Refuting the Beelzebul Accusation and the Finger of God

 

by Herb Montgomery

Woman standing above crowd waving red flag

“And he cast out a demon which made a person mute. And once the demon was cast out, the mute person spoke. And the crowds were amazed. But some said: By Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, he casts out demons! But, knowing their thoughts, he said to them: Every kingdom divided against itself is left barren, and every household divided against itself will not stand. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebul cast out demons, your sons, by whom do they cast them out? This is why they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign.” (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

Matthew 9:32-34: “While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, ‘Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisees said, ‘It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.’”

Matthew 12:25-38: “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

Luke 11:14-15, 17-20: “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, ‘By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: ‘Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

If we are going to get our heads around this week’s saying, we first must to step back into the worldview of the writers. As we have covered before, a Jewish apocalyptic worldview holds a dualistic view of this world and the cosmos. There are earthy powers for good and evil and there are also parallel cosmic forces for good and evil that the earthly powers are simply a conduit for. First Century Jewish apocalypticism added to this a belief that they were the earthly expression of the cosmic good. They would have also viewed their foreign oppressors (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome) as earthly expressions of evil. They and their oppressors would have been connected in some way to cosmic forces of good and evil: the Jewish people to YHWH and their oppressors to evil (the satan, Beelzebul, demons, etc.)

Ever since the days of Jeremiah, the Jews had interpreted their exile and foreign occupation as punishment from YHWH for Judah’s sins. They longed for liberation, which they referred to as YHWH’s forgiveness of those sins, and they viewed this liberation as YHWH taking on the cosmic powers of evil and evil’s earthly conduits and working out a victory that would be expressed or reflected in their political, social, and economic freedom.

In the minds of the early gospel writers, Jesus represents the earthly hope of YHWH’s cosmic deliverance. I want to be very careful here. Jesus did not fulfill all of the Jewish hopes for a coming Messiah. Rosemary Reuther rightly states, “he announced this Messianic hope, and . . . gave signs of its presence, but . . . also died in that hope, crucified on the cross of unredeemed human history” (To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism, p. 42). In this light, the cross interrupts Jesus’ saving work and is overcome by the resurrection. The early Jewish community of Jesus followers continued to proclaim that hope, and also to begin to experience its presence. Yet they also, like Jesus, did so under “the cross of unresolved human contradictions.” (Ibid.)

In this week’s saying, Jesus represents liberation. Yet he is being accused, instead, of being an earthly conduit of cosmic forces of oppression, even while engaged in activity that his own community would have normally seen as liberating.

The Satan & Beelzubul

I want to say a few words this week about the satan and Beelzubul. “Satan” in Jewish apocalypticism is not a name but a title or a label. It’s more accurately “the satan,” the adversary. So Jesus’ question in this saying could be more appropriately understood as “If the adversary is divided against himself then how will his kingdom stand?”  Here, Jesus objects to the logic of claiming that he is an adversary of the people and yet against their adversary. A house divided against itself will fail.

Finger of God

Luke’s use of the “finger of God” in his version of the saying has an interesting history behind it. In Jewish history, this is the phrase used by Pharaoh’s magicians when they recognized the cosmic power of good behind the earthly conduit of the liberation of the oppressed in the figure of Moses:

“And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God!’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 8:19)

The author of Luke would have wanted to connect Jesus in the minds and hearts of the readers not only with the liberation symbol of Moses, but also with a slur. The Egyptian magicians could recognize YHWH’s liberation work when they saw it, yet the people in Jesus’ society could not. Their understanding of earthly events and their ability to perceive the cosmic forces behind those events was lower than even their Egyptian oppressors. The Jewish portion of Luke’s audience would have been highly offended by this.

Today

In the HeartGroup Application two weeks ago, I asked you to discuss why positive social changes for the church such as the end of slavery, racial integration, the end of patriarchy and egalitarianism, and justice for the marginalized (including the LGBT community), historically have not come from within the church from our intrinsic process but rather have been imposed on the church from outside forces.

If the church is meant to be such a power of good in our society, why is it that, like Martin Luther King, Jr. used to ask, the church too often is not the headlights of our society but its taillights? Both the church and the world still haven’t rejected classism, but in the areas I have just mentioned, our secular society is far ahead of the church.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in the audience of a congregation thought to be special because it was the first in its own faith tradition to ordain women to ministry. Then they mentioned the date: 1995. Let that sink in for a minute. 1995. 1995! That’s 76 years after the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women a right to vote in American society. Seventy-six years!

For this congregation to be celebrating its work is two-edged. Yes, it’s good to finally celebrate that things have come around. (I should also mention that right now within that same tradition, administrators have agreed that churches that ordain women and their respective territories should be censured for a year and required to cease, desist, and reverse the ordinations of women that they’ve conducted since 1995. (See General Conference Proposes Year of Grace for Unions.)

The other side of this double edge is that 76 years is nothing to celebrate when many other denominations crossed this Rubicon over half a century ago.

