The demons of Empire
Sunday Musings was finished early this week! I’m excited by this offering and wanted to get it to you on Saturday instead of tomorrow. The spiritual themes are appropriate for the American holiday of Juneteenth.
Today’s text — commonly referred to as “the Gerasene Demoniac” — is from the Gospel of Luke. The miracle story of the exorcism and the pigs appears in Mark, Luke, and Matthew with some variations. The oldest and most substantial version is in Mark 5:1-20. But the lectionary assigns the shorter Luke passage on this Sunday.
Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
The first time I remember hearing this story was in youth group at a church that took miracles very seriously. I certainly wasn’t opposed to miracles (either then or now), but this story bothered me.
After the youth leader explained how these sorts of miracles proved Jesus’ divinity, he asked if we had any questions.
I raised my hand.
“What about the pigs?” I asked. “Why do Jews have pigs?”
Turns out that was the right question. The entire story can’t be understood apart from those pigs.
Although I don’t recall the youth pastor’s response, the story isn’t located in a part of Israel noted for faithful adherence to Jewish tradition. It takes place in a region called the Decapolis, an area to the east of the Sea of Galilee, that was marked for its acculturation to Greek and Roman culture. Hellenized culture. Roman imperialism. Temples, foreign gods. An outpost of empire. Not very Jewish. And so, pigs.
Thus, this story. A wild, haunted man, who is naked and scarred from chains, and has been living in a graveyard for Gentiles (“the tombs”) screams at Jesus to leave him alone. But Jesus recognized that the man was demon possessed and orders them to release the man. The demons beg Jesus to send them into a herd of nearby pigs — and the pigs, now possessed of the demons — promptly hurl themselves into the sea. The man is healed. And people all over the region can’t stop talking about it.
Is this an actual historical event? Most contemporary scholars are skeptical. But they agree that it is an important story when we focus on why this story was included in the gospels and its meaning to Jesus’ early followers.
Mark’s gospel, in which the early version of this story appears, was written shortly after 70 CE, not long after the Romans had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a wartime gospel, full of anticipation that God would intervene in history.
Mark (Luke follows Mark’s version) places the story in Gerasa, even though most scholars think that this story was probably associated in oral traditional with a city named Gadara. But Mark changes it. Why Gerasa? Both Gadara and Gerasa are in the Decapolis. The name change doesn’t make much sense, except for one thing.
In 66 CE, shortly before Mark wrote his gospel, another city in ancient Israel named Gerasa (yes, there were two!) was the site of a brutal attack by the Romans. More than a thousand people were killed.
Mark apparently took the oral tradition of Jesus and an exorcism and purposefully set it in Gerasa. If this was the case, he wanted his readers to think of the Roman attack. He was making a political link between the Jesus story and the recent massacre.
This isn’t a miracle story. This is political commentary — indeed, it is political satire. A few scholars have specifically suggested that it is resistance satire. As John Dominic Crossan insists, it openly mocks “Roman imperialism as demonic possession,” and reveals what colonial domination does to those it subjects to political cruelty.
Understood as politics, this story makes more sense than as a fantastical tale of a man who was half zombie and some pigs.
The man’s name? Legion.
The Latin word “legion” meant one thing and one thing only at the time — a Roman legion, a large division of imperial soldiers. New Testament scholar Ched Myers notes that this story is replete with military images. The term “herd” used for the swine mostly referred to military recruits, to “dismiss” the demons was a military command, and the pigs “charge” like soldiers charge into battle.
And the pigs charge right into the water. Myers goes on:
Enemy soldiers being swallowed by hostile waters of course brings to mind the narrative of Israel’s liberation from Egypt (Ex 14), as Moses’ victory hymn sings: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army Yahweh cast into the sea; his elite officers are sunk in the Red Sea” (Ex 15:4). (from Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus)
This story is basically an allegory of imperialism. A possessed man is the state of human beings under occupation — we go mad, tormented by death, stripped of dignity. The demon, “Legion,” is the Roman army. And the pigs? Perhaps not surprisingly pork was a staple in the diet of imperial troops. Jesus sends the demons into the unclean food they ate and they destroy themselves! The whole mess — the legion, the swine — drown like Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. Liberation — the man healed, clothed, and “in his right mind” — was complete. The enemy vanquished, we are restored and we can live as God intends.
“Tell everyone,” Jesus told the man. “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.”
He may as well have said: “Tell your neighbors that God is going to throw Caesar’s army into the sea.”
I can only imagine the first audience’s reaction to Mark’s tale. Upon hearing it, they probably roared with laughter, a laughter of righteous hope and hearty approval, and cheered God’s triumph. Calling Roman soldiers demons and feeding them to the pigs is really pretty funny.
They were still under threat from the Roman army, however, and the empire’s brutal violence was seared into memory. It was a dangerous time. Mark had to code the story of Jesus’ liberating power over Caesar so it could be repeated in communities fearing Roman persecution — much like how the enslaved people in the American South told stories of freedom under the guise of spirituals. Political-religious satire has always been a powerful tool for the oppressed to share hope, claim power, and affirm God’s ultimate triumph over their enemies.
I always dismissed this story when it was explained as a literal miracle of individual exorcism. After all, what do I have in common with a zombie-like man who had taken refuge among the dead? I’m not filled with 2,000 demons. And I didn't particularly need to see this sort of miracle in order to trust that Jesus heals.
