I usually start with some funny story. Or, I pose some existential question that makes you think about your life, your greatest joy, or your deepest fear. Not today. There’s no convenient place to begin. We just ready a story where Jesus cast a bunch of demons out of a naked dude into a herd of pigs, who threw themselves over a cliff and into a lake. Is that too much? Don’t ever say Scripture isn’t interesting. I was so intrigued by this story that I wrote a paper on it in seminary. 12 pages of research and I’m still not sure what to say. A pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber preached this story and a parishioner wrote to her and said,
“Dear Nadia. How can I get on board with Jesus when so much pork was wasted in the lake?”
– Signed, A bacon-loving Christian
The greatest cause of atheism is not hypocrisy, despite popular belief. It’s wasting pork.
Let’s start at the beginning. Right before this story in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has just calmed the Sea of Galilee. It’s not a coincidence that Mark follows the healing of a thunderstorm, the demon possessed waters, with another story of possession. The disciples make it to the other side of the sea. Those two words, ‘other side,’ are purposeful. Mark is trying to say that they’ve gone to ‘the other side’ of the tracks—the wrong side of the tracks. It reminds me of when Duke students voyage over to Franklin Street, the heart of UNC territory. It’s an unclean, evil place, baby blue everywhere. We’re not in Kansas, anymore. Jesus and the disciples have left Jewish territory; they’re crossing boundaries, going where Jews have no business being.
They meet this man who lives in the tombs, which means he’s essentially been buried alive; he’s a dead man walking. He’s possessed by something that drives him insane. He has no control over his life; he’s disconnected and isolated and alone. Mark tells us that this man bruises himself. He cannot be physically restrained, but is instead held captive by these demons. Jesus goes there, to the other side, to a place where everything is unclean: the spirits, the tombs, the pigs, the gentiles, the land. It’s more outrageous when we realize that Jesus has taken a boat ride through a deadly storm just to reach this man, and nothing else. After the healing is over and done, he gets back in the boat and rows home. It’s as if the mission has been accomplished.
Jesus gets out of the boat and walks over to this man who has been pushed aside by society. He asks him his name. And it’s devastating—the demon responds, “Legion.” He doesn’t say John, Luke, or Ryan. This guy has no name or identity except Legion, his captor. The man that his parents named is no longer present. It’s important to realize that a ‘legion’ was a group of Roman soldiers who occupied a land. Some have said this demon, “Legion,” is symbolic of the Roman military that had taken over when Mark is writing. Regardless, there’s this force that has stolen everything from these people.
Now, let’s pause here. Do we believe in demons anymore? In the ancient world, language of the demonic was common. How about today? When’s the last time you called an exorcist? Our doctors don’t write scripts for holy water or send referrals to the local Catholic priest. Demonic language is antiquated; we have 21st century eyes and ears. Rudolph Bultmann says that you can’t flip on an electric light and still believe that your sickness is caused by a demon. Oftentimes, we read stories of the demonic and we do some translating—we take the demonic language and translate it into something more palatable, like medical language. Or, we consult the manual for psychological disorders and reinterpret the story. Well, it’s obvious that he had a terrible case of paranoid schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. Oh, he’s convulsing? Well, that sounds a bit like a bade case of epilepsy.
We engage in what Richard Beck calls the ‘Scooby-doo-ification’ of the Bible. If you remember Scooby-Doo, each episode begins with some mystery. There’s a haunted house; some goblin, ghost or monster. Scooby-Doo and his friends start investigating and everyone is a bit spooked. Eventually, they discover that something isn’t quite right with that ghost. And they seek the ghost trip over some stick. After further investigation, it turns out that the ghost is really Mr. Johnson, the crooked banker. There is no ghost, no true spiritual forces of evil. There’s always an explanation. We do the same thing with demons, we just have to lift up the sheet.
I don’t fully know what to say about demonology. But, I do know that if we censor language of evil too harshly, then we also sanitize our world. I’ve seen enough brokenness in the past week to know that there is more than meets the eye. We live in a world where someone can climb to the thirty-second floor of a hotel and murder 59 civilians and injure hundreds more. We can name the cause—warm, moist air causes a pressure system that will create a cycle of wind and cause inordinate destruction to places like Puerto Rico. But doesn’t it feel like something more happened, something that we can’t fully explain? Dare we say evil?
