Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Does the U.S. (and It’s Churches) Need an Exorcism?

I was reading Willard Swartley’s wonderful book, Covenant of Peace as part of my preparation for a sermon series on “Paul the Peacemaker.” In his section on “Principalities and Powers,” Swartley emphasizes (contra Walter Wink) that the NT writers didn’t just believe in semi-personal forces in and through institutions and political structures, but actual spiritual beings. We Westerners need to resist the temptation to demythologize too much if we are to understand Paul rightly–the Powers and Authorities did refer to governments, and other institutions, but ALSO to spiritual BEINGS–however much that troubles us.  Witness to the Powers could rightly include exorcism when Paul began to plant a church in a new city or new part of the empire.

So, while I’m reading this, the news is going on in the background and it’s more about the Islamophobia sweeping the U.S.–this time politicians are opposing a mosque NOT in lower Manhattan, but in Murfreesboro, TN! So, then it hit me that I’ve been thinking of the fear and hatred rampant in this nation since 11 September 2001 (calming down some from late ’06 to Spring of ’09, but now back larger than ever) as a kind of mass psychosis or group insanity.  But maybe I should think of it more theologically as possession.  Since 9/11, a Spirit of Fear (and hate follows fear) has possessed this nation (maybe especially in our churches).  So, maybe we need an exorcism (or several)?

The Spirit of Fear has led to two wars, to torture, unlimited detention (now bipartisan), Islamophobia, anti-immigrant hatred (especially toward Latino/as), a resurgence in OPEN, BLATANT racism of a kind not seen so virulently in years, fear of the poor, fear of any attempt by the government to help anyone (SOCIALISM!), fear that any action to help the environment is some kind of Communist plot, resurgent homophobia, etc., etc.  The U.S. churches seem to be caught up in this as much as, or more than, the rest of the nation. (I don’t presume to speak for other faith groups.) Last year, the Pew folks put out a study showing that those who attend church twice a week or more are more than TWICE as likely as the national average to support torture! (This is probably the greatest catechetical failure in basic Christian ethics since the majority of U.S. churches supported SLAVERY!)

Should Christian peace groups call for days of fasting and prayer to cast out the spirit of fear (of the Other) in our churches? Should we let it build for weeks?  Should such a campaign culminate in Prayer pilgrimages to sites that represent the Spirit of Fear? To the Arizona-Mexican border? To lower Manhattan near Ground Zero (inviting Jewish and Islamic groups to travel too)? To Congress? The White House? To the offices of major media outlets–and major fear mongering pundits?  To the Pentagon? 

This has gone beyond a political problem.  I wonder if we need to respond with spiritual weapons–the only weapons the New Testament authorizes for Christians in the first place.


August 24, 2010 - Posted by | exorcism, liturgy, oppression, peace, spirituality, theology


  1. Absolutely. That would be a liturgical march on Washington, Manhattan, Arizona I’d like to see.

    William Stringfellow spoke in just these terms in confronting the principalities and powers. He wrote: “Politically informed exorcisms that I believe to be exemplary as that involving [Abraham’s exorcism of] the pharaoh do still occur, if occasionally. This, indeed, was the witness of the Catonsville Nine, when they burned draft records in May 1968… [T]he action at Catonsville was a sacramental protest against the Vietnam war – a liturgy of exorcism, exactly.” (An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Wipf & Stock, p. 150.)

    Comment by kim fabricius | August 24, 2010 | Reply

    • I have that book in an older edition, but I’d forgotten that quote by Stringfellow.

      Maybe we could use a prayer pilgrimage from around the world to exorcise us?

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 25, 2010 | Reply

  2. I was about to say–that sounds exactly like Stringfellow–but Kim beat me to it. Almost from the beginning, Stringfellow uses the language of powers to describe national pathologies, as instances of the demonic.

    Comment by myles | August 27, 2010 | Reply

    • I remember, Myles, but I’d forgotten his characterization of the Catonville Nine episode as an exorcism. I am now exploring the prayer/exorcism possibilities with Christian peace groups. If we do something along these lines, it will be in 2011 in order to avoid even the appearance of being part of an election cycle stunt or support for one political party or another. (The parties need exorcising, too. We should put the DNC and RNC headquarters on the list of prayer pilgrimage sites.)

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 28, 2010 | Reply

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