When Jesus sets forth his agenda in terms of Isaiah 61 in his synagogue sermon in Nazareth, one of the key aspects of his work is to liberate the oppressed. This story provides a beautiful picture into what that involves.
Here is a lost, tortured, battered soul. We are not shown his descent into this state, so we do not know how he became so tortured, so demonized, so broken and lost. He does not know who he is. He is violent, unpredictable, and alone. I suspect that if one could profile all those who have joined terrorist groups over the years one might something similar. He lives among the tombs, which is to say that he lives in the realm of death. That is, he lives in a state of life-diminishment, a state of dehumanization, a state of alienation and oppression.
It would be a grave mistake for us to think that this was all his own doing. We do not know the travesties and tragedies he suffered through. We know nothing about his life growing up, what events transpired or experiences he had, what demonic forces he has had to contend with. Though perhaps the name given to the demons is suggestive. The name “Legion” was the official name of a Roman battalion, and we know that the Romans could treat their subjects harshly and oppressively. Their means of executing their subjects for crimes against the empire was brutal and public. We don’t know if he suffered under Rome; we don’t know if he was an Israelite or a Gentile. But the whole symbolism of demonization suggests that there are forces inside of us and outside of us (like the militarism of Rome) that would dehumanize us and demean us and diminish us.
We face inner inclinations that would lead us into a state of diminishment, some of which may arise from the way our brains our wired; other patterns we have learned from the ways we were socialized into our context in life. It can all be very complicated, but the point of demonization is to show that there are always forces beyond our control at work. We did not pick our parents, we did not choose our time or place in history, we did not choose the place of our birth; there’s a whole set of forces and circumstances that help form us or deform us over which we have had no control. I am not suggesting that we are not responsible for our choices, but our choices can be greatly limited by our circumstances in life.
Here is a man so oppressed and dehumanized he has lost his basic humanity. In the movie, Reign Over Me, Charlie Fineman (played by Adam Sandler) loses his wife and daughters in the tragedy of 9/11. In the aftermath this once-successful and sociable man becomes a withdrawn, alienated shadow of his former self. The story is about how a college roommate comes back into his life to try and help Charlie reclaim his humanity.
Politicians or anyone who blames the poor for their poverty are typically blind to the demonic forces at work here, and I would bet are blind to their own demons as well. Of course, as I often say, we are all blind to some degree aren’t we?
So, when we struggle with these life-diminishing powers and forces that enslave and oppress us it is never just about our own choices. Our circumstances in life, our education or lack thereof, our early childhood nurture or the lack thereof, our opportunities or the lack thereof, the tragedies we have lived through, all of these things impact us and play important roles in forming us or deforming, humanizing us or dehumanizing us, enriching our lives or diminishing our lives. It’s never just about our own choices.
And who among us, even those of us who have had so many advantages and opportunities, who have been surrounded with loving, supportive families, good education, good health care, opportunities to succeed – yes who among us, even with all of this, do not struggle with our own demons. Even those of us who have had every opportunity life affords still struggle with addictions, anxiety, fear, depression, compulsive behavior, anger and other forms of negative habits and patterns.
In my little book on Progressive Christianity I have a piece on this subject and I tell about the time when Jordan was 7 or 8 and I was coaching his baseball team in Waldorf, Maryland. The whole system was a set up for disaster. It was designated an instructional league and we had to depend on parents for umpires. It was an instructional league, but we kept score. Instead of requiring both teams to provide an umpire at each game, the home team was responsible for the umpires. Generally they asked someone on the visiting side to umpire. But on this particular day when we were the visitors, we weren’t asked. The home team chose one of their coaches to umpire behind the plate and one of their parents to umpire the bases. I don’t know if they had lost three in a row or what, but they were going to win this game. Well, after about the third questionable call, we had a call against us that wasn’t even remotely questionable. And I lost it. I’ve told this before and I tell about it in my book, so I won’t go into the details, but I can honestly admit to you, my church family, who I believe loves me in spite of all my faults, I was possessed. For at least five minutes I lost my mind. Another power, a deadly power, seized me. And I bet some of you can recall episodes or events where this happened to you too.
Do you know what the cure for possession is? It’s possession. It’s a different kind of possession. It’s the possession of a different kind of spirit. It’s the possession of God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which is a Spirit of love and compassion and understanding, manifested in humility, kindness, patience, and self-control. That day on the ballfield (or maybe battlefield) I lost my self; I lost my humanity. Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to regain myself, to restore my humanity, to apologize to everyone for my reactions on the field, and to make amends. By the end of the game I was quite ashamed and humbled.
Now, let’s get back to our story in Luke. There is a part to this story that may seem on the surface to be insignificant, but I believe is the key to understanding what is at stake. The demons that come out of the man are permitted by Jesus to enter the swine, which sent the swine rushing down the steep bank into the sea and drowned.
Luke tells us that the swineherds who witnessed this told the story to the people in the town and all about the countryside and Luke says that when they came out and saw this man who had lost his humanity, who had been living naked among the tombs, clothed, and in his right mind, meaning that he had found himself, he had found his lost humanity, Luke says they were afraid. And when the story was told of what happened, how Jesus confronted the demons and healed this lost, broken man, Luke says they “were seized with a great fear” and bid Jesus to leave them and go elsewhere.