So why do churches only embrace positive, liberative changes within our society when forced to? Many of these changes can be traced back to the very Jesus that many Christians would say is at the center of their tradition. I think it’s anachronistic to say Jesus was a feminist, but he did challenge some of the societal assumptions about women in his day. He did regard women as made in the image of God as equally as men. Yet churches that desire to follow Jesus are not pioneering on these issues. They aren’t even bringing up the rear: many are digging their heels and refusing to change.

If history teaches us anything about the struggle between sectors of our society who practice faith and the larger secular sectors of our society in matters of justice, violence and oppression (see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of Secularism in America), it’s that many faith groups are only going to shift the dynamics within their structures when forced to. I can’t help but think of the myriads of Christians in my own region who, as I write this, are making excuses for the extremely sexist, misogynistic, and violent language which recently surfaced in the U.S.’s presidential race, rather than pioneering the path to systemic sex, race and class justice. Which part of Jesus, I wonder, does any of this even look like?

Too often, we mean well, yet aren’t well informed by or even exposed to the experiences of those not like us. Instead of seeing the parallels between liberation movements in the time of Jesus and those in our world today, movements about survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation; and instead of seeing the parallels between these movements, these brave people, and their Jesus, some of us see these movements as somehow threatening, evil, and something to be minimized and even removed.

The saying this week is striking for me. Whether the “demons” we’re casting out from our societies are racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, or other kinds of evil, this week reminds us that those privileged in this society frequently view liberation movements as the work of “Beelzubul” rather than of “YHWH.” They fail to perceive the finger of God when it works for the liberation of those under our thumbs, liberation that would change the entire world for everyone. (Recently I sat in a lecture by a dear friend of mine who recounted the history of Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement and explained that at the core of the movement is the belief that when Black lives are free from oppression, everyone’s lives will be free as well.)

It is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil for something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. Too often, those who claim the name of Jesus have labeled Black liberation, women’s liberation, poor people’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation movements, and a myriad of other liberation movements as evil. It would be well to contemplate this week’s saying, lest we find ourselves repeating this same history from a desire to preserve the status quo today.

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign. (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take these five elements:

a. Survival

b. Resistance

c. Liberation

d. Restoration

e. Transformation

and locate a saying that expresses each one in the Jesus sayings and stories of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

2. Then I want you to locate movements in our world today where these same five elements of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation are present. Look for where and from whom they get negative pushback in our society today.

3. Mark the parallels between what you found in step 1 and step 2, and then meet with your HeartGroup to discuss and share what the next step could be for you as a community.

Wherever this week’s saying finds you, follow the example of the Jesus in the stories. Keep at the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. You aren’t alone: many are standing with you, and I am too.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Liberian Christians, Ebola and the LGBT Community; Advocacy or Accusation? Holy or Demonic? by Herb Montgomery

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“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” — Jesus (John 14.26)

What many miss in John’s gospel is Jesus’ primary characterization of the Holy Spirit’s work as advocacy.

In John’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus actually contrasts two spirits within this narrative: the spirit of advocacy versus the spirit of accusation.

In chapter 8 of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires” (Vs 44). The Greek word here for “devil” is diabolou and it simply means “slanderer” (Mounce’s Greek Dictionary). Another title that is used in the Jesus stories is “the satan.” (And it’s a title, not a name.) The Greek word for “the satan” is satanas which means “accuser.”

There are two spirits in John’s story — the spirit of accusation (or scapegoating) and the spirit of advocacy. One is holy, the other is demonic.

Advocacy is defined as publically pleading for the rights or cause of those who are being oppressed. Accusation is defined as the act of making a charge or claim that someone has done something illegal or wrong.

A Modern Example of Scapegoating:  Liberian Christians Blame LGBT Community for Ebola.

A perfect example of the contrast between advocacy and accusation is found in what is transpiring presently in Liberia.

The Christian leaders of Liberia last week unanimously endorsed the following resolution:

That God is angry with Liberia, and that Ebola is a plague. Liberians have to pray and seek God’s forgiveness over corruption and immoral acts (such as homosexuality, etc.) that continue to penetrate our society. As Christians, we must repent and seek God’s forgiveness. 

Archbishop Lewis Zigler of Monrovia publically declared:

One of the major transgressions against God for which He may be punishing Liberia is the act of homosexuality. 

Leroy Ponpon, an LGBT activist, stated:

Since church ministers declared Ebola was a plague sent by God to punish sodomy in Liberia, the violence toward gays has escalated. They’re even asking for the death penalty. We’re living in fear.

The fact that people who claim the name of Jesus would imbibe this spirit is astounding. This is the exact treatment of others (not to mention the picture of God) Jesus worked so tirelessly and subversively to reverse. What about the prophets you may ask? Go back and read them. The prophets NEVER state that God was going to punish Israel for any actions of the oppressed. God’s punishments were always because of the unjust actions of those at the top of Israel’s privilege/disadvantaged social pyramid. In other words, plagues never came in the Hebrew narratives because of the actions of the oppressed minority at the bottom of society, but because of the exploitation and oppression against the oppressed minority by the privileged and normative majority. Even in the Hebrew stories, Yahweh’s plagues were always aimed at those at the top, the privileged, because Yahweh was standing in solidarity with the minority, defending those at the bottom.

