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The Political Soul Possessed:  A Warning Against Election Idolatry

Upon my life, the tracks have vanished,
We’ve lost our way, what shall we do?
It must be a demon’s leading us
This way and that around the fields.

How many are there? Where have they flown to?
Why do they sing so plaintively?
Are they burying some household goblin?
Is it some witch’s wedding day?
—A.S. Pushkin, “Demons”

When Christ cast the legions of the damned into a herd of swine, they proceeded to drown themselves in dark waters, leading us to ask, where then, did the demons go?

Demons, the spiritual forces of evil that inflict mankind with myriad ailments, are found throughout the corpus of Scripture. They are most present in the four Gospel accounts whereby they often take possession of an individual human soul, gnawing at it incessantly until Jesus shows up to extend his power toward their exorcism. As to their exact nature, opinions fly rampant. Perhaps they are fallen angels, or perhaps the vengeful spirits of Nephilim. All we know with absolute certainty is that they are agents of Satan on earth whose goal is to torment mankind and turn our hearts away from God.

In order to understand possession and its transference, we must also ask what it means for a soul to be possessed, even what we mean by the word soul. One of the main Hebrew words that is often translated as soul, nephesh, means in essence the property of being physically alive. We tend to think of souls as some kind of life force or spiritual essence that fills our bodies, which act as a sort of container, like the genie’s lamp in Aladdin. In actuality, this is a more medieval idea that has roots in Gnosticism and the rejection of the goodness of the physical world. A soul is simply a living being.

Another important distinction would be that of a soul and a spirit. The spirit is essentially the connection of a living being to God. So, you are a soul, and your spirit is your connection to God, roughly. This explains how something like swine can be possessed by a set of demons. In the same way that we are souls, animals are souls also.

Now we don’t have the same connection to God as a pig does, nor do we have the same kind of physical existence a pig does. Their souls and spirits are unlike our own, and in fact, being made in the image of God gives humanity a unique spirit and soul among all creation. Demons have been demonstrated throughout Scripture to latch onto souls, human or animal, which leads us to a new conclusion. If it has a soul, it can be possessed.

In his Evil and the Justice of God, N.T. Wright’s main purpose is to examine the problem of evil and its nature. It’s a great book, yet one of the most interesting ideas it presents is not the main focus of the work. In his first chapter, while reframing systems of evil, Wright draws from the work of Walter Wink to say

There is a great deal to be said for the view that all corporate institutions have a kind of corporate soul, an identity which is greater than the sum of its parts … this leads us to the view that in some cases at least, some of these corporate institutions — whether they be industrial companies, governments, or even (God help us) churches — can become so corrupted with evil that the language of “possession” at a corporate level becomes the only way to explain the phenomena before us.

A corporation being possessed? It sounds a bit bizarre when said out loud, and perhaps even a tinge too political, yet it makes a lot of sense when you start to think about the church herself as a starting point. The church is composed of souls. Many bodies make up her body, each one of us working in tandem through Christ to mirror Christ. In fact, the body of the church is called the body of Christ, and we his hands and feet. Through the Eucharist, we even subsume Jesus into ourselves, taking on a tangible aspect of the incarnation within our bodies.

When we think of the church like this, we realize that it is essentially a great living organism, the embodiment of Christ on earth till he returns. We have souls individually, but when we unify in the body of Christ, the church develops a soul and spirit of her own, a unique connection to God that is unachievable if the many do not become one.

So then, the church’s soul can be subject to outside influence. Perhaps it’s not always demonic influence, but anything that possesses us that isn’t Christ should not be a driving force in the church. If you’re unsure you agree, look at history. Many aspects of the Reformation were in response to exactly the kind of “possession” we’re talking about.

But at least the church has the benefit of being built on the cornerstone that the builders rejected. We have Jesus as our foundation, which makes us inherently more resilient as an institution than many others. This doesn’t mean we don’t face demons, but they’re usually easier to exorcise than they are outside the church catholic. That is where real danger lies, especially for members of the body of Christ who become tempted by the allures of worldly institutions.

The problem that is nipping at our toes and will be in full destructive force this coming year is one that many Christians will find themselves sucked into, and we must be wary of it. This would of course be politics. A soul is a living being made up of constituent parts. A corporate soul is a living being made up of living beings; a soul made of souls that act as constituent parts. But are there other kinds of souls built out of souls? A corporation or church is slightly more tangible when thinking about souls in this dimension. But what about people bound together by smaller ideologies? People who rally behind a particular political candidate, or protest a particular social issue?

It’s very easy to let our political agendas become our gods. Often we are building up our political ideology alongside our Christian worldview, rather than letting the faith and morals derived from the latter inform the prior. We find ourselves redefining words like freedom and liberty and justice based on a multitude of things; candidates we like, a podcast we watched, a news report that infuriated us, or even just our desire to control destiny.

Once we form our own understanding of freedom, we find other people that share our definitions, rally behind candidates, vote for laws, wear hats and T-shirts, alienate friends, family, and neighbors, and yell at complete strangers online. It becomes a religion, complete with creeds and vestments.

Without even blinking, we’ve joined a community, and the community is alive, even if it isn’t formally bound. It’s living and breathing because it’s made of living and breathing people. It has developed a political soul, and that soul is a prime target for possession. At least the church has Jesus and the Holy Scriptures on her side.

Political movements aren’t typically so lucky. They can start driving themselves away from Christ, away from truth, and into moral gray areas. They may even adopt Christianity as a mascot, wearing our Lord like a disguise at a masquerade ball. What’s under the mask may not be so pretty.

The world of politics seems soaked in the image of Christ, tossed and turned to suit multiple agendas. Christ is cast as a Republican, a Democrat, pro-life, pro-choice, an LGBTQ opponent, an LGBTQ ally, coming soon, not coming at all, just a good teacher, and the Son of the living God. Many of the things that Jesus is said to be by the masses contradict one another. In order to truly know him, we must read of him in the Word of God.

But hearing is not enough, as St. Matthew states in the seventh chapter of his Gospel. It is not those who simply cry out in Christ’s name that will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do “the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Sure, many will claim they did great things in the name of Jesus, but he will proclaim that they never knew him, for their image of him was derived from themselves.

Elections are always contentious, but with wars looming, anger spewing, and a culture of vitriol growing among Christians, we must focus. Our choices must be informed by God and his Word, not our own understanding, not our friend’s understanding, not our president’s understanding, and not our favorite political commentator’s understanding. Dive into the gospel and make sure you’re focused first and foremost on the things that will please Jesus. If that’s your goal, the rest will become clear.

As for the question where then, did the demons go? the answer is simple. They didn’t go anywhere. They’re still right here with us, looking for ways to turn us from God. Whether they’re driving our politics, our wars, our debates, or even our churches, we must respond just as the man from whom Christ expelled them. We return to our homes, and declare how much God, not politics, has done for us.

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