Violence against innocent people seems to be everywhere. It can seem like an epidemic of madness, at times – but what is our own role in the “violence flu?”
[Jesus] had said been saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”
~ Mark 5:8 (NASB)
As I sat down at my desk this morning, the Internet news headlines on my computer screen screamed out about the latest unspeakable violence. Today, we grieve the people who were run down by a man driving a truck through a crowd in Nice, France, gathering for a fireworks show. Last week this time, it was police officers in Dallas, Texas. Earlier, shootings of people stopped by police in the U.S. such as Philando Castile. And there are each week, unfortunately, hundreds of people, if not thousands, who die from senseless violence around the world without headlines, without the media taking advantage of their tragic loss of life to get us to sit through commercials on various medications or consumer products.
This week, one of those unnamed people had a name – the brother of a family member of a refugee family from the Middle East that our church supports locally. He died in the Middle East at the hands of a terrorist group (I must not give out any more specific information to protect this family’s security). If any person doubts the need to provide threatened people a safe home, this family’s loss is a sad reminder of what a precious gift peace, safety and basic comfort can be. Evil has many names, it seems, but the innocent hurt by evil always seem to have specific names – perhaps because it is easier for our hearts to know the names of the innocent. But perhaps we need to give those evil people names, too. Maybe they need us to save them, not to run from them.
Violent people should be avoided. Or should they?
In the gospel of Mark, we encounter Jesus meeting a man in the gentile town of Gerasa who was violently insane. He is a man who was so violent that he had torn off metal shackles used to restrain him many times. “Law and order” approaches to his illness had failed him, and by the time Jesus met up with him, society had given up on the man – he was wandering around a graveyard, as good as dead. This was a dangerous scene – someone might get hurt! It would seem that Jesus, a Jew and a holy man, wouldn’t have much to do with such a person. This violently insane man was not Jewish, and was unclean not just from a religious standpoint – he was probably downright stinky! But Jesus had no intent to avoid him, even when he marches right up to Jesus!
Jesus did not fear this man, but he was apparently very concerned about the man’s life and soul. One translation of this scene in Mark’s gospel notes that Jesus “had been saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!'” The implication is that Jesus had been aware of this man for some period of time. Was this dramatic scene Jesus’ first encounter with this man – or one of many? Or was Jesus, the Son of God, already aware of the violent evil that lived in this man, and confronting his insanity in prayer before he arrived in Gerasa? Whatever the exact details of the scene, Jesus avoids violence with the man, but he doesn’t ignore the man himself. Instead, Jesus is determined to remove his insanity from him even before the man speaks to Jesus!
The insanity that lives outside us can move in
As modern people, it is tempting to think of this notion of a “demon” possessing this man as a quaint but inaccurate diagnosis of mental illness. As with so many things that we have to look at in the Bible, though, we should be careful to appreciate the insights that come from a first century point of view. Jesus knew that there was a man inside this insanity, that evil had him in his clutches, but that the man himself was a child of God. Sometimes we lose sight of this distinction in modern times. We look at someone with alcoholism, for example, and we may call that person a “drunk” – as if that person and their alcoholic drinking were inseparable. But that person wasn’t born with the insanity of the disease of alcoholism – the insanity moved in, perhaps as soon as their first drink ever, but certainly not when they were born.
Separating the person from a mental illness doesn’t make a person with a mental or spiritual illness innocent of things that they have done in a bad mental state, and we do need to accept that some people are born with vulnerabilities to mental illness. Still, we need to be mindful that there are many things that contribute to that person’s becoming violent from their mental illness. Instead of trying to “fix” a “broken” person, we can accept that the person in whatever state they are needs healing, instead, and that the healing will be a complicated mix of what the person has to do and what others have to do. This may be why so may attempts to end violence fail. Like the Gerasene demonaic, very often we are trying to chain the symptoms of a problem to the person who exhibits the symptoms, and we leave the rest of the world untreated.
“My name is Legion” – the violence of evil
Sweeping the problems of society under labels like “alcoholism,” “terrorism,” or even “racism,” can tempt us to help us to feel clean while others accumulate blame and stigma for problems that are actually very complicated, problems for which we may bear some responsibility. We point to the horrific things that a terrorist does, and certainly they are responsible for may terrible crimes. But then we may use that label “terrorist” as an excuse to ignore the potential for those very people to live a better, more sane life. Perhaps worse, we may ignore the conditions that fed their insanity. For fear of our own sins that have contributed to this person’s misery being given a name, we quickly slap a label on the person – so that the person IS the problem, instead of being a person with problems.
We can see how this plays out when Jesus asks the name of the demon who has possessed this unfortunate man in Gerasa. A voice comes out from the man and says that he is “Legion, for we are many.” In Jesus’ time, a legion was a large group of soldiers, usually about five thousand. In other words, it was as if a whole army of evils had a hold of this man! Is it possible that only the man himself was the source of these evils? I don’t think so. Like someone saying for the first time “I am an alcoholic” for the first time at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a person’s mental illness is simply the net result of a wide range of things that have affected this person. That person may be responsible for their own actions and attitudes, but nobody wants to grow up to do such things. There is a child of God whose life and soul is at risk.
Are demonaics stronger than pigs?
Well, the good news for the Gerasene demonaic is that Jesus compels the legion of evils to leave the man – he is going to have a chance at a new life! But the stubborn demons make a deal to free the man – they ask to go into a herd of pigs near the Sea of Galilee. Jesus relents, and, sadly, the pigs go insane and stampede into the lake, where they drown! The violence of evil ends, but at the cost of the lives of many innocent creatures, who had their own negative label from Jewish tradition – “unclean.”
To a Jewish audience listening to Mark’s story of Jesus and the demonaic, perhaps this seemed to be a just ending. But obviously the pigs didn’t feel too good about it! God doesn’t want any innocent life to perish, so what does this story mean? Well, I look at it from the perspective of the man who was saved. He had been gripped by evil so powerful that it was like an army of five thousand, an evil so strong than when just a drop of it entered each one of these pigs, they went violently beserk and leapt to their death – or were swept along with the other pigs! In other words, as much as the Geresene demonaic was reviled, he had been strong enough spiritually to not die at the hands of such an intense evil. Maybe this is why Jesus wanted to save him.
Are we stronger than pigs?
Still, the pigs died. It bothers us, probably, and it should, because the real question is this: who are we in the story? Are we the demonaic, a person wracked with sin and problems, unable to separate ourselves from our problems, and needing divine intervention to help us to sort things out? Are we Jesus, someone who is not afraid to try to separate a person from the problems, and taking decisive actions that help the person to find their own true and responsible self again, separated from violence and evil? Or are we a pig, thinking that we have nothing to do with any of this, and then terrified to death when just a touch of the world’s evils that got shoved into a labeled person’s head come driving towards us?
I fear that, too often, we all wind up with the pigs – wanting to graze peacefully while awaiting a fate in the hands of “the man upstairs,” or perhaps in the hands of our world-filtering beliefs, trying to ignore the insanity just down the road. Well, the road goes there – it’s us who don’t want to go there. We need to pray for the lives that have been lost week after week, day after day, to the insanity of violence in our world. We need also to pray for the violent people themselves, that we may, as servants of Jesus Christ, contribute to the removal of the Legion that inhabits them. But, perhaps most of all, we need to pray for ourselves, that we are going to be stronger than the Gerasene pigs, and not try to ignore the world’s evils until a touch of them comes to our own life. That takes faith. And lots of it.