"The power of Christ compels you!"
That is a familiar phrase to fans of "The Exorcist" as it is uttered ad nauseum while the movie's heroes, Father Merrin and Father Karras, attempt to dispel the evil spirit possessing a young girl in the climatic scenes. The utterance implies that Christ dispels the darkness. Where Christ is, darkness is not.
The power of Christ dispels. Yet the power of Christ also pulls in. The force of Jesus is somehow both centrifugal (pushing outward) and centripetal (pulling inward). It is important for us to remember this in an era of heightened division when we expend increasingly more energy defining who is in and who is out — or who is against us and who is with us. Jesus sought an ever-widening darkness-dispelling community. His witness implies those who live according to his example seek the same.
How did Jesus welcome?
According the Gospels, Jesus spent a considerable amount of time and gave a wealth of attention to those who were excluded in his society. People with leprosy, considered contagious and unclean, were to be avoided at all costs. A leper approaching someone else went against religious law. As did touching a leper. Yet we find several examples of Jesus coming into contact with people with leprosy and welcoming them into community (Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-45, Luke 5:12-16, Luke 17:11-19). By drawing in those previously excluded, Jesus dispelled the darkness of loneliness — for both the healed person and the community that cast him or her aside.
Jesus performs similar feats with those who were excluded because their behaviors were unexplainable or disconcerting, like a boy with epilepsy (Mark 9:17-29) or those struggling with dark spirits (Mark 1:21-28, Mark 5:1-20). In these cases, Jesus endures unsettling circumstances and brings healing alongside restored community. Jesus welcomed people despite discomfort and he dispelled darkness.
Conversely, we find Jesus offered criticism to those who practiced exclusion. His harshest criticisms were aimed at leaders who made barriers between people and God, remarking "they crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden." (Matthew 23:4) Jesus mourned that the leaders followed the letter of the law, but ignored "justice and the love of God." (Luke 11:42) His criticisms can be a warning to not keep people in darkness. Let them come towards the light.
So for those of us who seek lives imitating Jesus', we are wary of practices that exclude. We seek to remove barriers between those held in darkness longing to feel the warmth of community and care. Words like "ban" and "zero tolerance" inspire discomfort. Such practices may mean comfort for us. But they also proliferate the darkness as they keep others from encountering community and light.
David Smith knows this well. In his work as a missionary, he witnessed the darkness. In a Facebook post on June 23, 2018, he recounted his experiences:
"Karen and I spent 7 years running an orphanage in Piedras Negras, Mexico.
We have held babies, whose parents died trying to get their children to safety.
We cared for a child that was afraid to get on a van, because he thought the cartel that his Mom sold drugs for would see him and kill him.
We have talked to a Mom who said the cartel would kill her family if she didn't traffic their drugs.
We have driven children to school so they would not walk by the cartel's SUV that parks between the orphanage and the highway.
We have been 20 feet from a truck that had military machine guns drawn on it.
We have been in the shoe store where one orphanage worker had to get down on the floor to cover some children as her husband drove others to safety as bullets were flying.
We have seen the debris from hand grenades thrown into the local news agency.
We have eaten in the restaurant where an innocent bystander was shot by the cartel that was trying to kill government officials inside.
We have seen heads hanging from bridges.
We have driven by empty houses where the cartel had killed entire families.
We have been to the town where 300 people were massacred, some just because they had the same last name of rival cartels
We have been in the prison where there was a jail break of over 100 cartel members which resulted in all out war in the streets.
We can assure you it is real."
We know there are many struggling against darkness. They are waiting for those who will take on the roles of Father Merrin and Father Karras and drive out the darkness with an utterance of "the power of Christ compels you!" Welcoming people into community dispels darkness. And because darkness is dispelled, there will be community.
For some ways to encourage community and dispel darkness, check out umcjustice.org. For practical steps on caring for those searching for light and care, see our article on helping immigrant and refugee families.
Ryan Dunn is the minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church. He is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church and is based in Nashville, TN.
[Posted July 2, 2018]