Last week we gathered here to grieve and reflect together on the white supremacist violence that roared out in Charlottesville. I preached about racism, the enduring reality of racism, not just out there but in here, within us. The Bible story we were following was Jacob and Esau reconciling after a life-time of these twins wrestling and feeling resentful. So I preached about following a faith in reconciliation, even as we resist forces of violence, to have faith that with God transformation is possible, despite the sickness of violence that infects our society and, too often, our own souls.
And in the course of that I went off script chasing a stray thought about Jesus healing people possessed by demons. And after the service you all only gave me positive feed back about that stray thought. So you can’t blame me for feeling like what I ought to do now with this precious sacred time is go down that rabbit hole in earnest and talk about these stories with Jesus and demons. Because it’s important, urgent, my friends, that we see that certain forces, certain powers that can rise and move among us do relate to our spiritual life, they do infect our spiritual well-being, and it may be best to name them demonic. So here we go …
First some food for thought: After the Vietnam War, our soldiers came back … and many then had difficulty coming back. They suffered what then became more widely known to be PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The psychological and medical community really started understanding a lot about how traumatic experiences can shape our lives and can manifest later in symptoms like like nightmares and eruptions of horrible memories in waking life- problems with hyper-vigilance, panic attacks, aggression, mood-swings, depression, addiction, suicide and so forth. This diagnosis – PTSD – was helpful in figuring out how to help folks.
So, in the U.S. after the war in Vietnam, we had a lot more people talking about and experiencing and responding to PTSD.
But back in Vietnam, after the war, what everyone was talking about and experiencing and responding to were ghosts. There was a ghost problem. In the U.S. there was a PTSD problem. In Vietnam there was a ghost problem … ghosts that would haunt people and possess people who survived the war, who fought in the war, who were civilians caught in the middle of the war. And these ghosts had to do with people they knew who died violently, who then became restless spirits because in the chaos of war the proper rituals had not happened to let them pass on from this world and rest. So these ghosts haunted the people who knew them, and sometimes even possessed them, causing nightmares, and eruptions of horrible memories in waking life, and hyper-vigilance, panic attacks, problems with aggression, mood-swings, depression, addiction, suicide, and so forth. Sound familiar?
What the Vietnamese healers would do, the shamans and priests, is help the person suffering from a ghost to do the proper rituals to let that spirit rest. That involves walking with that person through the place where the violence happened and hopefully finding the remains and praying and doing certain rituals to honor the life and the pain and let it all finally rest.
This is similar to what a good Western psychologist and psychiatrist will do with someone dealing with PTSD.
But what the Western medical diagnosis of PTSD does not do is honor the spiritual dimension, the soul wounds we get from violence, the demons and angels that wrestle within us when we have encountered evil in other people or maybe evil within ourselves. Alright, so that’s some food for thought.
In our Christian gospels there are many stories of Jesus casting out demons. That was part of his work – along with many other things of course, which are the many other things we mostly talk about here in our church. But this demon stuff was part of what he did. And it was part of what he taught his disciples to do. When Jesus sent them out on their own, after preparing them for ministry, he sent them out with specific charges to share the Good News about God’s love, to bless people with peace, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons. Like I said, we here mostly focus on the first few parts of that charge as well as all the great Sermon on the Mount teaching about how we’re transformed by God’s love and can share God’s love.
But what do we make of this casting out demon stuff?
There are a couple of options: The first is to take it literally. We can take it literally and believe it, or we can take it literally and reject it.
If we believe it, then that means we need to believe there are literal demons, spirit beings that can crawl into people’s skulls and possess them. It shouldn’t take too many witch trials to sober us of that literal approach. But then we can take it literally and not believe it, reject the whole thing as ancient superstition or religious mumbo-jumbo. Or maybe if we’re generous, we can say that it’s a pre-modern way of trying to understand what we now know are different kinds of mental illness. There may be some truth to that, but…
But what I want to propose to you is that as people of faith, and as thinking people of faith, it’s important we name certain forces at work in the world and in ourselves as demonic. There is a deeper level, a spiritual level to forces of violence and hate and abusive power that’s important for us to name and to seek to cast out with the help of the power of God’s love. We need the power of God’s love, as well as clarity, courage and strong will to be people of integrity, to prevent us from playing host to the vicious abusive spirits of domination that course through our society and our history.