But, when read as political satire, I suddenly find myself in the tale. What has living under empire done to me? To others? Have we, suffering under today’s pyramid of wealth and power, been consigned to living among the dead (as Jesus would elsewhere say, “Let the dead bury their dead.”), stripped of our humanity, wrought with madness?
Watching the news, it seems a fairly apt description of life in America today.
We might think, “No. That’s not us. Things are bad, but they aren’t that bad. We get along.” But maybe that’s exactly what Mark is pressing against — those who accommodated to the Roman Empire, who might have thought their lives were good enough. The naked man leaps from the story, a shocking mirror showing the true condition of the oppression we all share under imperial power. He may be the immediate scapegoat for colonial domination, we may try to cast him out, but he runs from the graveyard and makes us see both him and ourselves.
The encounter with Jesus reveals the truth of possession — what those demons, that Legion, the violent imperial forces of occupation, do to all of us. That man is the reality we seek to avoid. We demonize him as to not face what bedevils us all.
But the demons cannot bear the light Jesus embodies. They beg for mercy. The presence of God is too much for these devils. And they — not the man — retreat in fear. They escape into the unclean animals they eat. In effect, the demons feed on themselves. Then they are driven into their own insanity and drown themselves beneath the waves.
Isn’t that what every empire eventually does? This may be political satire. But is a history parable as well.
And what of the man, the victim of imperial madness? The crowd sees him anew: the “man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” Freed from these demons, the Legion of empire, we can be the sort of people we were meant to be. Liberation is not only possible, but it is at hand.
Honestly, that is a miracle. And that’s the miracle for which I ache right now.
(The) demons are being named. The enemy is being identified. Its names are legion. Racism is a demon. Poverty is a demon. Powerlessness is a demon. Self-deprecation is a demon. And those who prop them up are demonic in effect. A strategy of liberation includes a ministry of exorcism, the naming and casting out of demons.
— Reuben A. Sheares (Sheares, who died in 1992, was UCC pastor, a leader for racial and economic justice in Chicago, and served on the governing board of the National Council of Churches)
Rabbi, we Gadarenes
Are not ascetics; we are fond of wealth and possessions.
Love, as You call it, we obviate by means
Of the planned release of aggressions.
We have deep faith in property.
Soon, it is hoped, we will reach our full potential.
In the light of our gross product, the practice of charity
Is palpably non-essential.
It is true that we go insane;
That for no good reason we are possessed by devils;
That we suffer, despite the amenities which obtain
At all but the lowest levels.
We shall not, however, resign
Our trust in the high-heaped table and the full trough.
If You cannot cure us without destroying our swine,
We had rather You shoved off.
— Richard Wilbur, “Matthew VIII, 28 Ff.”
Please consider supporting The Cottage with a paid subscription. There is no financial backing to this project other than that which you contribute. Thank you.
COTTAGE UPDATE: Please read!
ZOOM GATHERING: Due to Bill McKibben’s schedule, we’re going to have to move Thursday’s conversation. We’re working to find a time — most likely within a few days of the original Thursday date. I’ll notify paid subscribers of the new day and time as soon as possible. Sorry about this! And Bill is sorry, too!
COVID NEWS: Prayers are appreciated for my complete recovery from COVID. I’m better, but some days are a bit harder than others. My experience of this beastly thing is of the two steps forward, one step back variety. (I envy those of you who had no or few symptoms!) I’m very grateful for the kindness and concern you’ve directed my way.
I know that many of you are hurting and worried right now, especially regarding two things: the demonization and targeting of LGBTQ people (which is particularly evil during Pride month) and the escalation of gun violence.
None of this is acceptable. And none of it is as God intends. At the Cottage, I hope my LGBTQ readers and friends feel treasured and safe. You are not only welcomed here, but loved. And for my straight readers and friends, I beg you to be the best allies you can possibly be right now. Don’t let politicians get away with terrorizing our brothers and sisters and siblings for votes. That’s the very definition of fascism.
Three dead at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.
Give to the departed eternal rest
Let light perpetual shine upon them.
Please read below the public statement from one of the family of one of the victims, Walter Rainey, age 84. This is the toll of America’s Gun Empire, and the shining witness of God’s love in the face of what is truly demonic:
The family of Walter Bartlett Rainey (Bartlett) wishes to thank every person who has reached out to offer prayers and a thousand different kindnesses to ease the loss we all all feel acutely today while still finding it so hard to believe. Bartlett was a husband of 61 years to Linda Foster Rainey, and we are all grateful that she was spared and that he died in her arms while she murmured words of comfort and love into his ears. We also feel a sense of peace that his last hours were spent in one of his favorite places on earth, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, a place that welcomes everyone with love. We are proud that in his last act on earth, he extended the hand of community and fellowship to a stranger, regardless of the outcome. Bart Rainey was strong in faith and secure in the love of his family and friends. He made everyone he encountered feel special. We hope you will honor him by extending your hand to those around you who are in need. We—his wife, children, and grandchildren—will miss him.
That’s a difficult ending to today’s musing. I’m very glad you are here — and that we can worry and weep in community — more than glad — overwhelmed with gratitude. Together we can face down the demons.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
for the living of these days.