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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


Modern Demoniacs

Modern Demoniacs

A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

by the Rev. John Kirkley, long-term interim rector

The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco, California

 

May I speak in the name of God, the one, holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.

Does anyone recognize the name, Claude Eatherly? Major Eatherly was the captain of the Straight Flush, a B-59 that accompanied the Enola Gay in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Responsible for reconnaissance and assessment of the effect of the bombings, it was Earthly who gave the signal to drop the bombs. After the war, he shared his remorse with the German philosopher Gunther Anders in a series of letters that became the basis for the book, Burning Conscience: The Guilt of Hiroshima.

The tall, handsome Texan was completely undone by his participation in the use of weapons of mass destruction (which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors). According to his family, he wasn’t the same person after he left the military in the early 1950s. He was a haunted man, haunted by the inability of his fellow citizens to acknowledge the crime against humanity for which they were collectively responsible. “The truth is,” he wrote to Anders, “that society cannot accept the fact of my guilt without at the same time recognizing its own far deeper guilt.”

As Eatherly’s mental health deteriorated, he seemed compelled to seek out punishment for his crime, to become the scapegoat for a nation that refused to acknowledge its guilt. In between hospitalizations, he became involved in a series of petty crimes leading to armed robbery. Eventually, he was committed to a mental institution based on the expert witness of psychiatrists. Gunther Anders response to Eatherly’s earlier correspondence proved to be prophetic when he wrote, “One can only conclude: happy the times in which the insane speak out this way, wretched the times in which only the insane speak out this way.”

Claude Eatherly, it seems to me, was a modern-day equivalent of the Gerasenes’ demoniac. He was the United States’ demoniac; we needed him, much as the Gerasenes’ needed the possessed man whom Jesus healed. The story of the Gerasenes’ demoniac is a story about the social usefulness of possession. It is a story about the dynamic of scapegoating as a way to deny and displace our collective encounter with evil, whether the evil we commit (as in the case of Eatherly) or the evil we endure (as in the case of the Gerasene’s demoniac). Although the story takes on mythic elements that seem irrational by the standards of scientific materialism, these elements serve to heighten the universality of the story and underscore its truth. The language of demonic possession may seem archaic, but it points to a reality that we cannot dismiss.

Why did the Gerasenes’ “need” this demoniac? What “necessary” role did he play in their community? The country of the Gerasenes was a region encompassed by the Decapolis, ten Greek city-states established and populated by veterans of Alexander the Great’s campaigns. These Gentile cities, originally autonomous, were subsequently caught between Jewish rebels from Galilee and the legions of the Roman occupation. Struggling to maintain their proud independence, these cities were at various times sacked by both Jewish and Roman forces. There was no love lost between the Gerasenses and either the Jews or the Romans.

In fact, the Gerasenes seethed with resentment over the indignities of Roman subjugation. In Jesus’ time, this repressed anger, this despair of ever being free again, simmered well below the surface of Roman control. This is the context in which we must understand the Gerasenes’ demoniac.

It is not surprising that this man’s demons collectively named themselves, “Legion.” His psyche was occupied by the demons representing the spirituality of the Gerasenes under Roman occupation. He internalized the dynamic of colonizer and colonized, characterized by brutality, exploitation, subservience, resentment, and guilt. In his inner life and relationship with his neighbors we see the evil of Roman imperialism writ large.

The Gerasenes and their demoniac engaged in a ritualized drama of bondage and release, whereby the demoniac was repeatedly subdued and chained, only to break free and return to the wild again. It was his self-destructive enactment of their unfilled rage that allowed them to retain a sense of “normalcy” in the face of the dehumanizing constraints of Roman rule. This one man, dwelling naked in the tombs, gave expression to the suffering and powerlessness that no else was willing to acknowledge.

We, of course, have our “demoniacs” as well. Thursday afternoon a woman came by St. John’s looking for her son. She showed me a picture of Nick, a young man in his early twenties diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. He has been living on the street for several weeks, refusing to take his medication and becoming increasingly disassociated from reality. His mother, following a trail of ATM transactions, was led to the Mission.

It turns out that Nick had been a promising film school student at NYU, without any previous symptoms of mental illness – until the events of September 11, 2001. Nick was at school in Manhattan when the terrorists crashed the two hijacked planes into the Twin Towers. It changed his life forever. Shortly thereafter, an agonizing process of mental and emotional deterioration ensued, culminating in his sure conviction that God has called him to save the world by convincing us that we all just need to get along. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Now, I do not doubt that there is something within Nick’s psychological constitution that made him susceptible to being affected by the trauma of 9/11 in this way. He is clearly mentally ill. Yet, I believe that he has been possessed by evil, internalizing the spirituality of the death-dealing institutions of our world that dominate so much of our lives. Like Claude Eatherly and the Gerasene’s demoniac before him, Nick is giving expression in his inner life and relationships to the evil that the rest of us refuse to fully acknowledge, expose, and renounce. In so doing, Nick allows us to feel normal and comfortable in our denial. “Poor Nick,” we say, as if his mental illness is simply a personal problem and not a sign of our collective insanity. One can only conclude: happy the times in which the insane speak out this way, wretched the times in which only the insane speak out this way.

