I’ve preached my share of ‘soldiers for Christ’ sermons. Young people love them. They are ready to go out and change the world for Jesus. But now I think they may be just a cheap shot, an easy way to stir people. We all love heroes. We all want to be one.
Maybe it’s middle-age, maybe it’s my life has been way too adventurous and I need to settle down. I no longer want to be a hero.
There’s a strain of evangelical Christianity that is heroic. Save souls! Save babies! Fight the good fight! Castigate the sinner; cast out the demons! It is King Arthur as saint and saviour, a kight in white armour, a mighty sword, right is might. It is not the betrayed, innocent carpenter going to a criminal’s shameful death with no other reason than to fulfill God’s purpose.
Some of this heroic imagery comes out of the Book of the Revelation to St. John the Divine – known to many as the Apocalypse. Christ is portrayed as slaying evil, riding a powerful horse, sword at the ready. That is highly metaphoric, which I think John makes clear. Jesus did not come to bear a sword, but as the life-giving Word of God.
But are we called to the same? Jesus does use some sword imagery in the gospels, but the sword he meant was the Word itself, as John means in the Revelation. Are we called to go hand-to-hand with the forces of Satan?
I have encountered real evil, demonic evil. I believe in possession and the forces of Satan taking hold of people. That evidence is everywhere in the world. Most of that is not supernatural, though. It is just our own collusion with what is wrong, with what opposes the Will of God. We do it every day in bad temper, impatience, deceitfulness, lack of charity. The first line of defense in all Christians is to fight those sins within.
The evil without – well, we’ve seen the Exorcist movies, haven’t we? And they were all pretty awful in their own ways. They make exorcists look like Arthur’s knights. They also make evil look interesting and exciting. The possessed become the focus of attention, the star of the show. There’s a cultural problem for modern Christians – why is evil so interesting today? Why are we fascinated with vampires, werewolves, demons? No sensible person believes in magic, that the universe can be controlled and manipulated by words and ritual. (In real life, physics always wins.) Yet – we buy into the horror genre in so many ways.
I see that some of the lure, even for believers, is that it makes us feel heroic. We wouldn’t open the door to the attic; we would have the holy water on hand. We would be heroes in that dark world.We feel brighter and more powerful than the hapless victims in terror-filled films.
I have seen this sense of heroism spill into action in the real world. It is a trend in Christianity to cast out the “demons” of bad habits that keep people from realizing their sanctification. Whole churches participate in such strange exorcisms. People take on the role of exorcist unprepared and enthusiastically. I think one such incident haunts my own vocation, but because no one will speak of it publically, and with those in authority who know of it thinking it is long buried, I can’t exorcise it. I refused to be a hero.
When I was a new deacon, awaiting my ordination to the priesthood, I was asked by a senior priest if I believed in ghosts and spirits. I answered cautiously. I have had experiences that can’t be explained, particularly in the old houses I find to live in. He asked if I was willing to take on exorcising a building. A person claimed that the building was haunted by a recently deceased relative, and it was bothersome. I asked a few more questions – the person had a troubled relationship with the relative for years, and was claiming to still see this person every night. Now, this is not uncommon – it is more like a waking dream than a haunting. I have heard many people claim the same thing, and know it to be documented in psychiatric literature. My suggestion was that the better course of action was to refer the person to a healthcare professional. I refused to take part in the exorcism as I thought it was not only inappropriate, but probably harmful to the person.
I was in the bishop’s office in forty-eight hours, with a possible charge of consulting spirits hanging over my head. I suppose officially this would have been a charge of sorcery or witchcraft. Blessedly, our bishop was a rational man; he refused to hear any charges. I explained myself and he agreed with my decision. But I think the other priest, my supervisor, resented it. We were never comfortable together after that. His lack of support of my ministry disabled my relationship with my parish. I may still have a reputation as a trouble-maker. Old gossip disappears slowly and seven years later, its toxic effects linger.
Yes, close friends thought it was all amusing afterward. I was given black hats and a plastic skull. I already had a black cat and a closetful of herbs. I jokingly bought a decorative broom and hung it near the door. It’s funny because I’m about as far from being a witch as any Christian can be, a rationalist in so many ways.
I’m not a hero either. I try to resist those heroic impulses. There is, instead, a grace and a blessing in the quiet ways of the house, the order of the seasons in the garden, the gentle strength given to those of us who care for others. I am now satisfied with the kitchen, the field and the workroom. It may take more strength to get up every morning and do all the same things every day, with little novelty and diversion. But I believe it allows me to live in prayer and to give my time to the simple ways of Christ.