Failure to understand this is what led the religious leaders in Jesus’ day to marginalize people as “sinners.” Failing to see which end of the social pyramid (top or bottom) brought the punishment of Yahweh, led the religious leaders to begin marginalizing and oppressing anyone they deemed was living contrary to the Torah. Living in constant fear of another punishment of Yahweh, the religious leaders became the moral police constantly governing the moral behavior of others, and sacrificing those they judged as “sinners.” Failing to understand which end of the social pyramid brought Yahweh’s plagues in the narratives, in their treatment of others whom they labeled as “sinners,” they became the oppressors. The very thing that brought the plagues of old, the reality they were so afraid of, they ended up recreating.

The God we see in Jesus, within the Jesus story, stands in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized minority. In Jesus’ day (pre-Paul), “sinner” was a term used by Jews to refer to other Jews who were living contrary to the teachings of Moses. To label those who belonged to the oppressed minority as “sinners” only served to perpetuate their oppression. After all, they were viewed as sinners, under the condemnation of God. They deserved this ill treatment. They were ruining society. They were the enemy!

This entire social mechanism, rooted in very dangerous ways of seeing God, ourselves, and others, is what Jesus continually challenged. His embrace of the marginalized and outcast so deeply threatened the religious culture of his day that they believed he must be removed in order to prevent, in their minds, Yahweh from sending another punishment (John 11.48–50). This is where the wrong picture of God, as well as the marginalized, leads. We will ultimately kill even God. In fact we already have, both historically and in our treatment of those who are made in the image of God. What Liberia (and Christians here in America, too, I might add) must remember is that it wasn’t the gays who crucified Jesus. It was the religious people.

Last week, many around the globe celebrated Halloween. This is a time when all the monster stories are dragged out and retold. What I noticed this year is that all the stories of angry mobs, chasing down monsters with pitch-forks and raised torches, belong to a long tradition of celebrating the social mechanism of scapegoating and sacrificing innocent victims. And, as a good friend of mine, Keisha McKenzie, shared with me last week, “By contrast, the Death Dances of the Black Plague era and the costuming traditions that became Halloween put a face to the fearsome ‘Other’ and in so doing humanize it. Humanizing the monster is really re-humanizing ourselves, because the ‘monster’ was always human. Dehumanizing others, downgrading them from human to monster, is a highly effective way to dehumanize self.” (For more from Keisha on this check out her thoughts here: http://spectrummagazine.org/blog/2014/10/31/halloween-and-facing-our-shadow )

A Deeper Look At How Scapegoating/Accusation Works

Jesus said it most clearly, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matthew 12.7).

“A scapegoat effect that can be acknowledged as such by the scapegoaters is no longer effective, it is no longer a scapegoat effect. The victim must be perceived as truly responsible for the troubles that come to an end when it is collectively put to death. The community could not be at peace with itself once more if it doubted the victim’s enormous capacity for evil.” — Rene Girard, The Girard Reader (p. 14)

“The victim cannot be perceived as innocent and impotent; he (or she, as the case may be) must be perceived if not necessarily as a culprit in our sense, at least as a creature truly responsible for all the disorders and ailments of the community . . . He is viewed as subversive of the communal order and as a threat to the well-being of the society. His continued presence is therefore undesirable and it must be destroyed or driven away by other gods, perhaps, or by the community itself.” — Rene Girard, The Girard Reader (p. 15)

“[Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.] Here, as with all the sayings of Jesus, it is crucial to avoid emptying what he says of its basic sense . . . He expresses the powerlessness of those caught up in the mimetic snowballing process [scapegoating] to see what moves and compels them. Persecutors think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.” — Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (p. 126, Kindle Edition)

Today, people, especially Christians, are afraid. Many Christians (praise God for the exceptions) are much like the fearful religious leaders of Jesus’ day. From their conversions rooted in imaginings of hell, to the constant bombardment they receive from the pulpits of the apocalyptic, catastrophically nightmarish images tied to current cultural events — fear is the rule. But fear leads us to abandon the spirit of Advocacy and embrace the spirit of Accusation. And just as perfect love drives out all fear, perfect fear also drives out all love.

With the nightmarish events of the destruction of Jerusalem approaching on the horizon, remember Jesus had the courage to say, “And because of the increase of lawlessness [social chaos was coming], the love of many will grow cold [fear and the desire to have someone to blame]. But the one [whose love] endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24.12–13).

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, spend some time sitting with Jesus asking Him to show you where and with whom you may be practicing the social mechanism of sacrificing others out of fear (see Matthew 12.7). Remember, we are all children of the same Divine Parents. Jesus rose again for us all. We are all going to have to learn to sit around the same family table once again.
  1. Journal what Jesus shows you.
  1. Share what you learn with your upcoming HeartGroup.

Advocacy or Accusation? There are two Spirits: one is holy, the other demonic. Which one will you embrace this week?

Till the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns, keep living in love.

I love each of you, and remember, God does, too.

I’ll see you next week.