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Established May 2009, Little Rock, AR

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Exorcising Empire Sermon by Zachary Crow

February 26, 2018

Exorcising Empire

Sermon by Zachary Crow



So far this year, 146 people have been shot and killed by police. One of those men was 28 year old Shaleem Tindle. Body cam footage contradicts the police officers report that Tindle was “clearly armed.” Rather, it shows Tindle raising his hands into the air, before being shot in the back three times. This, of course, is not an isolated incident. We have been inundated with similar videos for the last decade, and aware of this reality long before cell phones possessed the ability to record video footage. Black Lives Matter has led a national movement demanding action. The federal government has launched expensive and lengthy investigations into police departments all over the country, uncovering time and time again, racist and brutal practices. All of this — and yet we — who demand justice and equity for all — continue to loose in the courts and in the halls of power. Why? Why are we loosing friends? In order to try and answer this question I’ve got to tell you two stories. I’ll warn you in advance, neither comes from the Bible, though we’ll get there eventually. But, before we do lets begin with the Supreme Court decision of Tennessee v. Garner. Here’s what we know: On the night of October 3, 1974, 15-year-old Edward Garner, an unarmed 110- pound African-American 8th-grader in Memphis, Tennessee, was believed to have stolen a wallet containing $10 from a nearby home. When Memphis Police Officer Elton Hymon saw Edward climbing a fence to get away, the officer shot Edward in the head and killed him. He had no reason to believe Edward had a gun. The officer didn't see a gun.

 

Edward was, in fact, unarmed. At the time, Tennessee along with 20 other states, had a law on the books, dating back to the times of slavery. This law made it fully legal for a police officer to shoot a "fleeing felony suspect" in order to "effect an arrest.” Edward's father, Cleamtee Garner, was, of course, outraged and fought the Memphis Police Department and the State of Tennessee in court, relentlessly suing the city of Memphis, the mayor of Memphis, the officer, and the Memphis Police Department on grounds that his son's rights were violated and that the use of deadly force against his son was not only excessive, but also extreme. Nine years later, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Garner and ruled that the law allowing Hymon to shoot and kill Edward Garner should immediately be struck down because it violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable seizures. Current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, was at the time an attorney in the Reagan administration, and wrote a fifteen page brief arguing that the circuit court had made the wrong decision and that police should be able to shoot fleeing suspects like Edward Garner. Emboldened by Alito's stance, the city of Memphis appealed the ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the Sixth Circuit was right in striking down the Tennessee law permitting Hymon to shoot and kill Edward Garner. The decision was celebrated as a victory for victims and their families who fought against police brutality. The problem, and there is a problem, lies in the final paragraph which reads: "It is not, however, unconstitutional on its face. Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.

 

Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given. As applied in such circumstances, the Tennessee statute would pass constitutional muster.” In case you missed it — Tennessee v. Garner, allows police the right to use deadly force on a suspect if the officer has been threatened with a weapon — or if they have cause to believe the suspect has committed, or will commit, a violent crime unless the officer intervenes with deadly force. Doesn’t matter if they did it — matters in the officer believes they did it. Belief is a difficult thing to disprove in court. Our second story this morning is the 1989 Supreme Court decision of Graham v. Connor. On November 12, 1984, in Charlotte, N.C., Dethorne Graham, a respected North Carolina Department of Transportation employee, and a diabetic, was having a terrible insulin reaction. He asked a close friend, William Berry, to stop off at a gas station so that he could purchase some orange juice. When Graham entered the gas station he was discouraged by the long line, panicked, left the store without the orange juice, and got back into the car, asking his friend to rush him home. Officer Connor, of the Charlotte Police Department, observing what he believed to be erratic behavior by Graham, followed the car for half a mile and decided to pull it over for an investigative stop — believing, perhaps, that Graham had stolen something from the store. After pulling Graham out of the car, the officer refused the pleas of Graham and the driver to get him some sugar for his insulin reaction. Graham encouraged the officers to look in his wallet for the diabetic decal he carried, but according to Police Magazine, "one of the officers told him to 'shut up' and shoved his face down against the hood of the car. Four officers grabbed Graham and put him head first into the police car. A friend of Graham's brought some orange juice to the car, but the officers refused to let him have it.” During all of this, Graham passed out, police somehow broke his foot, cut his face and wrist, and strained his shoulder. Connor decided to go back to the gas station to see what Graham had stolen.

