‘He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him’. Mark 1:27
We read the story of Jesus at Capernaum in 2024 and most people in most churches would tend to think of it as Jesus meeting with someone who was suffering from a psychological disorder that is relieved through Jesus’ words of reassurance. Evil and evil spirits do not fit into our view of the world, but perhaps that is a luxury we can afford living safe lives in a modern Western society.
In a week that has marked the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we too easily discount the reality of evil.
Evil, and three anagrams of the word, can help us think about living as Christians in a world where spiritual battles are real and where it is naive to pretend that we have the answers to everything.
To read accounts of the holocaust can only leave an impression of the reality of evil, a reality that we as Christians believe has a spiritual source.
One need not go back seventy years to find accounts of encounters with spiritual evil. When he returned to Canada from Rwanda in 1994, having been commander of the United Nations’ force during the genocide, Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire was asked by a Canadian Forces padre how, after all he had seen and experienced, he could still believe in God. Dallaire writes, ‘I answered that I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know that the devil exists, and therefore I know that there is a God’.
Dallaire, an experienced soldier, expressed a belief in an evil spirit that was something far greater than psychological disorder.
How does such evil find root in our world?
An anagram of ‘evil’ is ‘vile’ and it is in regarding others as vile, speaking of them as vile, treating them as vile, that evil takes hold. From the murder of Abel by his brother Cain in Genesis Chapter 4, through to the plotting against Jesus in the Gospels, regarding other people as worthy of contempt, and even of death, has been the channel through which evil triumphs.
In Saint Mark’s Gospel, the first act of Jesus’ public ministry is to exorcise this unclean, this evil spirit and if we are committed to following Jesus we guard against words and actions that treat others as vile.
The Holocaust did not just happen, it came about through centuries of anti-Semitism through centuries of jibes and insults that led to persecution and violence and mass murder. The Rwandan genocide did not just happen, it came about through decades of racist thinking.
Each time we speak of people as though they were not created in the image of God, as though they were lesser than ourselves, as though they were objects of derision, as though they were somehow responsible for the failings of our own society, then we treat them as if they were vile and evil achieves a victory, the unclean spirit finds a home.
A second anagram of ‘evil’ is ‘veil’.
Regarding others as vile, allowing evil to take root, becomes possible because we easily allow a veil to fall across our eyes. We can even sometimes be ready to see things as different from what we know them to be in order that we can fit in with the crowd.
If we look at the crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and then on Good Friday, we see how quickly people allowed the veil to fall.
Saint Paul sees those who reject Jesus as doing so because their mind is veiled. In the Second Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 3 Verses 15-17, he writes, ‘Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’.
Having the Spirit in our lives, the veil is lifted, we see things as they are and we reject evil.
We need honestly to ask ourselves whether we see things as God would wish us to see them or whether we prefer to see things in a way that is more popular, more in keeping with the spirit around us.
The third anagram of ‘evil’ is ‘live’.
The people in Capernaum who were watching Jesus comment in Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verse 27, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!’
Jesus’ words are not something that would come and go, like the words of the countless other teachers around at the time, they were words by which people would live, words that would change and shape and govern their lives. The exorcism challenges them – here is someone new, here is something new, how will they respond?
Our vision becomes veiled, we regard others as vile, evil finds a place in us, when we do not live as the people Jesus wants us to be.
History is filled with examples of what happens when evil is allowed a place – prejudice, sectarianism, racism, persecution, violence, murder, genocide.
Jesus will not allow the evil spirit to remain, Verse 25 says, ‘Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!”
Following Jesus’ example, we should allow the evil in our own times no voice and no place in our lives.