“Is it wrong for a heretic to go to church?” That was the question I found myself anguishing over while unable to sleep the other night. It seems as though whenever I am in a larger congregation I feel uneasy about speaking what is stirring in my heart; most times because I tend to express challenge to the status quo and many of the institutional practices and beliefs held, which then leads to “upset” or anguish in the later discussions.
A “heretic” is someone who speaks and/or acts against the accepted religious beliefs & practices of a particular group or community. It is often considered negative in tone and you generally want to avoid being labeled by such a name as it gives the understanding of being an outsider at best, or a less desirable character. But what if the generally accepted belief or practice is wrong? What if heresy is needed to truly discover the proper meaning or truth behind a particular groups beliefs and practices? Shouldn’t the voice of the heretic need to be heard in the church today?
This past weekend I gathered with a number of house church leaders at a Catholic Retreat Centre here in Calgary. Many of us were sharing about our tribes and the journey’s we have been taking. One particular leader began sharing about his video productions and casting a vision of his involvements in spiritual warfare. Pointing out the logo on his T-shirt, he spoke of his favourite band Demon Slayer with the image cast of a demon’s skull with a bullit hole in its forehead.
To be honest, most of what he shared following that faded from my attention as I was uneasy to the vision of Christian evangelical violence and the idea of “conquering the world for Christ”. I couldn’t help but think, in a world that is filled with images of gun violence and religious warfare, should we as Jesus’s followers be projecting images of violent conquest and grotesque bullit holes?
Later, we were given the opportunity to share thoughts of what we heard throughout the evening. By this time, my wife had noticed my psychological discomfort and I knew she was hoping I’d just stay tight lipped but, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I stepped forward with a slight quiver while opening up what I felt God had put on my heart.
I started with a story I had read of from Peter Rollins called ‘Salvation For A Demon’.
In the center of a once-great city there stood a magnificent cathedral that was cared for by a kindly old priest who spent his days praying in the vestry and caring for the poor. As a result of the priest’s tireless work, the cathedral was known throughout the land as a true sanctuary. The priest welcomed all who came to his door and gave completely without prejudice or restraint. Each stranger was, to the priest, a neighbor in need and thus the incoming of Christ. His hospitality was famous and his heart was known to be pure. No one could steal from this old man, for he considered no possession his own, and while thieves sometimes left that place with items pillaged from the sanctuary, the priest never grew concerned: he had given everything to God and knew that these people needed such items more than the church did.
Early one evening in the middle of winter, while the priest was praying before the cross, there was a loud and ominous knock on the cathedral door. The priest quickly got to his feet and went to the entrance, as he knew it was a terrible night and reasoned that his visitor might be in need of shelter.
Upon opening the door he was surprised to find a terrifying demon towering over him with large dead eyes and rotting flesh.
“Old man,” the demon hissed, “I have traveled many miles to seek your shelter. Will you welcome me in?”
Without hesitation, the priest bid this hideous demon welcome and beckoned him into the church. The evil demon stooped down and stepped across the threshold, spitting venom onto the tiled floor as he went. In full view of the priest, the demon proceeded to tear down the various icons that adorned the walls and rip the fine linens that hung around the sanctuary, while screaming blasphemy and curses.
During this time the priest knelt silently on the floor and continued in his devotions until it was time for him to retire for the night.
“Old man,” cried the demon, “where are you going now?”
“I am returning home to rest, for it has been a long day,” replied the kindly priest.
“May I come with you?” spat the demon. “I too am tired and in need of a place to lay my head.”
“Why, of course,” replied the priest. “Come, and I will prepare a meal.”
On returning to his house, the priest prepared some food while the evil demon mocked the priest and broke the various religious artifacts that adorned his humble dwelling. The demon then ate the meal that was provided and afterward turned his attention to the priest,
“Old man, you welcomed me first into your church and then into your house. I have one more request for you: will you now welcome me into your heart?”
“Why, of course,” said the priest, “what I have is yours and what I am is yours.”
This heartfelt response brought the demon to a standstill, for by giving everything the priest had retained the very thing that the demon sought to take. For the demon was unable to rob him of his kindness and his hospitality, his love and his compassion. And so the great demon left in defeat, never to return.
What happened to that demon after this meeting with the elderly priest is anyone’s guess. Some say that although he left that place empty-handed he received more than he could ever have imagined.
And the priest? He simply ascended his stairs, got into bed and drifted off to sleep, all the time wondering what guise his Christ would take next.
My hope was to communicate that it is our actions of love and hospitality to those who are different from us, even that of the demonic, that will allow for the power of redemption and renewal to truly bring change and transformation. Closing with some of those very thoughts, I asked a question for the leaders to ponder, how might the image of the cross subvert or contrast that of a demons skull with a bullit hole in it?
The leader wearing the T-shirt stepped forward and in his response defended the need for spiritual warfare siting the verse, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34)
It is true that Jesus spoke these words but, we must be careful in taking up the sword as our own to hold lest it becomes a weapon forged with edges of our own perverted truths and marked by the blood of those we have falsely demonized as different from ourselves. Richard Beck points out the reality that, “During times of social stress or chaos, those persons or populations already associated with disgust properties will provide the community a location of blame, fear, and paranoia. In short, sociomoral disgust is implicated in the creation of monsters and scapegoats, where outgroup members are demonized and selected for exclusion or elimination.”
The sword of truth is not meant to be used in broad sweeping patterns of warfare to divide and conquer the enemy, much as this is the actions of the demonic itself (John 10:10). When we use it this way, it only leads to the damaging affects of boiling the sympathetic baby in its own mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19), projecting Christian faith as a violent dictation of ordered conformity rather then the embrace of unconditional love, hospitality, and grace. After all, Jesus also said that, “those who live by the sword will also die by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52)
So perhaps heretics are needed in the church today. And perhaps the swords that are brought out are not so much a weapon against the demonic or the unbelieving, but rather instruments and voices for truth that can pierce hearts for the purpose of revealing the need for reconciliation. Perhaps the image of the cross in contrast to that of the demon is not to place bullit holes in its being, but rather healing them of the violence that so mares their existence and restoring the beauty of who they were meant to be!