A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: Luke 8:26-39

8:29 For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.

8:35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.

8:39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

What do you make of this scene?

A Couple of Questions:

  • Do we really have to talk about demons?
  • Wouldn’t it be nice if things were that easy?

Some Longer Reflections:

I can’t imagine spending time arguing about the reality of demons.  I live in a world that we study scientifically, and we do that very well without having recourse to demons.  But the scene had an entire legion of demons in it, and they are essential to the work of the scene.

Modern interpreters, sharing my lack of interest in demons, spent considerable time developing psychological diagnoses for the man seized by the demons.  Various kinds of severe mental illness were identified, probably helpfully.  But that always seemed to cease being useful before it yielded anything that looked like a sermon.  For one thing, every imaginable congregation will contain people who know far more about dangerous, intractable mental illness than most preachers do.  Would it be helpful to these people to suggest a link between their family member and the demons who drive the man into the wilds, and the pigs into the sea?  The odds are good that the preacher doesn’t know.  Or is it comforting to these families who have struggled for years with mental illness to present a scene in which a cure comes so quickly?  Again, most preachers are not likely to know.

And then came the events in the club in Orlando.

I have no use for analyses that wonder about whether the murderer was driven by demons, and commentators who suggest that mental illness played a role have, at least to this point, contributed nothing of great use.  Most of them seem to imagine that postulating mental illness makes everything easier, either because it diverts political attention away from demands that assault weapons be banned, or because it provides a (too) easy argument for the impact of putting a rigorous system of background checks in place before people can buy weapons.  At the end of the political dance, we are still left with 100 people dead or wounded in the latest mass killing in the United States.  Many people have pointed out how fearsome it is that we all refer to this murder as “the latest.”  We have been here before.  We will hear such reports again.

That is, I think, a point of contact with this scene in which a man is driven by a legion of demons.

Time after time this man (who was someone’s son, someone’s neighbor, someone’s brother, someone’s husband), time after time he was seized by this destructive force and it all began again: the shackles were broken with terrifying violence, the bonds that controlled him were ripped apart, and the man was driven into the wilds.  Every effort at control failed.  The violence erupted again, and the cycle repeated itself.  Again.  Despite best efforts.

This little scene suggests that we are locked in combat with a force that cannot be controlled.  When Jesus heals people who were blind, he is improving the situation of a person who had found a way to live with his blindness.  When Jesus healed a man who was paralyzed, he sent him home carrying his bed, thereby relieving the four friends who had carried the bed (with the man inert on it) into the scene in the first place.  Most of the time when Jesus cures someone, he is doing something that is relatively small.  He improves the lot of a single person The intervention is miraculous, and it does makes life better for an isolated person (who does, also, have a family), but the effect is local, and small.

In the scene for this Sunday, however, Jesus confronts an uncontrollable force with a consistent record of attacking, again and again.  This is just the latest episode in long, terrifying series.

Jesus asks the demon for his name.

This is a regular part of ancient exorcism rituals.  Ever since the Garden of Eden, human control over things was expressed by having a name to call things.  It is a basic human drive to understand and manage life by studying it closely and naming the parts and problems.  So Jesus does what we all do: he asks.

The demon responds.

It is not clear to me that the response is all that helpful.  Research does not always yield useful results.  Jesus does not use that name when he addresses the demon.  It sounds more like a boast than a name.  “Legion” is no proper name, it just is a way of saying: “The opponent you face is big beyond counting, and persistent beyond your patience.”  And the fact that the name establishes a tie to the vast power of the Roman Empire, the demon is telling Jesus that he is up against a force of nature.  This is worth knowing, after all.

Once again, we find ourselves asking about mass murder.

Where does it come from?

What is it, exactly?

Can we understand its cause, and therefore prevent it?

We would like to know.  Of course, the loudest voices in our current “discussion” are just making cynical defensive arguments.  Politicians push themselves forward; gun manufacturers defend their profits; idealists of all sorts assert that all you need is their own simple solution.  None of these clamoring voices offers much insight.  But the rest of us, even some of us who are most ideological in our thinking, the rest of us actually want a solution.  And the rest of us know that our own favorite answers are, by themselves, inadequate.

It is not at all clear that the violence that plagues us is controllable.  It is rooted deep in American culture.  As Richard Slotkin has pointed out (in his study, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America), there is something in this culture that believes that there is no problem so severe that it wouldn’t improve if we could just shoot someone.  Listen to the violent language that all sides use as they “discuss” the events in Orlando and our proper response.  Enemies are identified; punishments are proposed.  Violence rules.  Slotkin is correct: we appear to believe that violence regenerates us.  This is the legion of demons that possesses us.

And our understanding remains in the dark.

And the roots of the violence go even deeper.  The violence reaches out and twists religion to its ends, as well.  Christians “argue” that the problem is not bad laws or bad mental health, but a lack of “godliness.” But they miss the deep irony that radicalized Muslims make the same argument.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have within their Scriptures passages that aim radical violence at infidels.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims have, in historical memory, taken action to root out infidels, all in the name of “godliness.”  That is what radical “godliness” does, it drives us to root out (radix) anything that is not radically “godly.”  Radicalization responds to radicalization.  But mutual cascading radicalization will never solve the problem we face.  Rampant murderous violence is only increased by religious radicalism.  And this is, yet again, the demon that possesses us.

And the solution is not a mass renunciation of religion, even if that were possible, which it is not.  Our possession by murderous violence goes deeper even than religion.  Removing religion would leave violence still in control and essentially unchanged.  Atheistic rationalists have met each other on the field of combat throughout modern history.  The bloodshed has been just as effusive as was the bloodshed during the wars of religion.

But the problem is even more complicated.

The Scriptures of the three great monotheisms all contain passages that incite violence.  But these same Scriptures also dream of a world from which murderous violence has been finally exorcized.  Some of these dreams appear in old prophetic songs that long for a future free from all the forces that plague God’s Creation.  Old songs out of Isaiah train Jews and Christians to hope for a world free from disease, disabling conditions, and death. If the incitements can be judged to provoke violence, then the dreams of peace must be judged to do the opposite.

In fact, these old songs have given life to historic efforts to eliminate polio, smallpox, guinea worm, and other maladies that have hunted and haunted human life.  They also give life to the dream of a world that needs no more swords and can, therefore, beat them into plowshares.

We do not live in such a world.  My friends in the military are correct: for all the inevitable misuse of military power, we still need swords.  We need them to defend ourselves against each other.  My friends in law enforcement are also correct: for all the dangers that go with militarizing law enforcement, we do need SWAT teams that will use armored vehicles to smash through the walls of gay night clubs in an effort to set hostages free before more of them are shot by a murderer who was offended by men kissing each other.

All sides of every conflict are convinced of the need for swords to defend themselves against all of the other sides.  It won’t do to team up with the side that fits us best and propose solutions that simply assume the victory of our chosen side.  That just leaves us all in the grip of the demon that breeds murderous violence.

Legion, ripping through all restraints, brings us to moments of mourning again and again.

This is the latest, not the last.

In the passage from the gospel of Luke, the demon exits the scene, drowned with the pigs.  The man is delivered.

We are left waiting for our own deliverance.  It does not appear to be coming any time soon.  So we wait.  Gay people, straight people, trans people, all people wait.  Muslims, Christians, and Jews have practice in waiting.  We all will have to learn to wait together if we are ever to be set free from the Legion of murderous demons that has seized us all.  But this scene from Luke gives us a glimpse of a time when we might sit together, clothed and in our right minds.

It will not be easy.  It has not ever been easy, not even after the coming of the messiah.

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