Sunday, June 23, 2013

Possessed by Love: A Reflection on Luke 8:26-39

Gerasene Demoniac

The story of the Gerasenes’ demoniac appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, with Mark’s being the earliest and most complete version.  It is one of the most vivid stories about Jesus’ ministry as an exorcist, but there is much more to the story than “Jesus meets a man possessed by demons; Jesus casts out demons; man becomes Jesus’ disciple.” 

Entering into this story requires us to let go of preconceived notions that inhibit understanding of the narrative on its own terms.  Most of us read this story through the lens of The Exorcist, and in so doing we make several interpretative mistakes. 

The first is to overly sensationalize the story.  There is plenty enough drama here without our imagining levitation, projectile vomiting, vulgar guttural vocalizations, and 360 degree head spins!  This biblical description of possession is comparatively mild and straightforward, not so far from an anthropological account of similar experiences in a variety of cultures.  What is required is not an imaginative leap, but rather imaginative restraint.   We don’t need to read more into the story than what is there already.

The second interpretive mistake is to view possession as a personal problem.  The story is reduced to the exorcism of an individual, isolated from the wider context that gives it meaning.  But this story is not only about the relationship between Jesus and the unnamed demoniac.  It also is about the relationships between Jesus, the demoniac, and the people of Gerasa.

The final and related interpretive mistake is to focus only on the response of the demoniac to Jesus’ healing intervention.   But what is equally of interest to the Gospel writers is the response of the Gerasenes. The exorcism performed by Jesus has implications for everybody, and it is in teasing out these implications that the full force of the story is realized. 

Let’s begin with the relationship between the Gerasenes and the demoniac.  Who are the Gerasenes?  The country of the Gerasenes was part of the Decapolis, ten Greek city-states established and populated by veterans of Alexander the Great’s campaigns. These Gentile cities, originally autonomous, were subsequently caught between Jewish rebels from Galilee and the army of the Roman occupation. Struggling to maintain their proud independence, these cities were at various times sacked by both Jewish and Roman forces.

There was no love lost between the Gerasenses and either the Jews or the Romans. In fact, the Gerasenes seethed with resentment over the indignities of Roman subjugation. In Jesus’ time, this repressed anger, this despair of ever being free again, simmered well below the surface of Roman control. This is the context in which we must understand the relationship between the Gerasenes and their demoniac.

It is no surprise that the demons possessing the man are collectively named “Legion.”  A “legion” was a unit of the Roman Army consisting of between 5,000 and 6,000 men.   The spirit of the Gerasenes under Roman occupation has possessed the demoniac.  It is a spirit of fear, rage, powerlessness, and despair.  Unable to acknowledge the painful reality of Roman colonization, the Gerasenes in turn collectively “colonize” the demoniac. Legion mirrors the social structure and the collective psyche of the people of Gerasa, internalized by the demoniac. 

Legion is demonic because it expresses the evil of social unity based on scapegoating.   The Gerasenes needed their demoniac.  He was the bearer of the shadow side of their collective life: the envy, hatred and violence that they dare not acknowledge.  Their engagement with the demoniac in a ritual drama of bondage and escape provided a container for the tension they felt between their powerlessness under Roman occupation and their desire for freedom.

In Mark’s version of the story, we are told that the demoniac would bruise himself with stones.  Stoning was the means whereby communities collectively sacrificed individuals or groups to contain their violence and maintain their unity over against the selected scapegoat.  The demoniac has internalized the identity of scapegoat so thoroughly that he punishes himself.  The actual innocence or guilt of the scapegoat is quite beside the point; the point is the scapegoat’s usefulness to maintain social order.  The people need to believe that he deserves what he gets.
Contrast this with the relationship between Jesus and the demoniac.  Notice that the story opens with Jesus arriving by boat from across the Sea of Galilee, to find the demoniac waiting for him as soon as he steps on land.  It would seem that there is something in the demoniac that draws him to Jesus, even as he fears him.  The demoniac is divided against himself.  Will he continue to be defined by the demonic identity he has internalized, or will he receive his identity from Jesus?

