Exorcising an American Demon

Racism is more than an expression of an individual attitude; it is prejudice with power behind it. But looked upon with a biblical and theological eye, white racism may be recognized to be even more—an active and aggressive principality, a "power" that appears to move, adapt, and grow with a life of its own.

In 1963, William Stringfellow made precisely this point in a brief speech at the first National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago. Addressed by Martin King, Sargeant Shriver, and Abraham Heschel, the conference, both ecumenical and interfaith, was the first major foray of the mainline denominations into the freedom struggle. Stringfellow's remarks were controversial for a variety of reasons, including his excoriation that the gathering was "too little, too late, and too lily white." However, his most provocative and remarkable observation was this:

From the point of view of either biblical religion, the monstrous American heresy is in thinking that the whole drama of history takes place between God and humanity. But the truth, biblically and theologically and empirically, is quite otherwise: The drama of this history takes place amongst God and humanity and the principalities and powers, the great institutions and ideologies active in the world. It is the corruption and shallowness of humanism which beguiles Jew or Christian into believing that human beings are masters of institution or ideology. Or to put it differently, racism is not an evil in human hearts or minds; racism is a principality, a demonic power, a representative image, an embodiment of death, over which human beings have little or no control, but which works its awful influence in their lives.

Many at the conference were scandalized because they heard in Stringfellow's statement an invocation of despair. And yet just such scandalous biblical realism is prerequisite to hope for America.

In such a light, racism must still be regarded as sin, but in a much broader and deeper sense—as individual and collective collusion with established evil. It is willing complicity in our own enslavement to privilege (or limitation). It is giving ourselves over to an animate system of domination. It is thereby distorting our humanity and, as we shall see, submitting ourselves to an idol.

Viewed biblically, a power (and racism is virtually emblematic in this regard) may be identified as both structural and spiritual—having these two aspects in one reality. This is underscored in the creation hymn of Colossians 1:15-20, where the assorted powers and authorities are described as both heavenly and earthly, visible and invisible. Walter Wink (whose analytical work on the powers over the last several decades was seeded by Stringfellow's scriptural intuition) has concluded that "every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form—be it a church, a nation, or an economy—and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world." These are simultaneous aspects of a single reality.

In the struggle for racial justice, the recognition of "institutional racism," that insidious structural element far beyond personal prejudice, was a huge step toward seeing racism as a principality. Ironically, however, the liberal preoccupation with its institutional character would prove progressively blind to its overpowering spiritual dimension.

The African-American freedom struggle, founded under the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's early banner "To Heal the Soul of the Nation," tended to become more and more a civil rights movement with a largely legislative agenda. In the several decades since Stringfellow's address, the legal apparatus of American apartheid has been all but dismantled.

And that's the end of racism, right? No. We ignore the spiritual reality of racism at the peril of our national soul. No force in U.S. history has proven more relentless or devastatingly resilient than white racism. It is empirically a demon that again and again rises up transmogrified in evermore predatory and beguiling forms, truly tempting our despair. The frustration we suffer is not unlike that of the disciples who were gently upbraided by Jesus, "This kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting."

Generally, with respect to powers theology, a two-fold effort is necessary. Theological liberals must be convinced that institutional structures have a spiritual dimension that must be taken with equal seriousness. Theological conservatives must be persuaded that principalities are not airy beings waiting to swoop down on unprepared individuals, but that these principalities invariably have their feet on the ground, being embodied and incarnated in social forms and cultural structures.

With respect to racism and social transformation, the struggle before us remains necessarily two-handed or two-edged, fusing social analysis and institutional reconstruction with discernment, prayer, and worship-based action. These may be held together conscientiously in parallel tracts or welded in a single spiritual-political act.

It's no tactical coincidence that in the best of the freedom movement, the church was "the place to go out from." Prayer, preaching, and knock-down singing were introit to action—and one with it. Under the charge of benediction, people would pour down the aisle and out the doors to march, sit in, or boycott. The powers of racial injustice to be confronted in the street had already been named and met and brought down before the sovereignty of God in worship. Their spiritual claim was already shaken.