What were they afraid of? What’s the point the storywriter wants to make? When Jesus allowed the demons to enter the swine and they raced into the sea Jesus was ridding their land of the demons. (There were two conflicting myths about demons and water. One was that the sea was the haunt of demons, in which case Jesus was sending them home. The other was that the demons couldn’t live in water and so Jesus is destroying them. Either way, Jesus is getting rid of the demons.)
So what’s the point about being afraid? What are the people afraid of? They are afraid of Jesus upsetting their social order. The townsfolk couldn’t really control the demonized man, but out there among the tombs he wasn’t bothering them. They knew where he was so they could avoid him. But Jesus was responsible for the loss of a sizeable herd of pigs. They lost a lot of income. A whole bunch of money went plunging into the sea. Jesus is upsetting the social order. There is a price to be paid for driving out demons and healing the demonized, and they would just rather have their pigs back. When it came to a choice between their economic security and healing the demonized or liberating the oppressed, they chose economic security.
And most of us are just like them. We choose our security and safety over the risk involved in helping restore humanity to the dehumanized and liberate the oppressed.
Why do you think there’s practically no chance of seeing universal health care in America anytime soon? Why are we the only country of the democratic, industrialized nations on earth that does not have universal health care? It’s not because we are better or smarter. In fact, we are the most violent of the nations in the free world. We kill each other at a much higher rate than any other free nation on earth (and yet we can’t even get some basic common sense legislation passed like keeping those on a terrorist watch list from buying a gun).
Here’s why universal health care can’t work here. We do not want to sacrifice our good care so that those who have poor care can have adequate care. Most of us here have access to the best health care available. The poor, of course, do not. Many do not, but we do. We can purchase the best care available. If we go to a universal health care system, that means more equity, more equality, it levels the playing field. We are more like everyone else. We get put on a waiting list. We can’t just go out and buy what we need. Of course, there will still be some corruption and inequity, because a system is only good as those who run the system, right. So whatever system is in place there will always be some who know how to work it. There will always be some corruption. But for the most part, with universal health care, the care would be more evenly distributed. We who have access to the best care available would have to make some sacrifices, and we are not willing to do it. And that is the main reason we don’t want universal health care. We should at least be honest enough to admit it. We don’t want to give up what we have.
And if we are honest, this is also why we resist immigration reform. It’s why some of us want to build walls rather than bridges. It’s why we want to drive the poor out of our cities, rather than set plans and programs in motion to help them get on their feet and restore their humanity. Because after all we have to pay for those programs and plans.
We can say this much about the people who asked Jesus to leave, they understood the social implications of the kingdom of God. They realized that if they took Jesus seriously, Jesus would set in motion humanizing and life enriching forces that would disrupt the lopsided economic and social order they had constructed. They realized they would have to give up some things for others to be healed and made whole.
Paul understood this. This is why when people were baptized into communities called churches it was proclaimed that in Christ there is nether Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. All the ways people classify, stratify, label, and categorize people mean nothing in the communities God wants to establish on earth. For in God’s view we are all one in Christ. We are one family, all sisters and brothers, all equals and partners in the journey of life. And this becomes the basis for our calling to serve and minister.
Now, listen carefully because this is really important, and this is where we have blown it in the past and we have to do better. When we serve those who are oppressed, when we minister to those who are demonized, those who have been beaten down in life, those who are most vulnerable, we must serve and minister to them as their equals not their superiors. We must let go of any notion that we are better in some way or that we have all the answers because we don’t. And this is where in the past the Western church in its missionary zeal has really screwed things up and we have got to do better. We must realize that the ones we serve are already in Christ, they are already children of God. Our place is to simply help them trust who they are and become who they are. They are our equals. Members of God’s family. Loved by God ever bit as much as we are. And we can learn from them as much as they can learn from us.
So when we work for justice, when we engage in acts of kindness and mercy, when we work in soup kitchens, or homeless shelters, or volunteer with the red cross, or when we deliver food or water, or help build wells and provide educational opportunities or whatever we do, we need to remember that we are serving our sisters and brothers, we are serving persons who are already in Christ whether they know it or not. We might be able to help them to live in Christ, if we are living in Christ. But what they don’t need is for us to give them a bunch of doctrines to memorize or insist that they have to believe the way we believe or practice their faith the way we practice ours.
And in addition to all of that, we might be able to help people develop a healthier image of God. This can be difficult, because many have had their God image seared into their minds from an early age. When the demonized or dehumanized man first sees Jesus he says, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” Think about this. He sees Jesus rightly as a representative or prophet of God, but then wrongly he thinks Jesus as God’s prophet has come to torment him, as if he is not tormented enough already. His God image is all messed up.
Last week I quoted Mark Wingfield in his article on transgender persons and he pointed out how so many transgender persons have been led to think God is against them. How tragic. One way we might be able to help those who feel lost and alone and alienated is help them see that God is not against them, rather, God is for them and loves them with an eternal love.
Our good God, help us to recognize that we are all one. We are all part of your body, all members of your family, all equals and partners regardless of what others have said. And may we see through the illusions that people in power would feed us about being better or superior. Help us to see we are all one in Christ. And give us the courage and compassion and will to make the sacrifices necessary so others can experience the beauty and fullness of life that so many of us have been lucky enough to enjoy.