14 June 2010

Facing our Liberation

Luke 8: 26-39

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 13th June 2010

The Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was troubled by all the interruptions in his day which kept him from doing ministry. That is until one day he realized that the interruptions were his ministry. One afternoon, several years ago, I was busy working in my study in the Church House, trying to do a dozen things all at once before rushing out of the office to attend presbytery, when Shirley Winters called and said someone was here to see me.

I didn’t know Jason, but he needed to talk. (1) I invited him upstairs to my study, sat down, focused, and then listened. Jason said he was very troubled, anxious, worried. He told me that he suffered from mental illness and lived in a group home. His former wife also worked there and it seems she was preoccupied with the occult – Ouiji boards, tarot cards, witchcraft. He told me of his love for Jesus and it disturbed him to see her going down this path. She was influencing others in the home and Jason was worried. I asked him if he talked with the director and he said no because he was afraid word would get back to his ex-wife and then she might put a curse on him or something. I listened carefully and took his concerns seriously because he did. Then we talked about Jesus. We remembered how Jesus is more powerful than any other force in this universe. In Jesus we’re safe. His ex-wife could do him no harm. He was praying a lot and I encouraged him to continue to pray. And we prayed together. Then Jason went on his way, feeling a little better (I hope).

It was all a little surreal, to be honest. That was a first in my ministry. Jason comes to mind when I hear this text, the story of the Gerasene demoniac. Now I’m not saying Jason was not in his right mind. And I’m not saying he was some kind of modern-day demoniac or that his ex-wife was. In our text, Jesus exorcises demonic spirits from out of this poor, troubled soul. However, this text is not a training manual on how to deal with demons or perform exorcisms. I remember one day, when I was serving the Mendham church in New Jersey, I received a phone call from a neighbor who just moved into an old house next to the church (beside the church’s cemetery) and discovered that it was haunted. Her teenage daughter freaked out and didn’t want to live there. She wanted to know if I would do an exorcism. I said, “Wrong department. You need to call my friend Father Lasch at St. Joseph’s. Let me give you his number. Presbyterians don’t know anything about this. He’ll know what to do!”

Both Jason’s situation and that of the demoniac in Luke have to do with power. Stories of exorcism in the New Testament are about power. Who is in control? Jesus comes and asserts his authority over every other authority in the world. When Jesus conducts exorcisms he is making a statement about power – God’s power. It’s a statement about who is in control. Jesus comes and gently, yet forcefully, demands that every influence of power yield to the redeeming power of Yahweh. And Jesus as Savior asserts his power because he knows there are other, lesser powers in the world which were and even now oppressing God’s people. Under the pressure of these forces people are diminished and debased, forces that try to steal our humanity away, which dehumanize and make us into animals, forces that dismantle our identities and take us very far away from the truth about ourselves. There are forces out there which make us sick, which make us violent, which make us self-destructive, full of self-hatred and self-loathing. There are forces in the world which can make us crazy, which disturb and disrupt our sense of well-being. And then when the forces have done their worst to us, we take all that anger, that violence, that self-hatred and project it out upon a world in outward destructive acts that only mirror the chaos of the mind, of the self. This is what happens when people are dehumanized. When we are dehumanized, we dehumanize others.

This account of the Gerasene demoniac is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament because it is so rich and profound and opens up new vistas regarding the power and purpose of God’s love and redemption. This is one of the most concrete demonstrations of the gospel for me: this is what Jesus came to do and continues to do in the lives of his people. He brings liberation. As contemporary theologian James Alison put it, “Jesus empowered the demoniac to become a human being, sitting, clothed and in his right mind, going home to his friends.” (2) This is what the gospel is about – freeing us to be human, to be ourselves, to be authentic, so that our lives might give glory to God. One of my favorite quotes, one that shapes my life, is a statement by Irenaeus’ (c. 115-190), who claimed, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” God is glorified, is praised when the human person is fully alive! Or, to put it a different way, one of the best ways we can worship God is to do whatever it takes to come more fully alive. The great theologian and ethicist of the last century, Paul Lehmann (1904-1994), said that God’s work in Jesus is to restore humanity back to human life. I believe the Holy Spirit takes up this work and invites all of us to join in “keeping human life human.” (3) That’s what Jesus came to do for us and continues to do with us.