Prayer and worship are crucial to anti-racism work in large part because racism is fundamentally an idolatry. George Kelsey, one of Martin King's professors at Morehouse, wrote decades ago:

Although racism did have its beginnings in a particular constellation of political and economic events in the early modern world, it has developed into an independent phenomenon, possessing meaning and value in itself and giving character to all the institutions of some societies....When [people] elevate any human or historical factor to so great a height that it has the power to give substance and direction to all cultural institutions, no matter what the raison d'être, that human or historical factor has become a god.

Idolatry is perhaps the primary spiritual mechanism by which a glorious human diversity, created by God for praise and delight, becomes in the Fall a power of division, a device of injustice, a demonic servant of death. This reversal and inversion of God's good gift is predicated on the distortion of misplaced worship.

The idolatry question restated: Racism is an issue of justification. "Moral worth" and meaning are imputed to certain people or communities—on the basis of their "whiteness," for instance.

Here we are on firm New Testament turf. Paul, by way of wrestling with the law, concluded that claims of justification, meaning, and self-worth, located in any ideology or institution (indeed anything but God's grace alone), ultimately prove bondage to sin and death. Consider the frightful energy of pure "righteousness" that fuels racial violence and hate crimes.

Moreover, "whiteness" is itself an ersatz cultural reality, a social artifice without real substance, virtually a fabrication and a falsehood. That a lie should preempt and usurp the truth of God's grace is, well, the work of death's power in this world. Those of us who enjoy privilege on the basis of race, or who seek justification there, are truly pathetic victims, cut off from the rich gifts of our own humanity. We are also cut off, not incidentally, from the richness of our own histories and cultures—all sold for a mess of whiteness.

Of course, this false justification in race is elicited to begin with at cost to others, namely colored peoples, whose justification and moral worth in exact proportion is commonly seen as less. They are dehumanized—unjustified, if you will, before the gods of this world. The assault on their humanity, which this both represents and sanctions, is practically definitive of the demonic.

When the power of racism reigns within the church, it is noticed in several ways—but primarily in the suppression of gifts. The Word of God in the Holy Spirit is forever busy stirring up and calling out boldness in people to exercise their gifts and faculties on behalf of the community and in service to humanity and all creation. Meanwhile, the power of death in the demon of racism is busy intimidating people, or suppressing, refusing, devaluing, and denying those very gifts and facilities, rendering them unknown or inaccessible to community and creation. (The same experience may be recognized with respect to the demons of sexism and homophobia.)

Crossing to the Other Side
The more visible scandal to the gospel perpetrated by the rule of this principality in the church is division. The body called to witness Christ in and through its visible unity instead replicates the de facto apartheid of our society. It is conformed. Be it by congregation or denomination, the segregation of the white church compromises, nay refutes, the gospel.

Read in dynamic analogy, the "wall of hostility" identified in Ephesians 2:14 bears upon us. The hostility referred to there is not racism as such, but the division between Jew and Gentile which the church had finally resolved to overcome in its life and community. The wall, in one sense, was quite literal. There was in the temple a barrier defining and setting off the court of the Gentiles. On it was posted a notice, literally a death threat, a sign forbidding Gentiles entrance into the interior courts of the Jews. Paul, as a matter of fact, was accused of transgressing that very wall with a friend in the Book of Acts (21:27-36). He was arrested and imprisoned, a circumstance that drives the narrative of that book to its conclusion.

The wall, however, was more than a wall. It worked to represent all the boundaries of purity, the social architecture—often invisible—that separated the two communities. The law, in this case the purity code, which once praised God and served human life by preserving community boundaries and resisting the seductions of imperial accommodation in Babylon, had been made an idol now binding people to sin and death and cutting them off from allies, brothers and sisters, with whom they ought to be in community. The wall had become itself the very spirit of hostility incarnate.

