Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
I said they refused Jesus, too, and he said, “You’re not him.”
They asked Jesus to leave because he had been casting out demons.
The Gospel stories of demons and demon possession are hard for us to understand. The pre-scientific world view of the first century is in many ways very different from our own. But the demon stories leave us with some enduring truths:
1. The demons recognize Jesus. They see the truth in him and they are afraid.
2. He names them and by this naming and identifying, he takes away their power.
3. People get nervous when demons are cast out.
This last point has been apparent in the response to President Jimmy Carter’s recent remarks. He correctly identified the demon of racism, which has possessed our country for so long, and he has been vilified for it. I watched video of Jimmy Carter, his shoulders hunched and his posture bent by age, as the commentator talked about him “intimidating” and bullying those who disagree. When someone has the courage to name the demon, we say that he or she is “playing the race card.” The one who names the oppression is called the oppressor. That is our way of begging Jesus to leave our neighborhood.
Racism does not surprise me. What surprises me and troubles me, is the inability (or unwillingness) of people to call it what it is and cast it out.
Recently the Providence Journal ran an editorial comparing Bob Dylan’s encounter with a police officer in Atlantic City with the Henry Louis Gates incident in Cambridge. If only Professor Gates had been as calm as Bob Dylan, they argue, there would never have been a problem. And that makes sense, because except for a few small details, the circumstances are remarkably similar:
--Bob Dylan was trespassing on someone else’s property, while Professor Gates was in his own home.
--Dylan was wandering in the middle of the night and Gates was coming home in the middle of the day.
--Dylan was dressed like a street person and Gates was dressed like Henry Louis Gates.
--Gates showed his identification, and Dylan had no ID.
--They both got a ride in a police car. Gates was handcuffed, Dylan was not. Gates was taken to the police station to be booked. Dylan was taken to his hotel to see if someone could verify his identity.
--And in the Dylan case, the police officer apologized.
Other than those minor details, the cases were identical.
In an interview with Brian Williams, President Carter said, "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American.” He has named the demon and there are lots of people who want him to leave the neighborhood.
When President Bill Clinton undertook healthcare reform sixteen years ago, and Hillary Clinton led that effort, there was enough opposition to eventually derail the program. What was different was that the opposition did not have what President Carter called “intensely demonstrated animosity” currently directed toward President Obama. It was not as personal, nor was it as intense. It was on the issues. We expect debate. And we expect that debate to be heated at times. But this goes way beyond lively debate.
Racism is difficult if not impossible to prove. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the first time a member of the House of Representatives interrupted a Presidential address by shouting, “You lie!”, the President was Black. And the interrupter was a defender of the Confederate Flag. And that he had condemned Strom Thurmond’s Black daughter for smearing the late Senator by publicly saying that he was her father. That could all be coincidence.
Maybe Joe Wilson just had a bad day. And maybe the people carrying signs telling the “Lyin’ African” (juxtaposed with a “lion in Africa”) to go back to Africa are not racists. And maybe the people carrying pictures of the President as a witch doctor would have done the same thing if John Edwards had been elected.
President Carter is not calling it racism because he disagrees with those who criticize the President's policies. He is naming the demon. We need to have the courage to cast it out. Then we can get back to debating the issues.