Receive Your Demons

We have ants.

We've sprayed and baited and individually smashed and prayed and waited and still the ants have been all up in our everything. Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep your cool when the fistful of Cocoa Puffs is already in your mouth before you realize ants have overtaken the bag?

Then we Googled the type of ants we had and used a method of removal more tailored to their species. And that was the difference. At present I can say we almost have no ants. I think I will soon be able to say with integrity the ants are gone, though the trauma of packing them into my mouth remains.

Getting rid of the ants required knowing more about them and not just renouncing them.

Ever notice how some people, hoping to be found devout in their faith, appear to be defined by what they reject? Their religion is characterized by revulsion. Unholy ideas and words and actions are "bad" and require discarding, not understanding. You stand and flush it, weirdo. You don't turn and study it.

Devotion for these folks looks a lot like fear of being contaminated. Like their own unholy thoughts, and especially the behavior of certain others, even certain words, have the power to poison them.

This is due to how we’ve been taught to think of what we’re addressing:

"I've been having impure thoughts."

"That movie is filthy."

"He tells clean jokes."

“Get your mind out of the gutter.”

"What she did is disgusting."

"I'm committed to a pure relationship."

"That was a rotten thing to do."

"I've washed my hands of him.”

“You make me sick.”

Hear the theme? 

We recruit the metaphors of clean/dirty to make our feelings known about our unwillingness to associate with a thing. Like literal disgust, we distance ourselves from that which is determined to be "gross" by some standard. By appealing to disgust metaphors, we “vomit out” of our lives and our communities and our systems of thought the things (and therefore the people!) who my be a liability to the purity we believe we're called to.

To return to "cleanness" you have to get away from the impure thing that makes your club’s and your God’s nose wrinkle. 

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as the culture it's shaped, the idea of purity and cleanness and filth are largely carryovers from an ancient purity code and the ceremonial "cleanness" required for temple participation. Most everything back then was washing, purification and blemish remedy. But even then this purity code was figurative. Metaphoric. If you disagree with me on this and think purity speaks to something concrete, you may find yourself forced to say that the Creator of the human bowel and slime mold is nauseated by penis jokes. Those are, after all, dirty.

Think about it; after your most vigorous shower you're still comprised of about 40 trillion nonhuman bacteria. Almost half of you is not you. If God gets grossed out about what isn’t “pure,” then the Manufacturer should have designed us differently- because there is no ritual that makes us literally “pure” that we could survive. The clean/dirty terminology is part of a framework that once said a ton about how our lives affected our world, but we may need to adjust the framework. 


The idea of being found revolting by others makes us feel fear and shame*. And shame motivates shams. Like a ripe zit, we work hard to hide the things we think might cost us love and inclusion. The church has played a huge role in this unfortunately, incentivizing people with the threat of exclusion to bury their so-called filth in the sandbox of holy renunciation. But mostly the filthy thing hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s just obscured, like fig leaves covering the very genitals God just created. Shame doesn’t do much more than make people better liars. Is there a more effective way to generate nervous hypocrites than to tell people what they struggle with makes God gag and good people retch? Is there a better way to keep people afraid of knowing and being known?

“...just about any behavior judged to be sin could activate disgust psychology, subsequently importing contamination logic (e. g., contact fears) into the life of the church.” -Richard Beck, author of Unclean

In this way, religion often serves as air freshener, a way of masking reality enough to put those we so desperately want to be counted amongst off the scent of our rot. The unacknowledged goal becomes not actually facing what terrifies us about ourselves in exchange for sniffing around in others' lives. I submit the term Febreezianity here for your consideration.

I’m often told by people of faith that the work I do does a poor job of “calling sin, sin." This is the idea that by calling bad behaviors this word you are dealing with it in a meaningful way. As though a customary diagnosis is the same as an effective treatment.

"Sin," though not directly related to metaphors of clean/dirty, brings about a disgust response. Which makes shame. Which makes sham. That is, in dutifully calling someone a sinner, you're more likely to drive them into hiding from group revulsion than into any real change. I resist using the words sin or sinner, not because I'm light on the idea of foolish behavior making the world suck, but because I'm really about it. If I am supposed to be repulsed by ants and embarrassed and scared to admit to you I have them, then I am motivated to leave it unaddressed which does nothing but help them multiply in the shadow of my willful ignorance.