But in order to come to life, we need to become aware of those powers that seek to take away our life, forces that try to dehumanize us, which can make us sick, which disturb and destroy us.

But from what is the Gerasene liberated? That’s the question. To talk of “forces” might sound antiquated to our ears, but if we think we’re not being shaped by all kinds of forces in our lives, then we’re being deceived. To talk of demons is simply an antiquated way of talking about someone who is mentally ill or socially unfit to function in society. We might say he’s mentally ill. Maybe. Maybe this text is good news for the mentally ill. But, if this is a text about mental illness (and I’m not sure it is), Jesus is also asking a deeper question: What makes one sick? Not all mental illness has biological origins. Sometimes it is caused by terrible trauma to the psyche. Sometimes it is life itself that sends us over the top and reality starts to crack. So how do we relate to this story? I think it’s easy to take this text and say, “Well, I’m not mentally disturbed like this guy, therefore it’s not about me.” Generally speaking, we probably find it difficult to identify with this man. He’s not like us. We’re socially well-adjusted, secure, with family and friends, and a roof over our heads. We’re not living in the cemetery. Sure life is tough, but our lives are nothing like his. We’re not sick. We’re in control of our lives. There’s nothing or no one oppressing us.

To which Jesus replies, “Oh really?” The problem is very often we’re not even aware of those powers that continually try to dehumanize us. The powers are legion or many. I want to lift up three powers we find in the text.

Jesus the liberator comes to free us from sick religion. Even though Jesus is now in a Gentile community here, in the land of the Gerasenes or Gerasa, he is still making a strong statement about the nature of religion. According to the complexities of Jewish law at this time, the person demon possessed was considered ritually unclean and was set apart from the community. This man lived among the tombs. He was “dead” – the living dead. He was unacceptable through and through because he lived in a place that was unclean, impure. Judaism at this time had an obsessive dread of dead bodies. After touching a dead body one had to be purified. This man was surrounded by death and no one could release him without being made unclean. It is striking that Jesus completely defies all the rules, ignores the purity codes, and goes right to the heart of this person lost in death. Although this is in a Gentile country, the Jewish reader hearing this story would have been astonished, shocked, and maybe even offended that Jesus would act in such ungodly way.

Now I’m not saying Judaism is sick or causes one to be sick. But all religions, including Christianity, have the capacity to exchange grace for legalisms. Instead of freeing people, all religions can become toxic, destructive. But Jesus, having no regard for religious platitudes and false morality goes right to this man and faces him, sees him as a child of God and addresses his needs and heals him and reclaims his humanity.

Jesus the liberator comes to free us from sick politics. For centuries Christians have tried to depoliticized the gospel and divorce it from the rest of our public life. We often hear that religion and politics don’t mix. You may even believe this. But no biblical writer ever believed that. Jesus never separated religion from politics because both have to do with power and Jesus was concerned for people burdened by the destructive influence of abusive power. It is absolutely clear that Jesus did not think this way – and he never said that. He cleverly said, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and render unto God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21).” But the point of that statement is that nothing belongs to Caesar and everything belongs to God! Bad politics, bad government, oppressive states make people sick – they dehumanize and destroy. Political structures can serve the common good. In fact, John Calvin (1509-1564) believed political forces must serve the needs of the common good. But we must always be leery as Christians for signs when political powers are being abused and people are suffering.

A very strong case can be made that in this text the fundamental demon that needs to be exorcised from the minds of the people – both Jewish and Gentile – are the legions of Roman troops brutally occupying Israel. Our clue here is the name of the demon, Legion – a legion is 6,000 Roman troops. It’s the only meaning of the word at that time. The Romans were brutal, ruthless towards the people of this region. They defiled the temple in Jerusalem. They murdered people in the temple. Jerusalem was full of violent protests. The countryside was full of communities of resistance who used every opportunity to attack and kill the Roman soldiers. The greater the resistance, meant the greater the abuse. The oppression was killing the people. The people of this region were forced to worship Caesar as greater than Yahweh, were forced to pay tribute to the emperor through grain offerings and others goods. People were heavily taxed. This is political-economic oppression that always dehumanizes people. (4) The reign of terror was so bad that some, no doubt, lost their minds. I wonder what the demoniac witnessed. What kind of brutality did he have to endure? This is not God’s will and so Jesus comes to give us our minds back – he gives us our minds back. He gives us our lives back. But once healed, where does one then live?

