The Devils We Know (want to kill us)

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:1-6, NIV)

*****

Do you want to get well?

At first glance Jesus’ question seems almost sarcastic, though in fact Jesus’ searing interrogation is designed to cast out human inertia or…stuckness. For 38 years the disabled man had lain by the pool carving a life out of his circumstance that worked. It was indeed the devil he knew, and our human psyche leans in to such devils. Here’s what I mean…

Inertia generally describes “a tendency to remain unchanged or do nothing.” In the realm of the human body and mind we call this concept, “homeostasis.” In psychology this describes the inclination of an individual, family, community, political party or any related group to resist change and growth by retreating to familiar foundations and practice.

For example: long-term studies show that “nonalcoholic daughters of alcoholics are more than twice as likely to marry an alcoholic as nonalcoholic daughters of nonalcoholics.” This is the malignant side of homeostasis – the human tendency to join with the lethal familiar – the devil we know. But the devils we know are still devils, and they seek our ruin.

Perhaps nowhere is this wicked foe more observable than poolside today in the socio-political country club. Injustice is of course always harmful, but when lying about ‘stuck on repeat’, injustice scales to lurid levels. Walking away from the immoral ‘way it’s always done’ takes rare courage and far too long. Opportunities fade, cycles of injustice repeat, and we embrace them as friends.

This past year one insidious devil we know had to work particularly hard to sabotage racial progress. The murder of George Floyd provided uniform moral access to the cooling pool of racial reckoning that looked as if it might grow our cultural capacity for goodness. White Americans plunged in, and seemed to experience a heart change that could endure. But the devil lives and works in our heart to push us backwards. Jennifer Chudy and Hakeem Jefferson studied the data and wrote of the reality

“Last summer, as Black Americans turned their sorrow (over George Floyd) into action, attitudes — especially white attitudes — shifted from tacit support to outright opposition, a pattern familiar in American history…Since last summer, Republicans and White people have actually become less supportive of Black Lives Matter than they were before the death of George Floyd — a trend that seems unlikely to reverse anytime soon.”

Only months later the fickle can be seen tanning themselves on the same old deck, armed with excuses as to why we cannot quite get in the pool of progress. Centuries-old devils endemic to race and racism appear in modified incarnations, ready to calcify human community in our four-century social status quo. Here are just a few…

  • The devil of voter suppression: Jim Crow by another name. Republicans call it “protecting democracy” but the devil is in the details.

  • The devil of White-washing: The horrific reach of systemic racism has been labeled a socialist or atheist lie by White Christians and supremacists in every century. The newest target in 2021 is “Critical Race Theory”, yet I rarely meet any White people who are able to have a meaningful conversation about what this means. Leaning into ownership and repentance is necessary for human progress. The devil is in the ignorance.

  • The devil of “just move on”: Dr. Esau McCauley of Wheaton College called it out this past Monday, “The events that we are never allowed to forget and the events that we are told to “get over” or “move on from” reveal who is valued in this country.” And I can’t ask a better question about this devil than Karen Attiah from Tulsa this week in the Washington Post, “How can we speak of reconciliation between descendants of survivors and perpetrators when white supremacy is still the order of the day?”  The devil lies in dehumanizing people of color.

  • The devil of “law & order”: Democrats and Republicans alike are fond of this devil which works to make us incapable of differentiating between those petitioning for justice…and real crimes. The devil lives in the simple capacity to incite fear while ignoring decades of abuse and neglect.

Take a look around the pool Republicans – it’s full of devils you know, tanning themselves on the deck. White supremacists love you. The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers will die for you. Trumpist state legislatures will suppress votes for you. Craven senators will flip for you. MAGA zealots will repeat old lies for you. Q’Anon will write new lies for you. When the likes of these are your fans, perhaps it’s time for an external reckoning.

Imagine all these devils you know showing up to dinner on your deck. Oh wait, that’s what happened on January 6 this year, and the devils won a colossal victory in the battle to keep America stuck and subvert democracy. You invited them to the party, and they came – unleashing wickedness. So much wickedness that now you must float absurd alternative stories to whitewash White supremacists and their nationalist allies who still embarrass you.

Democrats have their own challenge with homeostasis. They show little interest in the act of learning while governing. Brave people stand up and take action, but the party is accustomed to GOP obstructionism – a ‘devil they know’ – and they take strange comfort in lying back on the sundeck while a few of their own take on the task to resist change. (It’s like the family in therapy who repeatedly “assign” a family member to miss sessions in order to stall the work.) Opportunities for progress remain stuck as the Democrats yield to their usual devil – stalled, filibustered and ultimately sabotaged. Infrastructure improvement, noble immigration policy, racial reconciliation, voting rights and so much more shudder as they face the devil of political stuckness.

I understand how hard this is. Homeostasis is a powerful recruiter and even more powerful assassin. It’s the story you tell until you forget it’s a lie, so abandoning the lie feels impossible. There will be more lies, more voter suppression, more systemic oppression and more violence in the months and years ahead as many continue to embrace devils and spread deceit. Real community depends on reliable truth-telling and you’ve forgotten how.

Do you want to get well?

Hearing Jesus’ question, the paralytic doubles down to vindicate his 38 years on the sundeck…

7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. (John 5:7-9, NIV)

And you may say, “Well, it’s a miracle after all – this is how Jesus rolls.” But we see in this story a more significant remedy before the miracle. “Do you want to get well?” deals with our will and who we want to be going forward. It’s designed to break the back of homeostasis and finally replace the “devil we know.” It’s tough. It’s confrontational. It changes the rules to which we are accustomed. It calls us to stand up – get up! The arc of our journey has far more to do with our will than with the passing of time. Time does not fix. It only pretends. Unchallenged, homeostasis uses time like a petri dish to clone and grow the devils that still divide us.

Not unlike that ancient pool where Jesus engaged the paralytic, we live in an odd social world where the “devil we know” enjoys the powerful privilege of the status quo. 38 years is nothing compared to 40 decades of communal paralysis in our most crucial constructs – race, gender, and class – where advancement in culture and social policy remains stuck at best and intentionally undermined at worst. Outside of technology and its applications, human social progress continues to play hide and seek. In 2021 we lay by the pool of human experience hoping for world-changing solutions while sabotaging opportunities.

The good news is that homeostasis can be defeated. Germany has shown a way to deal with evil history. There are many more paths. Replacing the devils and habits we know with the values and habits we need takes communal ownership, repentance, intention, and most of all, practice.

So the question…

Do you want to get well?

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