There's a strange story in the New Testament of Jesus exorcising a demon, perhaps a colony of them, from a man. Before he gets on with with it, Jesus asks the demon its name. It seems like a strange courtesy. But the demon answers.

“I am Legion.” 

Because maybe you can't deal with what's dragging your life down the drain (a subtle toilet/disgust metaphor) if you're too afraid to look it in the eye and get its name, figure out where it came from, what nurtures it, all that. 

Anthony DeMello, 1931-1987

Anthony DeMello, 1931-1987

In his teaching on Awareness, Anthony DeMello said, “you must receive your demons, because when you fight them, you empower them. Has nobody ever told you this? When you renounce something, you're tied to it. The only way to get out of this is to see through it. Don't renounce it, SEE THROUGH IT. Understand its true value and you won't need to renounce it; it will just drop from your hands.”

Which means people of faith may need to become more aware of the metaphoric language they are using to describe real life. Perhaps we could altogether stop condemning our thoughts for being repellent or foul or disgusting, and stop acting like someone took a dump on their lap when someone else dares confess theirs. To receive our demons is to stop giving them such emotional authority, such that we're so afraid of people’s reality that we treat them as contaminants. Honestly, we act like human error has all the power, in the same illogical way one gnat in your soup contaminates the soup rather than the soup purifying the gnat. With respect to the traditions and the hymns and the Bible verses that counter me here, we may all need to adopt a new vocabulary that suspends the clean/dirty terminology in favor of language that bravely names and doesn't shame. 

Because, really, there are no “clean comics,” only those who avoid certain words or ideas.

And there’s nothing actually disgusting about someone’s choices unless those choices involve something like eating rotten food.

And frankly there’s nothing dirty about sex unless you literally have sex in the dirt. 

Why would examples like these matter?

There are comics who don't use certain words, but that doesn't mean their message is good. Social constructs allow some sounds to come out of our mouths and not others. No one is getting dirty during a comedy show, and neither is anyone left clean by going to Bible study instead. We can miss the most important aspects of our faith (love of other, setting things right between people) if we judge too simply from the outset based on purity metaphors.

There are choices that are foolish and shortsighted and even harmful to self and others. But there are other choices that are foreign and strange to us but with some unthreatened, disgust-suspended reflection, can be recognized as not hurting anyone. Recruiting the terminology of clean/dirty puts a judgment on a thing that may not have anything to do with reality.

Our sexual decisions are a real thing we have to live with. But even unwise, impulsive sexual decisions do not make you dirty or used or impure. The decisions may have consequences, but those consequences have nothing to do with one's moral hygiene, whatever that is. Especially young ladies, who get to wear clean white dresses on their wedding day if they've managed to stay pure, while boys, on the other hand, will be boys, those rascals. I've done sexual "purity" ceremonies for teens, and I think I was probably on the right track. But the way it was framed, I highly, highly regret.

If we want to be helpful, why don’t we instead talk about the wisdom, the foresight, the impact of our thoughts and decisions (which are also Biblical values if you’d prefer the idea to be more anchored in the faith tradition.) Rather than vomit ideas and people away from us, or believe shame can produce much more than desperate liars who just wanna stay, why don’t we look at our thoughts and behaviors and see them with the interest of a scientist who wants to demystify so progress can be made. Why don’t we look our junk (junk!… I’m doing it again) right in the eye and learn its name because we recognize the clean/dirty mindset is, at its base, fearful and perhaps childish and does little more than make people want to put all their work into becoming fresh enough for communal acceptance. That is, if we don’t update the way we frame our errors, we’re only going to cause people to expend more energy on their own presentation of purity, which is more self-interest, the very opposite of what any of us needs.

If you’re open to suggestions, I strongly suggest that you have in your life a few others who receive and interview their demons. Others you can disclose (which is different than parade) your demons to, and learn from. A group of fellow truth-tellers. A counselor. A bowling team that talks about real life after a few frames. People who understand that growth is a slow process of awakening to reality, not sanitizing it for some anxious germaphobe deity. If after being honest about your inner world you notice the other people begin to behave like you have soiled them with your truth, they aren’t your people. They certainly aren’t your church. Find people who want awakened minds more than clean ones. But, please don’t be disgusted by others' revulsion. Love them. They’re just not up to speed on the good news that God has no gag reflex and is therefore able to love even filthy sinners like you and me.


*Just go buy Unclean, by Richard Beck