 

Nick is a symptom of spiritual disease that has infected all of us. We have come to accept a hellish level of violence, dishonesty, prejudice, greed, and xenophobia as normal in our society. In fact, so blind are we to our own faults as a nation that we persist in believing that we have the right and duty to impose our culture throughout the world, by force if necessary. In so doing, we mask our self-interest and will-to-power behind a façade of benevolent aid. We are “liberators, not occupiers,” said the Romans to the Gerasenes. Meanwhile, the suicide bombers keep exploding and the Nick’s keep crying out in our streets. The truth is, we have all been colonized, victims of collective possession, and we cling to the identified demoniacs in our midst so that we can feel good about ourselves.

It is instructive to see how Jesus intervenes in this situation. In Luke’s narrative, it is a bit odd that we find Jesus diverting into Gentile territory at this point in his ministry, a kind of sneak preview of the Gentile mission to come. What is this Jew doing in the Decapolis? Whatever the reason, notice that Jesus comes among the Gerasenes as an outsider, and it is precisely as an outsider that he can see beneath the surface of the spiritual façade operative in the culture of the Decapolis.

The demoniac approaches Jesus, only Jesus doesn’t see a “demoniac.” He sees a man in search of wholeness. Jesus recognizes that the source of this < man’s trouble lies outside of himself, and so he commences to address the foreign power that has invaded this poor man’s psyche. That power’s name is Legion.

Legion doesn’t want to be sent away. The occupying power desperately wants to maintain its foothold somehow, somewhere. Jesus acquiesces to this request, but in such a way as to reverse the scapegoat mechanism that had locked the demoniac in such a cruel relationship with the townspeople. Normally it is the scapegoat who is killed by the people as a substitutionary sacrifice for their sin. Instead, the scapegoat is healed, and Legion, representing the spirituality of the people, is cast into the swineherd and headlong over a cliff. Evil requires a scapegoat in order to maintain its legitimacy; without it, it dies.

The townspeople are definitely not happy with Jesus. The cost of his intervention to heal this man was simply too high for them, economically and spiritually. The loss of the swineherd is a significant financial loss, and in the spirituality of Legion, profits always have more value than people. While the Gerasenes marvel at the healing of the demoniac, they are also afraid. Who will be their scapegoat? Must they now acknowledge their own inner violence and despair? That is simply too much to ask, and so they beg Jesus to leave them alone.

The demoniac is like an alcoholic who gets well, depriving everyone else in the family of their scapegoat. Suddenly, everyone is in an uproar because the family drunk is unwilling to carry all the negative emotional energy. What, you mean I have to look at myself now instead of focusing on you as the problem? No thanks!

 

In an extraordinary example of what Freud called “the return of the repressed,” the “Legion” that is cast out by Jesus subsequently reappeared in the form of an actual Roman legion that occupied the Decapolis less than forty years later. The demoniac was healed, but the people refused to accept the implications of his healing for their own spiritual well-being. Unable to acknowledge their hatred of the Romans, and without a scapegoat to accept their displaced violence, it erupted in a bloody revolution that was ruthlessly suppressed.

What is perhaps most astonishing, is the response of the man formerly known as the Gerasenes’ demoniac. The townspeople find him clothed and in his right mind at Jesus’ feet, in the posture of a disciple. When the townspeople run Jesus out of town, he pleads to go with him. Jesus responds, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Which is exactly what the demoniac-become-disciple did.

His courage in so doing is nothing less than breathtaking. Jesus calls us to the same form of discipleship as the former demoniac. Our faith is not a retreat from the world, a following Jesus that takes us out of the brokenness of our world. It is rather the marvelous gift of freedom from possession by the evil powers of this world, precisely so that we can offer a voice of peace and hope to that very world.

In a world such as ours, this gift of awareness can feel like a terrible burden sometimes. As daunting as it may seem to hold together both the pain of life and its inexhaustible joy simultaneously, to fail to do so leaves us vulnerable to becoming either a scapegoat or a devotee of the spirituality of Legion. In our baptism, we renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, as well as the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. Together (for we cannot do it alone) we must refuse, with all our might, to collaborate with structures of evil, so that the insane will not be the only ones to speak out; and, what is more, so that there will be no need for insane people. In renouncing evil, we must renounce our need for scapegoats as well, until all God’s children know the joy and dignity for which they were created.

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Amen.


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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