Jesus perceptively asks him, “What is your name?”  Until now, it seems, no one has bothered to ask this question.  He is only who others want him to be, need him to be.   With Jesus, however, there is no need for the man to be anyone other than who he is, because Jesus has no need to define himself over and against anyone or anything.  Secure in his own identity as Son of the Most High God, Jesus is free to relate to others as fellow beloved children of God. 

I wonder if it isn’t this transparency to God that accounts for the demoniac’s attraction and resistance to Jesus.  Jesus mirrors back to this man something entirely different than what the Gerasenes have shown him:  a love that invites him to discover his true name.  Is the demoniac willing to give himself to this love, to receive an identity that will completely transform his life and relationships?  He may want to change, but just how much change can he stand?  Will he be willing to be possessed by love?

What happens next is a surprising reversal of all normal expectations. This man, naked, dwelling among the tombs – this man who is essentially a dead man walking  - is restored to life.  His exorcism is a kind of resurrection.  When the Gerasenes find him next, he is clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus in the posture of a disciple.  Where the Gerasenes saw a scapegoat, Jesus saw a child of God.

Jesus completely undoes the carefully constructed social equilibrium upon which the Gerasenes – and, I dare say, the Romans – depended.  And in so doing he uncovers the reality of evil at the heart of that equilibrium.  That is what happens when scapegoats are given a voice instead of being sacrificed. 

Evil is real. The latent violence of the Gerasenes channeled into the demoniac has to be expressed somehow.  Jesus releases that violence into the herd of pigs, which throws itself over a cliff into the sea (which by the way, was another way in which scapegoats were often sacrificed by communities).  Rather than sacrificing the scapegoat, it is Legion – the scapegoating mechanism itself - which is sacrificed as Jesus allows evil to take its own self-destructive course. 

This brings us to the relationship between Jesus and the Gerasenes.  They are terrified by the turn of events.  Without their scapegoat, they are forced to acknowledge their own shadow side.  The drowning pigs present them with a vivid sign of their own future if they are driven by the evil within them.  Giving vent to their violent despair will only lead to chaos and self-destruction.   

Their response, however, is to beg Jesus to leave.  The former demoniac remains among them as a faithful witness to the alternative to the scapegoating mechanism: the giving and receiving of forgiveness that brings new life to scapegoats and those who create them.   He receives a most challenging commission: to follow Jesus by remaining where he is, reconstituting his relationships on the basis of the love that now possesses him.  He is to joyfully proclaim the good things that God has done for him, regardless of how others respond.

The Gerasenes, sadly, apparently refused to be possessed by love.  In a stunning example of what Freud referred to as the return of the repressed, the Gerasenes irrupted in a violent revolt against Rome and were destroyed by an actual Roman legion some forty years later.

The Gerasenes’ demoniac is a cautionary tale.  It unmasks the scapegoating mechanism that structures the dynamic of evil in history.  To be a disciple of Jesus is to live like the former demoniac among the Gerasenes: as a sign of forgiveness in a world rife with violence ending in self-destructive chaos. Following Jesus is a process of discovering our true identity as we practice reconciling love, unraveling the scapegoating mechanism as we do so.

Will we be possessed by Love or by Legion?  What is your name?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Keep Growing

I am currently reading Richard Rohr's Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  His central thesis is not particularly original or controversial.  It is basically that the first half of life is about creating a container for our life - a sense of identity and security.  The second half of life is about filling that container with content, which requires us to enlarge the container or burst it open altogether.

The first half of life is about "surviving successfully," as Rohr puts it.  The second half is about giving ourselves away.  As Jesus said, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.  What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" (Luke 9:24-25)

While Rohr's thesis is hardly new, it is particularly relevant for our time, which Rohr argues convincingly is preoccupied with a first half of life spirituality.  He is at his best in describing our resistance to moving into a spirituality for the second half of life.