Do me a favor. Picture a demon. Think of a little, red man with a pitchfork. Now, forget that image. That’s not a demon. Demons are more cunning than that. They’re camouflaged among us in plain sight. Demons are, what Richard Rohr calls the shadows within us, those things which we mask from ourselves and hide from each other. So, here’s some questions: are are forces that hold us back and weigh us down? Are there things that isolate us from each other and confine us to the tombs? Are there things in our lives that make us act and behave like zombies? If we define a demon like that, then sure, demons are everywhere.
If you want to find out whether demons exist, then look for the symptoms left by Legion. Look for isolation—someone shut up in the house who is alone all day. Sure, maybe he’s just an introvert, but other times there’s something else going on. Keep your eyes open for self-harm—some demon of shame or insecurity. Most importantly, look for someone who has lost their identity. He used to have a name, but now he looks more like ‘grief’ or ‘guilt’ or ‘depressed.’ She used to be my Aunt, but now everyone looks at her like she’s just ‘cancer.’ When I spend time with my grandmother and there are only quick glimpses, snapshots, of the woman I used to play cards with; most of the time, she seems more ‘Alzheimer’s,’ than June Llewellyn. Mark would called that disease a demon, maybe we should too. A demon is something that steals your identity. If we stop using the language of the demonic, we might stop noticing the ways that people are being cast aside, alone, and isolated from the larger society. We give people new identities and push them out of our sight.
The really interesting part of the story is after Jesus heals this man. Legion is sent into the pigs and they drown in the sea. When the townspeople get back and see what has happened, they don’t pop the bubbles and kill the fattened calf. No, it’s the opposite—they beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. At first that sounded crazy, but the more I think about it, the more it makes perfect sense. The townspeople had everything under control until Jesus came along. The demon was quarantined out of sight and they didn’t have to deal with the brokenness. Now, it’s on the loose.
If they could name the demon over there, then they didn’t have to name the demon in here. It’s easier to see the demon in someone else, than to locate it inside of yourself. That’s what we do to people who remind us of our brokenness and reveal the principalities and powers alive in our world. The people who stand on the corner with a cardboard sign make me uncomfortable because I don’t like to be reminded of the brokenness in our world. We push them under the bridges, into prisons, and even into nursing care facilities. Out of sight and out of mind. The demonic? That’s not us, it’s that thing over there among the tombs.
This story is really about identities. It’s difficult to come to the terms how evil has us in its grip. But aren’t there ways we feel trapped walking among the tombs? So what if I asked you, “what are your demons?” What would you say? We call them pride or greed. We call them bitterness or shame. I have bottled up guilt for not doing what I should have done—not spending enough time with my children or not reaching out to a friend in the middle of a crisis. I have shame because we never quite amounted to what dad said I should become. Jealousy that my life never amounted to hers. Our insufficiency and insecurities lead us captive to the demon of ‘more and more’ and so we go on shopping sprees to feed the demon inside. Another way to ask this is to say, “What is holding you captive?”
The good news is that when Jesus appears, Legion asks Jesus, “What do you have to do with us, Jesus?” Most of Jesus followers have no idea who Jesus is, and they’re around him all the time. But ask the demons, and they bat one-hundred percent. The demons want nothing to do with God, because Jesus reaches out for those bruised arms—the same arms that haven’t been touched by another human being in days or months—and Jesus gives him life. No matter how real or oppressing or overwhelming our demons may seem, they are powerless against love.
There is one sure way to get rid of a demon. This is one instance you can learn from the horror movies. It’s the holy water. In exorcist movies, the priests splash water on the demons. It’s not some magic trick, it’s a way to remind the demons that we are not defined by them. Jesus and the disciples are by the water for a reason. The water is always meaningful. Jesus has already given us our identity in the water. When we are cleansed in the water of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit we are called child of God. Nothing can take that away. The man who was once called Legion is given a new name. He was naked, but now he is clothed in Christ. He was chained in slavery, but now he is free. And he is given a new purpose, a new mission, to testify to the saving power of Jesus Christ.
The most important question I can ask, is the same one asked by Jesus: What is your name? There are forces that want to rename you. There are patterns of self-abuse and sometimes we feel stripped down, alone and naked, walking among the tombs. Open your eyes to the Jesus who is getting out of the boat walking toward you. He came just for you. Dip your fingers in the water. Remember who you are. You are not Legion. You are a child of God.