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Herb Rothschild Jr: This present darkness

Several portions of previous columns have led me to reflect on resisting the evils of our times: my assertion two weeks ago that what prevents most of us from resisting them is the tendency to adjust to our circumstances and get on with our lives; my view that treating mass shootings as a mental health issue obscures the crucial role of our cultural dysfunction; the incidence of PTSD among members of our armed forces.

As the biblical scholar Walter Wink notes in “Unmasking the Powers” (1986), the second book in his trilogy about evil, there are two understandings of the demonic: the systemic and the personal. The first attributes neurosis, distress and alienation mainly to our surrender to oppressive structures of power. We can’t be liberated by personal insight unless that insight includes the ways in which our own demons are the internalization of the external demons of brutal institutional power. Exorcism is through social struggle.

The other understanding is that neurosis, distress and alienation are mainly the consequence of individual malfunctions. So exorcism is through personal analysis, medications and other mental health strategies to help us cope successfully.

I don’t usually think in either/or terms. Surely it’s a sign of mental health, not illness, that people who killed women and children in Iraq are deeply disturbed by their experience; the illness is our nation’s quest for military domination. Conversely, some mental dysfunction is unarguably rooted in the biology of the sufferer. Mostly, though, if we are to understand mental health rightly, we must attend both to the world(s) in which we live and to our inner lives, and then to the interactions between them. I’m deeply opposed to an emphasis on personal adjustment. If we want a mentally healthy population in any authentic sense, we must build a mentally healthy world.

Unless we take them merely as a way of speaking, Wink’s use of the terms “demons” and “exorcism” may strike us as obsolete, even off-putting. Actually, Wink began his extended reflection on “the Powers” by asking what Paul was speaking of when he wrote to the congregation in Ephesus, “For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” Using his scholarly tools, Wink concluded that, for Paul and for Jesus, the Powers are both the spirits of earthly systems and the outward workings of those systems.

So when we turn potentially beneficial systems, such as organized religions, nation-states, capitalism or communism, into idols by surrendering our moral consciences to them, their spirits become demonic. They possess the minds of their followers so thoroughly that in some sense no individuals are responsible for the terrible things done in their name. Li Keqiang, China’s premier, isn’t a bad person. Nor is Obama. Nor, probably, is the CEO of Exxon. Nor are the workers at the Trident submarine base in Bangor. But all of them are instruments of systems of domination, each of which has its own spirit we can expose and analyze.

So Paul’s isn’t “merely” a way of speaking. To speak this way is to gain clarity about the task of healing. When we vote in November, we’ll vote for people of flesh and blood. But with our votes and in every other way, especially our work of self-awareness, we must engage the cosmic powers of this present darkness.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.