St. John of the Cross taught that God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness, because if we fully knew what was happening, and what Mystery/transformation/God/ grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process.  No one oversees his or her own demise willingly, even when it is the false self that is dying. 
God has to undo our illusions secretly, as it were, when we are not watching and not in perfect control, say the mystics.  That is perhaps why the best word for God is actually Mystery.  We move forward in ways that we do not even understand and through the quiet workings of time and grace.  When we get there, we are never sure just how it happened, and God does not seem to care who gets the credit, as long as our growth continues.  As St. Gregory of Nyssa already said in the fourth century, "Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing."  - Rohr, pp. 50-51.

This certainly rings true to my own experience.  We need to be secure enough in our identity to give ourselves away so that we can receive our identity from God.  We have to empty the container we create so that God can fill it with something altogether better than anything we could come up with on our own.  This is faith: giving our container to God and becoming willing to have him do with it whatever he will.  It isn't that the container is necessarily bad, but rather that it is inadequate to the fullness of life that God wishes to share with us.  So we have to die in order to live.

Or be killed: the fate of Jesus and the prophets in most times and places.  People locked in a first half of life spirituality focused on security perceive second half spirituality as a threat.  And they are right.

It seems that it is only through falling - through failure, disappointment, loss and suffering - that we are opened to the Mystery that holds us in life even when we are in death.  As Rohr reminds us, even Jesus descended into hell before he ascended into heaven.

We must go down to go up.  That is how we keep growing.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Who Is Worthy And Who Is Trustworthy?

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. - Luke 7:1-10
On the face of it, today’s Gospel reading is a healing story.  A Roman army officer has a beloved slave – he refers to him as his “boy,” possibly in the same way we might say “boyfriend,” and describes him as being “precious” to him.[i]  This precious slave is very ill, on death’s door.  So, the officer sends for Jesus to heal his beloved.  Jesus admires the officer’s faith – in fact, he hasn’t found anyone more faithful in Israel – and heals his slave. 

But I think there is more to the story.  The healing of the slave is a pretext for the exploration of issues of worth and power.  Does the army officer deserve to have his slave healed?  Does Jesus have the power to heal the slave?  Who is worthy and who is trustworthy?  That is the question. 

Interestingly, the Jewish elders are all for the healing.  This, despite the fact the officer is an official of an occupying army enforcing a regime that oppresses the people of Israel and expropriates their wealth.   It seems that the officer has “gone native” – the elders report that he loves their people – and generously funded the building of their synagogue. 

In other words, he is worthy because he is a major donor, who is perfectly capable of positive relationships with “good Jews.”  What the text seems to describe is a typical relationship between an occupying colonial power and local elites who benefit by collaborating with the occupation.  The officer is deserving of Jesus’ attention because he has power.  Isn’t that what matters?

As an officer of the Roman army, the centurian is “under authority” – he is subservient to, but also speaks with the authority of, the Roman Empire.  He exercises imperial power in military terms by commanding soldiers and in economic terms by commanding slaves.  The army officer knows this, and the Jewish leaders recognize it as well.  They equate imperial power with moral worth because it is in their interest to do so. 

It is not so different with the Pax Americana.  We tolerate all manner of economic exploitation and despoliation of the earth, drone assassins, torture, the suspension of habeus corpus, and Guantanamo Bay all in the name of “National Security” and “Free Trade” because it is in our self-interest to do so.  The United States is the sole superpower, and we benefit by this status – or at least we think we do – and so we convince ourselves of the morality of our motives. 

And in so doing we reveal where our ultimate loyalty lies.  Although we print “In God We Trust” on our currency, it is the currency that we really trust – and the imperial power that keeps it flowing in our direction.  American church leaders are not much better than the Jewish elders of our story when it comes to complicity with the imperial powers.   We don’t want to undermine the capacity of our major donors to be generous!  The success of our capital campaigns depends upon
American domination of economic globalization. 

The irony of this healing story is that it is the Roman army officer with the kept boy who realizes the truth that the Jewish religious leaders miss – or can’t allow themselves to see.   He knows that he doesn’t deserve to approach Jesus.  He knows Jesus wields a greater power: not the power to dominate, but rather the power to heal and make new.  The army officer is not worthy, but Jesus is trustworthy.  The whole story pivots on this realization.

