The Exorcism at Gerasa
Luke 8:26-39, Galatians 3: 23-29, Isaiah 65:1-9
Homily: Proper 7, 19 June 2016
John M Hayes
Most of you know that my day job is a clinical psychologist. Some forty years ago when I was a graduate student I used to moonlight at as a tech at a psychiatric unit of a hospital in Washington. There were some wildly psychotic characters brought in by police in the middle of the night, men and women raving in fits, tormented by persecuting inner demons.
There was a psychiatric nurse named Mitch who was particularly good with these folks. I’m not sure she was even five feet tall and very slender. Imagine a 300 lb. raving psychotic man hallucinating wildly, one that four young guys barely managed to corral into a locked quiet room. Then see this tiny sparrow of a woman insisting on going in alone to meet her patient. Inevitably Mitch would emerge within ten or fifteen minutes unfazed and the patient would be sleeping like a baby having cooperated in taking his meds.
Mitch was not afraid because she recognized that her patients were not so much aggressive as terrified. She saw that these tormented souls were not some outlier alien breed, but could be anyone of us given dire circumstances and experiences. To Mitch they were not “other”. Her calm compassionate demeanor conveyed containment, safety and the respect of one human being for another.
Trauma and psychosis are seldom far apart. “Crazy” is just a kind of reassuring short-hand for someone we don’t understand, someone who is communicating their pain and torment in the best way they can in convoluted language and gestures.
The psychotic lives in terrible conflict with intense need for relationship and absolute terror of the treacherous potential other humans represent. They know the potential treachery of human groups because often they have experienced it traumatically. They are torn apart – driven mad – by this irreconcilable conflict between intense hunger for human connection and terror of its possibilities.
“Crazy” is not necessarily that crazy. We all can identify with that conflict.
In today’s gospel we hear of Jesus encountering a tormented man ostracized by his community, raving amongst the tombs. Communities maintain order by exiling, hunting down, and stoning those who do not conform and threaten the social contract. This man applied the expected communal punishments to himself, stripping himself of his clothing, exiling himself and hurling himself against the stones.
Jesus approaches the man with calm, un-anxious compassion. With authority he commands the demons to leave the tormented possessed man.
But it is not this man’s individual condition alone that Jesus addresses. Indeed Jesus comes to upend the whole pathology of the social order that created this man’s condition of extreme alienation. These demons are not just individual and internal; they are social demons. They are “Legion”.
The demon possesses not only this unfortunate man, but also his whole community, and indeed all human communities. Since the beginning of time, human communities find excitement and solidarity in making someone or some designated group “other” and in scapegoating that chosen victim.
The district where Jesus meets the possessed man is Gerasa, a Roman town. Here the culture of empire was dominant, without compromise with local custom and religion. That the demons are called “Legion” the term for the Roman troops installed to maintain Roman rule. The law of Caesar is the law of might, conquering and mercilessly destroying all who stand in its way, all who oppose its rule and norms, all who are “other”. The Romans perfected the rule by scapegoating terror. The horror of crucifixion was not a rare event but a constant reminder to those who would be “other”.
This rule of law, was designed to keep those at the bottom powerless, fearful and submissive, and those at the top secure in their privilege, and to co-opt all those in between. This is the evil that Jesus confronts when he exorcises the demons. Given the option of entering the swine, like a mob gone mad, the demons self-destruct and hurl themselves to death. And the townsfolk at Gerasa are made afraid by this exorcism and want Jesus to hit the road. The peace of Jesus threatens their so-called peace built on violence.
Jesus is upending the established order of might makes right, the powerful rule, the victims crushed. Standing in the tradition of the Jewish prophets, Jesus initiates a startling new world order: God is with the victims and scapegoats. God abhors the so-called Roman peace built on exploitation and violence.
Blessed are the peacekeepers, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for justice. The meek shall inherit the earth. The last shall be first.
The peace of Jesus destroys Pax Romana. Like the demons running head long to their destruction, that empire eventually destroyed itself and collapsed in chaos. Sic transit gloria mundi.
St. Paul addresses the community of Galatians. They are Celts, barbarians, with unruly and feared cousins all across northern Europe. They were for the Romans – along with the Jews and Christians – the ultimate “other”: dangerous,, disorderly, opposing the crushing rule of what the Romans insisted was an eternal “civilization”. The Romans waged their own unending “war on terror” against this brood.
Scholars tell us that “law” here is not just the Jewish law, but also Paul’s code for Roman law and the scapegoating violence that maintained it. Paul’s real point about circumcision perhaps is that the foreskin of the Celtic Galatians and the “no foreskin” of the Jews were in Roman eyes equivalent markers of the vanquished, easily expendable if necessary to ensure Roman “peace”.
Faith in Christ releases us from the chains of scapegoating violence, frees us from the blind delusions of empire, and makes redundant and irrelevant the markers of social identity that make some people “other” and thereby ripe for victimization. Faith in Christ – trusting, heartfelt, personal and communal relationship in Christ – frees us to be a new community of God’s children.
It is not lost on anyone here that theses scriptures address our own dire situation. We also are empire. The rules of empire are universal: might makes right, divide and conquer, whenever expedient crush opposition, and always “God is on our side”. Religion is always co-opted to support the status quo of empires. Some empires might be a tad more humane than others, but as our history shows, mostly more humane in rhetoric than practice. Empires – political, social, and economic – are built on violence – always.
Faith in Christ demands we forsake the idolatries of empire. God is not charmed by the myth of American exceptionalism, our homegrown version of empire’s self-deluding idolatry. Do not seek salvation in politics. Idolatries come in blue and red. The jingoist belligerence of the right is in some ways a more transparent idolatry than the neoliberal mandates of the left that exact their more discreet cruelties, hand-in-glove with globalization.
Jesus comes to exorcise us of our demonic possession and the mechanisms of violence enslave us.
Witness the horrific massacre of the “other” in Orlando; over 50 gay men and women slaughtered this week.
Witness the retaliatory rhetoric and political posturing that enflames vengeance and retaliation against the “other”, that in turn enflames the hatred and aggression of the “other”.
Right outside these doors, witness the scapegoating economic violence that creates the terrible disparities in our city, the terrible disparities in safety and justice and opportunity.
Witness the obscene numbers of young men whose lives are consumed and destroyed by prison, their disposable lives sacrificed to create the illusion of security in the social order.
Where does this end? Will we all leap to our own destruction like possessed swine?
God calls us to a better way, to the nonviolent peace of Jesus. When our lives – individually and communally – are centered in God, we are changed from the inside out, exorcised from the demons of idolatry that possess us, and freed from the chains of chaos and violence.
Who will save us from our dreadful psychosis?
“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said “Here I am, here I am”, to a nation that did not call on my name.” God’s words in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah.
Like that tiny, unassuming, fearless nurse, God enters and speaks to us in our collective psychosis, our fearful alienation from each other and from our own true nature, and calls us out of our demonic possession, in to a new world of consciousness and relationship, into the realized promise of new creation in Christ.
In this new creation there is no “other “to exile and alienate.
In Christ we are no longer black or white or brown or red, no longer gay or straight, not Christian not Jewish not Muslim not Buddhist not Hindu not atheist or agnostic, not American not foreigner, neither male nor female nor something in between, neither old nor young, not rich or poor, not abled or disabled, educated or not, so called “crazy” or sane.
In Christ all binaries, all opposites, all markers of social identity collapse and we are freed from a false and shallow identity and delivered for authentic life in God’s new reality.
May the peace of Christ that surpasses human understanding, the peace that conquers evil and death and puts lie to all our demonic idolatries be ours now and always.