We all know how boundaries are reflected in social geography, how patterns of power get laid out in space. I think about Detroit, where I live. Such geography has been enforced over the years in a variety of ways. Going back to 1827, the "Black Laws" attempted to exclude African Americans altogether from the territories by requiring them to register, showing a freeholders certificate and posting $500 to "insure good behavior." As recently as 1953 "restrictive covenants," real estate deed clauses forbidding sale to blacks, were still legally enforceable in the city. When housing discrimination was made illegal, the real estate industry took to "block busting," making bundles of cash on white flight by concentrating the market on a narrow, moving boundary line, one block at a time. In a further level of sophistication, "redlining" by banks systematically withheld housing loans from identified neighborhoods.

Even now a more subtle and nearly imperceptible marketing device of real estate "steering" maintains such boundaries. And then there is the palpable spirit of hostility that lets you know you are simply out of place, entering or traversing the wrong neighborhood. In Detroit, as elsewhere, there are certain thoroughfares (and not just expressways) that function as walls between racial communities. The streets themselves possess that palpable spirit that says, for example, "Don't cross Eight Mile."

Ephesians, which comes to us as a jail letter from Paul, argues that in Jesus' death and resurrection the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down, and a new humanity thereby created in the one who is our peace. It continues:

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me...that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I was made a minister...to preach to the Gentiles the unspeakable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in high places (3:1-10).

Observe how lucid the prisoner has become concerning the principalities. It's almost as though he sees in the wall a living reality. Taking the good news to the Gentiles requires addressing the powers themselves, putting the wall itself on notice.

The gospel of Mark, as scripture scholar Ched Myers has shown, knows the same experience in a different image. There Jesus is forever sending the disciples over to "the other side" of the "sea." Mark is the first person ever to call that turbulent Galilean lake a "sea," thereby invoking not only the power of chaos but the whole history of crossing to liberation.

Among other things, this redundant phrase, "the other side," is tip-off to the fact that, in Mark's story and geography, there is a Jewish side of the sea and a Gentile side. (Jesus feeds the people on one perimeter and then the other. He does parallel healings or exorcisms similarly on both sides.) And what should happen when he sends the disciples to cross over? Death threatens. The storm rages. Heavy weather would swamp or drown them or blow them off course.

What could be truer to our own experience of trying to build alliances or friendships or communities with sisters and brothers on the "other side"? We hear an invisible whisper that says, "Stay home," striking fear in our hearts and prompting our despair. It may be a silent storm within, simply awkward and cool, or one raging with hostility. Once again, that storm, that blustering barrier, must be named and rebuked with authority. It's nothing short of a baptism to set off in faith into those troubled waters.

William Stringfellow's source of authority and hope at the Chicago conference was tied to baptism:

[Racism] is the power with which Jesus Christ was confronted and which, a great and sufficient cost, he overcame. In other words, the issue here is not equality among human beings, but unity among human beings....The issue is baptism. The issue is the unity of all humanity wrought by God in the life and work of Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of that unity.

As the Ephesians letter (which itself may be read as a baptismal meditation) puts it: The new humanity in Christ's body breaks down the wall of hostility (2:14-16). In this new humanity that baptism seals and affirms, our relationship to every other human being, every human community, indeed to every creature, is renewed. The wall has no claim upon us. The powers do not rule in our lives and community. We have died, with Christ, out from under their spirit and dominion (2:1-8).

The rite of baptism always has about it an element of exorcism. We vow to "renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of sin." In more ancient language, we "renounce the devil and all his works." That, I believe, is where the struggle against racism needs to be rooted, in the promise and grace of our baptism.

When the community that gathers around the Catholic Worker in Detroit renews individuals' baptismal vows by candlelight in the Easter vigil, the members get scandalously concrete and specific about these promises. They pledge to "renounce racism, nationalism, sexism, and all other barriers to human unity...." They reject "the idols of money and property, race and class...."

That, of course, is not the end of anti-racism work, but it is the proper place to begin. In worship. Under the sign and hope of resurrection. In freedom from the power of death. Where the principalities are already declared undone.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann was a Sojourners contributing editor and director of the master of divinity program for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) in Chicago when this article appeared.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Exorcising an American Demon"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines