (white) Christianity I had come to align myself with is committed to opposing. Yet in my own observation, the progressive church’s witness seem to follow on the heels of secular social justice organizations. Rather than naming the core of our witness in the power of the Holy Spirit, I hear abstractions toward rootless, vague calls to justice unmoored from the witness of the gospel. But in the actions in which I have taken part, I sense more is going on. That forces on the unseen plane—forces Jesus names in the gospels and empowers his disciples to confront—are coming into play. And if we attempt to confront them without recognizing their depth and deception, by recognizing that we are at war and spiritual warfare is required, they will destroy us.
I believe the Holy Spirit is calling the church in the United States to cross the historical divides of fundamentalism and liberalism, to join the gifts the Spirit has bestowed upon us as a gathered body to confront this evil. I believe we must. And to do so, we must commit to following the teachings of Jesus—understanding “teaching” more broadly than we typically do.
Many contemporary (particularly white) Western Christians resist the idea that unseen forces can affect us, being so used to the illusion of individual autonomy and personal control. But there is supporting medical and sociological evidence for communal emotional (and spiritual) forces. Philosopher Shannon Sullivan describes “contagion of affect”: how our embodied, physical experiences can be passed on to others in our circles. She lays out the physiological research into this phenomena, by which “people’s good and bad health, including their behaviors and emotions, can be passed to others around them as if it were an infectious virus.” (In light of Covid-19, her words take on an even greater weight.)
This focus on the affective denotes a weakness in the white progressive church, which a closer look at Jesus’ teaching challenges. Progressives typically seek to change people’s views by presenting facts, recommending articles, or creating a stronger argument. If this fails, we consider our attempt complete, perhaps concluding that our “opponent” does not want to learn, or “you can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into.” While that last part might be true, the fact that someone may not change their views through a reason-based approach is not an excuse to disengage. Our understanding of education has been indelibly marked by the same mind/body split that runs throughout Western culture. But I would argue that, from the perspective of his time, casting out demons was part of Jesus’ “teaching,” because teaching was understood to include lived bodily knowledge.
Observe Jesus’ reaction to the Gerasene demoniac, which I will equate here with the modern example of a fellow white person engaging in overt racism. Note that, even in the demoniac’s thrashing, Jesus doesn’t tell the man to read an article then come back and talk after the spirit possessing him gets sufficiently “woke.” Jesus instead recognizes his humanity and understands that what possesses the man cannot be limited to reason. You cannot always select the proper article or argument to educate a spirit of hate out of a person (or system). Sometimes the spiritual reality cuts deeper. Prayer is needed. Exorcism is needed.
What would an exorcism that accounts for the reality of white supremacy’s spiritual evil look like? I do not have space to explore that here. While some progressives have been exposed to limited concepts of exorcism that cut against their humanity (for example, their sexuality or role as women), I argue that we cannot dismiss the concept entirely. After all, if we are to follow the teachings of Jesus, a significant part of those lived teachings did involve exorcism. And to examine it from all angles, we just might have to engage with Christians who take a different perspective on it than we do, and recognize that we all have something to learn from and teach one another.
 Shannon Sullivan, Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014), 123.