Can I suggest an exorcism?

The new year promises to be one of the most challenging in our lifetimes. A relentless, devastating virus has cost us hundreds of thousands of lives and sent economies into freefall. A racial reckoning calls for personal and societal transformation. To date, a constructive response to all these overwhelming realities has been sabotaged by political turmoil and paralysis. These interrelated challenges are the burdens we bear — and the tasks we have been given in this historical moment. Clarity about what we are facing seems critical, and I have found sobering wisdom in Eddie Glaude’s powerful book, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.” He says, “Ours is a cold Civil War.” Some are “desperately holding on to a vision of the United States that has never really made sense.” Others are “fighting for the birth of a new America. But, even in the fight, the divisions in the country feel old and worn. Today feels like we are fighting old ghosts that have the country by the throat.” His metaphors ring true. So how do Christians live into the hope of the new year with ghosts at our throats? Can I suggest an exorcism? Let me explain.

Some years ago, a Presbyterian minister friend and his Catholic wife asked me to baptize their twins, and a local Catholic bishop (another friend of the family) was asked to co-officiate. When we met to settle on details of the service, the bishop asked if we wanted to include the exorcism. I had seen the movie and was rendered momentarily speechless at the thought of rotating heads and projectile vomiting. Catching the look of horror on my face, the bishop smiled and explained the liturgical moment he had in mind — one that turned out to have a clear parallel in the baptismal question Presbyterians ask: Do you “renounce evil and its power in the world?” As we come to the baptismal font, we do so with a recognition that the one we baptize will be a disciple in a world that does not embody the gospel’s values — a world that can distort and disfigure our humanity. At the moment of baptism, we renounce evil — all that defies God’s loving and just ways in the world and in the life of the one baptized. Ever since my aha! moment, I have referred to this Presbyterian query as the exorcism question.

The baptismal moment, with its renunciation of evil, is also a moment in which we commit ourselves as a community to mentoring — the subject of this issue. The renunciation of evil is a communal and covenantal act, a promise we make to each other, for the world’s evil gets inscribed upon all of us — evils such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and the demonization of our perceived enemies, which distort our humanity and our common life. They are in the very air we breathe and are the ghosts that have us by the throat. Yet in baptism we affirm that God’s love is infinitely more powerful than the violence the world inscribes upon us. The baptismal vow of renunciation is a critical tool in our mentoring of each other, reminding us that we are accountable to each other in calling out such aggressions and distortions of our humanity when we see them — gracefully, but forcefully and courageously as the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ empowers us to act, so that we may grow into our full stature as children of God and disciples of Jesus.

We have been fearfully silent about the ghosts at our throat for far too long. Fear is the great inhibitor of renouncing and resisting evil. Thus, one of Jesus’ most frequent admonitions to his disciples – to those whom he mentored – was “fear not.” May remembrance of baptism, and of the promises we make to each other around the font, strengthen us for engagement with the challenges of the year before us and renew our collective mentoring of each other in the life of Jesus who spoke truth to power, healed the wounded and liberated the oppressed, embodying a love that will not let us go.