 

It turned out he didn't steal anything — that everything Graham and Berry told police was true. Police then literally dumped an injured and dangerously depleted Dethorne Graham onto his front yard before driving away. Graham pressed charges for excessive force, claiming his constitutional rights had been violated. When the case eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the fundamental aspects of the decision centered around the word "reasonable." The Supreme Court determined that "reasonable use of force" by an officer must be viewed from the perspective of what appeared reasonable in the moment of its application — not from 20/20 hindsight. In other words, the outrageous behavior of the police during Graham's detention was reasonable, because the police all believed Graham to be an erratic criminal instead of an innocent man having a very serious diabetic crisis. This, of course, sets an incredibly dangerous precedent, making it nearly impossible to hold police officers accountable for the brutal or lethal force they apply. Let us remember Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man standing on the doorstep of his own home. Using Graham v. Connor, the officers' attorneys successfully argued that they "reasonably" believed they were in grave danger when a black man pulled out his wallet, believing it was a gun. Graham v. Connor allows officers to shoot and kill with lethal force whenever they are afraid. Slapping a body camera on a bigot doesn't stop police brutality when the bigot knows that not only White America has their back, but the Supreme Court as well. Why are we not winning when officers murder black and brown people? The answer, of course, is that — it is legal — literally written into the law. What do we do? Turn with me if you would to Mark 5: 5-20. “When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside.

 

The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.” Jesus is confronted by a poor man who lives apart from the traditional world and has become ritually impure — he lives among the tombs and is surrounded by pigs. The man announces himself as Legion. Legion is a Latin term. It was a division of Roman soldiers — often two thousand — “My name is Legion, for we are many” And the deeper we look the more we see that the rest of the story too is filled with military imagery. The term “herd of pigs” seems inappropriate — pigs do not travel in herds — but, upon a deeper examination we learn that the word used here — herd — is the same word used to refer to a band of military recruits. Mark’s on point, ya’ll. This is a deeply symbolic and prophetic act — This is Jesus railing against the military might of Rome. This “legion” of demons are cast into a “herd” of pigs and thrown over the mountaintop. And, as the Egyptian army was swallowed by the Red Sea — the armies of Rome represented as pigs and demons are likewise swallowed by the waters. Jesus is confronting the colonial power structure — Jesus is symbolically attacking Roman military power — Jesus compares Roman soldiers — operating as the long arm of the law to an army of demons. It would seem the author is attempting to remind us that empires are demonic too — that they trample on the weak to enrich the few. The man who calls himself Legion is possessed by the impure spirit of empire. John Dominic Crossan identifies demon possession as a psychological reaction to oppression. In Northern Rhodesia — certain members of the LundaLuvale tribes began to suffer from possession by what they called bindele. Bindele was the Luvale word for “European.” Those suffering from it were believed to be possessed by the spirit of a European. Is it possible that Legion is possessed by the soul of a Roman soldier? Perhaps, Legion is to Roman Palestine what bindele is to colonial European Rhodesia. Perhaps this text too has something to say about a policing — a practice both dating back to and rooted in chattel slavery. The man in Mark inflicts self harm, cutting himself. Here we gain insight into the type of emotional and physical harm empires disseminate. Research on the psychological effects of watching police brutality — not only in person, but online suggest there can and will be long-term implications, forcing us to either re-experience trauma or become numb to the oppression. If step one is exorcism. What is step two? Verse fourteen — “Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.

 

Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demonpossessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region. As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.” Jesus’s exorcism is not merely a divine show of healing over metaphysical demonic powers but a direct, symbolic attack against empirical forces. It would seem the townspeople are quite clear of the political implication. Upon hearing of these events the townspeople’s sense of a well-ordered world is threatened. Imagine that. They are quite aware that demons sometimes possess — chalk it up to a few bad apples. They cannot fathom a world in which these demons are indeed driven out. It upsets the pre-conceived notions of how the world works. Perhaps, this is the reason for the townspeople’s discomfort and insistence that Jesus depart from their area. The man begs Jesus — that he might accompany him — but Jesus refuses. Rather, this man becomes the first missionary — the first evangelist. It is important to note, that the restored demoniac is given no doctrine to communicate. He is merely to preach what Jesus has done for him. The story in and of itself is enough to liberate the oppressed. It is also worth noting, that nowhere in the text does Christ address the way in which this man or other marginalized peoples are to cope with their oppressors, but rather leaves this to the courage and insight of healed peoples as they reengage the world. This is a radically alternative way of understanding evangelism. The word gospel, of course, means good news — but it too comes from a military term — a messenger would deliver to the emperor — the “good news” of a military conquest. To speak of the gospel of Christ — the good news of Jesus — is a political act — one that simultaneously critiques and deconstructs Roman military might. What does good news look like today? Looks an awful lot like protest. An awful lot like revolution. Looks an awful lot like empires and oppressive systems crumbling. Looks a lot like exorcism to me, ya’ll.