Jesus the liberator comes to free us from sick communities and relationships. Sociologists have identified the way some communities and families create scapegoats. (5) Often communities and families take all their anxieties, all their worries, all their dysfunction, their shadows, all their fears and place them on particular people in the community or a person in the family and then these people act out, usually self-destructively, what they see going on all around them. To what extent was this “sick” man infected by the sickness of the community? They needed him in his place. They needed him to be sick. If he remained sick, they could define themselves as healthy, “normal,” sane (when they probably weren’t). We can feel better when it is the other person who is worse off. All communities and families have the potential to make us all a little sick. There is no such thing a perfectly healthy community or family or church. There are varying degrees of health. But there are toxic communities, toxic families, toxic churches from which individuals need to be freed.

Jesus heals this man, releases him from his demons. But then what happens? The townsfolk are horrified and scared. Jesus is over-turning the way they have structured their lives and they don’t appreciate it. They see the man healed, and they become afraid. They get mad. The owner of the pigs was probably not too happy, either! Then they want Jesus to leave – sick societies don’t want health. They might say that they do, but they don’t. They don’t want the presence of the healer because he reminds them of their disease. The resistance to transformation, to healing in our lives is usually enormous, powerful. It’s a power which needs to be redeemed by the liberating word of Christ. Yet, they want Jesus to leave and the demoniac wants to go with him. He doesn’t want to go back to those sick people! Can you blame him? Jesus tells him to go back to his family and friends. What family? What friends? This almost sounds cruel. He wants to go with Jesus because he’s afraid of going back to them.

But the gospel calls him to be himself, a human being, in his right mind, clothed, sane, healthy – this is what the New Testament calls being saved – out there in the midst of the sick people who are not healed yet. The gospel grants reconciliation in the midst of alienation. That’s what we’re called to do. Go and tell the people how God has been merciful to you. Freed from the destructive forces of sick religion, political oppression, and toxic communities, he is free to be himself in a world that resists, despises, and fears his very existence. This is the gospel of the kingdom. This is what kingdom living looks like.

This is the kind of power that Jesus yields. This is the power of the Living God who will do whatever it takes to free us from everything that tarnishes or seeks to remove the image of God in us. This is what happens when we face our liberator. Or more correctly, when we’re not looking for it, this is what happens when a small boat carrying our Lord sails up on the shore of our lives, faces us and asks, “What is your name?”

1. Jason is not his real name.
2. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 131-133. Alison’s reading is based on the work of RenĂ© Girard in “The Demons of Gerasa,” The Scapegoat found on the Girardian Reflections on the Commentary website.
3. Paul Lehmann, Ethics in a Christian Context (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 99. See also Nancy J. Duff, Humanization and the Politics of God: The Koinonia Ethics of Paul Lehmann (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992). This idea of humanization was central to his theological ethics.
4. See Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 15ff.
5. The term scapegoat or pharmakos has its origin in Greek tragedy. Tragedy literally means “goat song,” or it can be translated “scapegoat song.” Terry Eagleton writes: “The pharmakos is symbolically loaded with the guilt of the community, which is why it is selected from among the lowest of the low. It is then thrust out into the wilderness, the symbol of traumatic horror which we dare not contemplate. … In the figure of the scapegoat, the borders between power and weakness, sacred and profane, central and peripheral, sickness and health, poison and cure, are accordingly blurred. …The scapegoat incarnates dirt, deformity, madness and criminality, and rather like the insane of classical antiquity, it is both shunned and regarded with respectful awe. This unclean thing is a substitute for the acts of a displacement for their sins…. In burdening it with their guilt, the people at once acknowledge their frailty and disavow it, project it violently outside themselves in the slaying of the sacrificial victim or its expulsion beyond their political frontiers.” Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), pp. 277-279.