The Schizophrenia of Our Piety: Demonology and Whiteness

Put contrary to the all merely theoretical demythologizing, the war with the demons for the earth has begun. We participate in it on one side or the other.

-Ernst Käsemann, On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene

Käsemann’s critique of pietism is always also a critique of whiteness, and always put in the context of a curious demonology – curious, at first blush, because Käsemann is a student of the dutifully demythologizing Bultmann. Pietism, here, isn’t just the 17th century German-Lutheran movement of the church which emphasized personal behavior and immediate experience over mediate doctrine, but the church that is homogenized through Western middle class notions of whiteness. For Käsemann, pietism precisely is the solidifying movement of normativity that seeks to theologically ground middle class norms and morality, or the kind of church (i.e. white, western churches) that don’t see violence committed against the indigenous, GLBTQ*, or black bodies, etc. as explicit demonology:

in midst of the inferno of creation terrorized by ideologies and despots, demonically disfigured by hunger, exploitation, torture, and murder, there exists the reality of a lordship of Christ that looks toward the resurrection of the dead and that thus resists demonic violence, concretely and bodily.

Where Käsemann is helpful is in his contention that the pietism of the Western church is not merely a vice of the church, a sort of institutionalized blindness, but the very cause of the violence in the first place.

The church is not just merely complicit, but in many cases part of the direct foundation of the very demonology it proclaims itself as overcoming. Who can imagine residential schools without their attendant theological anthropologies? Or, again, South American colonialism without papal monarchism? The white western church is therefore, on Kasemann’s reading, deeply schizophrenic (“we [the white church] are giving space to hell, though we preach the kingdom of God”], toward which we can only vigorously and impiously dissent:

Today, in the interest of the universal priesthood of all believers, and against bureaucratic organization, we should emphasize the right and obligation to rebel, since the lordship of Christ is frequently more strongly imperilled by its alleged representatives than his enemies.

Käsemann’s project, as an expansion and radicalization of Bultmann’s demythologization, is to ‘demythologize’ precisely by constructing a more robust and explicit demonology: “they [the biblical texts] need illumination because the present is generally darker than the earlier period; the demons can feel more at home in the present and be busier than when they were confined to inside book covers.” Indeed, demythologization is to be understood as a task of expelling demons, by which Käsemann’s means the expulsion of whiteness, not just from the church and its theology, but for the church to stand up against the very forms of colonialism and oppression that it helped to support through the exigencies of its own theological justifications: “Written tradition renders untold numbers possessed.”

With Käsemann, we must fiercely resist the ‘spiritualization’ of the Bible that has been affected by the (white) churches of pietism, which disconnect the message of Jesus from any place with the world, because this is part of the demonization of the church which makes it into a willing instrument of the biases of the white race and the bourgeois middle class, clinging to its morality and privilege at the expense of the African-Americans jailed or shot by the police, the aboriginal women murdered and forgotten, or the third and fourth world countries cyclically exploited.

The only way to demythologize the message of the gospel is to take its most mythological elements most seriously. There can be no theodicy, only a recognition that we live on an earth determined, as Paul wrote, by demonic forces. If the church is in any real sense able to follow Jesus, it will be because it is able to wrest people from hellish violence and injustice in the Tartarus that is our earth.

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One comment on “The Schizophrenia of Our Piety: Demonology and Whiteness

  1. Gerald Ens says:

    Nice piece, Adam. I especially like the bit about demythologizing by taking the mythology seriously.

    I’m not sure I follow your move to “there can be no theodicy”. I understand that many theodicies are deeply harmful and minimize the reality of suffering/sin/evil. However, I’m also not sure what it means to “wrest people from hellish violence” in the footsteps of Jesus if that does not include some (often implicit) account of God’s agency, activity, and sovereignty. In fact, shouldn’t we pay attention to the nature of this salvific activity if we want to do a good job of fighting injustice (because lord knows that endless harm has been done by those on a mission to “wrest people from hellish violence”)? And once we do that aren’t we already embarked on some sort of theodicy, even if we do not see our job as primarily about explaining (and surely you are right that we should not)? Somewhat relatedly, I wonder if the problem is per se that the church is schizophrenic or just that the kind of schizophrenia you describe is a bad kind of schizophrenia. Put differently, I have my doubts that ONE FOCUS or ONE RECOGNITION is the best way to proclaim and live towards the lordship of Christ. Am I reading too much into a few comments? Do we just disagree?

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