This healing story subtlety undermines the equation of moral worth with imperial power.  The army officer is a man who can make many things happen with a simple command, but he can’t make well the person he loves.  He is beginning to discover the limits of his power and of the power he represents.   In contemplating the impending loss of his beloved, he begins to realize that what is truly worthwhile is attention to the relationships that sustain and nurture life.  What is more, he is continuing to learn that the bonds of relationship that are of genuine worth transcend class, ethnicity and religion. 

Our army officer is discovering that he is part of a reality that is so much larger than himself.  He is beginning to allow that insight to reshape his awareness and his sense of what is worthwhile.  It is now this slave – this nobody – who is worthy of attention, of Jesus’ attention; even while the army officer’s own sense of self-importance recedes.  Our army officer is becoming a man who lives for others, and not only for himself or even for others who are like him.  His heart is being broken open; he is waking up to reality.  He is undergoing a kind of conversion.

This conversion is the miracle in the story, not the healing; sick people get better all the time.  What is miraculous is that the army officer comes to recognize how small and powerless he truly is in the scheme of things.  What is even more miraculous, he is willing to entrust himself and his beloved to the care of God.  God, not the Roman Empire, is now the source of his security.  It is not his status in the Empire that is of worth, but his willingness to submit to the power of healing that only God can provide.

His is a radical act of trust.  His friends bring his declaration of faith to Jesus, “Only say the word and my beloved will be healed.”  There is an allusion here to the Word of God spoken at the beginning of creation.  It is by the power of God’s Word that the universe is made.  The army officer recognizes Jesus as that Word, and places his trust in the power of the Word that has made all things to make them new.  It is this power to make new, to reconcile, to heal, to bring creation to its fulfillment that constitutes authentic power.  Before this power, the army officer bows in humble submission. 

The army officer is not worthy.  He is a ritually unclean Gentile occupying Jewish land.  He is the enemy.  He is the wrong ethnicity, the wrong religion, and the wrong nationality.  He is not worthy.   But in the end, his being worthy or unworthy is beside the point.  It is his need that draws Jesus to him.  And so healing breaks out in all directions.  The beloved slave is found to be in good health.  But I suspect that it is the army officer who has truly been made new.
We are preoccupied with the question of worth.  What we fail to understand is that whether I think I am worthy or unworthy, the focus is still on me.  We remain locked in egoistic thinking and acting at all levels of social organization that prevent us from attending to what is truly of worth:  the relationships within which we live and move and have our being.  What is important is not our worth, but the recognition of our need for God and others as part of the web of life that sustains us. 

And that brings us to the real question:  who is trustworthy?  In whom or what do we really place our trust?  What do we really believe will provide us with a sense of security and fulfillment in life?  Is it our self-will?  Is it the military power of the state?  Is it the accumulation of wealth?  When push comes to shove, where does our allegiance really lie?

The Gospel is an invitation and a challenge to conversion.  It is an invitation to let go of our preoccupation with worth, with measuring, comparing and scheming to secure our place in the pecking order.  It is a challenge to entrust ourselves, not to our willfulness, not to our social privilege, not to our education, not to our productivity, not to our citizenship – not even to our religion – but finally and ultimately to the One who speaks a Word and brings all things into being:  the One whose power makes all things new.   That One is worthy and trustworthy.

[i] This is a text in which translation really matters.  The NRSV translation describes the slave as “valued highly,” but this misses the dimension of emotional attachment connoted by the word entimos – “precious” or “dear” would be more appropriate.  And pais translates better as “servant boy” rather than “servant,” though pais was also the term used for a male homosexual lover in Greek, akin to our English “boyfriend” (see vs. 7, where the officer himself uses pais to describe the relationship, rather than doulos, the standard word for slave).  See Theodore Jennings, Jr., The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (Cleveland:  The Pilgrim Press, 2003), pp. 137-139.