Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in evil. I believe that evil is a positive force (i.e., not just the absence of good), and I believe that evil can take control of individuals and communities and systems. Sometimes, that evil manifests itself in the political process (e.g., disenfranchisement). Often it shows up in economics (e.g., pay day lending practices). Frequently, it plagues human relationships (e.g., abuse). And I even believe that, in rare circumstances, it can possess a person in a real, total, physical-and-spiritual way that we call "demonic possession."
Let me be clear that I do not believe that mental illness or neurological disorder is akin to demonic possession. I'm sure that many of the exorcisms in ancient times were misprescribed solutions for things like epilepsy and schizophrenia. No, I don't think that people who do bad things are necessarily demon possessed. There's a difference between the effects of sin and the effects of demonic spirits taking over an individual's life. No, I've never encountered someone in my ministry who has suffered from demonic possession or demonic attachment (a less significant, incomplete manifestation of evil in a person or place), but I believe it happens, and I think we should take it seriously.
Take it seriously? Yes, that's right. We should take evil seriously--not because we ever expect to meet someone who is possessed by a demon but because we encounter other, not-as-complete-as-possession-but-as-real-as-it-gets effects of evil every day. If evil is powerful enough to take over someone or a group of someones completely, imagine how easily it can begin to shape us and the world around us.
In Sunday's RCL gospel lesson (Mark 1:21-28), we read that Jesus, when confronted by "a man with an unclean spirit," rebuked the spirit and ordered it to come out of the man. We aren't told what happened to the man. He never even says a word. But we are clear that the response of the congregation was amazement: "A new teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." Jesus, it seems, is able to exercise authority and power and control over even the powers of evil. And that, I think, is the importance of this passage.
In human history, Jesus stands alone as one who has authority over heaven and earth. That's what makes this gospel lesson significant. The people are discerning just how new Jesus' authority is. He isn't just a teacher or preacher who "talks the talk." He has the power to back up his words and do something about it. In other words, Jesus isn't just advocating for the good and preaching against that which is evil. He is actually standing up against the forces that work to undermine God's reign and defeating them.
What about us? What about those who act in Jesus' name? Can we do the same? Should we try?
No, I don't advocate stocking up on holy water and crucifixes. No, I'm not calling for Christians to prepare to fight in the zombie apocalypse. Yes, there is a time and place for exorcism, but I don't expect to find it. I do, however, expect to take a stand against evil. And there's a difference between simply preaching a message against the evils of the world and actually standing up against evil.
To call upon Jesus' name and stand against evil means confrontation. It means a power-struggle. It means using the power of God to wrest power away from those whom evil has corrupted. It might start with preaching, but it's more than preaching. It means performing actions that reflect those words.
What does it mean to stand up against evil in the 21st century? Some might call that a fight for social justice, and maybe that's an example of it, but I don't want to limit the battle against evil to "sticking up for the little guy." To fight evil in Jesus' name means not merely looking the oppressor in the eye and calling for justice but to stare Satan in the face and repudiate his claim in this world. Who's up for that?