Alright, so let’s look at the Gospel story. First, I invite you to look at image on the cover of the bulletin. Who is in the center? Who draws our attention? What’s the spirit or energy that Jesus is carrying? That’s the most important thing. It’s Jesus and the spirit that he brings that we need to keep up front and center. So in this episode where Jesus encounters a man possessed by these demons called Legion, it’s important to remember what had just happened right before. Jesus was in a boat with his disciples. There was a horrible storm at sea. The disciples got really scared and call on Jesus to help. He’s asleep, actually, and then just stand up and speaks into the wind: “Peace! Be Still!” And immediately everything is calm. That’s the power and the spirit of Jesus: strong, clear, calm, well balanced. The boat comes to the shore. Jesus steps out. Immediately this man runs out to meet him. A demon have possessed him. We soon learn the demon is named “Legion”, after the Roman Legions that had been occupying and dominating this region. So this all has something to do with war and violence.
But before we get to that point, we’re told that this man has been living among the tombs. He is obsessed with the graveyard. The Greek word here relates to memory, memorials, monuments to the dead. This man is haunted by ghost of the past. In our times, we could say he’s obsessively re-membering, even re-enacting the World Wars and the Civil War. He’s stuck in the graveyards and monuments that still haunt our land. Maybe he’s gnawing on the bones of resentment, he’s nursing the grievances of the defeated, he’s sheltering the embers of hate that burned in the hearts of those who started those wars and lost those wars for domination, for racial superiority, for the power to enslave and eradicate.
This obsession has made him wild, we are told, made him violent and dangerous to the people around him and to himself. “No one could restrain him anymore.” “No one had the strength to subdue him.” They try to shackle him but he keeps breaking loose. They thought he was taken care of, but he’d roar back out.
We have to ask if the people really want him contained. Or if there’s something for them in this drama. They want to keep this scary guy around to be the Legion problem. I ask that, well, first, because we are talking about white supremacy here and there’s a way that nice white people can give ourselves a pass for our participation in this demonic force, because there’s always someone crazier and more racist than us.
But I bring up the question also because in this story itself the people are actually upset when this guy gets healed. They are afraid when they see him well and in his right mind. And they are angry at Jesus and actually drive Jesus out of their land – “We don’t want you around here.”
Every other time Jesus heals someone or casts out a demon people love him for it, they can’t get enough of it. But this time, there’s something about this Legion demon that people don’t want to get named and don’t really want to get healed. They’re distressed about this guy thrashing around, but that’s not as distressing as having Jesus come along and calling it like it is. Do we white folks really want to be purged of white supremacy?
But is it really up to us? There’s a higher power at work here.
Look how clear Jesus’ power is. His very existence is tormenting to the demon. The demon knows Jesus is a superior power. It bows to Jesus. And this demon is the first, and one of the only people in the gospel of Mark to call Jesus the “Son of God.” What do you make of that?
The spiritual level to things is important. And it’s on the spiritual level that there can be great power when we call on Christ.
The next thing Jesus does is call on this demon to name itself, and tell it to leave.
He is looking deeply into this person and seeing that all his violence and hate and anger is not his true nature as a beloved child of the living God. Some terrible force has taken hold. And he calls on the two to separate. He finds the true name for this force, Legion, and it comes out that this is a collective force for evil – it’s not just this one person who is a problem, he has become possessed by a monstrous mob mind that has damaged and destroyed countless lives for countless generations, through enslavement, Jim Crow, ethnic cleansing, colonizing greed…
In forcing the Legion to name itself, Jesus has full power over it. He commands it to leave, like a general. All the language here is military. He dismisses the Legion like a commander ordering his soldiers to stand down. Jesus matches that authority and wields it to heal and bring peace.
And in the end, the man himself, this beloved child of the living God, is free of the forces that have taken him. He is free. He is calm. He is restored to integrity: balanced, well, whole.
May it be so for us all. Thanks be to God.
Readings: Psalm 37 Mark 5:1-20
(Delivered August 20, 2017, at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)