The Gospel of Mark is fast and furious. We’re still near the very beginning, Chapter 1, and things are already revving up to fever pitch. Just a few verses back, Jesus called his first disciples. And now he’s traveled to Capernaum where he’s heading into the local synagogue. Upon arrival, Jesus doesn’t waste any time.He doesn’t sit down and wait for the elders or scribes to invite him to speak. He just gets up, takes the mic, and starts teaching straightaway. And he teaches in the most surprising way.
He teaches as one who has authority–one who has authority.
As we quickly discover, Jesus knows about far more than just scriptural interpretation. Indeed, Jesus’ authority extends far and wide, even into the realm of unclean spirits–the demonic. Nothing, it seems, is beyond Jesus’ reach or Jesus’ authority.
You see, just after Jesus starts teaching, a man with an unclean spirit, possessed by demons, appears in the synagogue. And the demons possessing the man speaks to Jesus directly: What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?
Now, many of us stumble here. Because we live in a world cleansed of demons. We are people of the Enlightenment. Rational people who know that demons aren’t real. People who know that those for whom demons seem very real, are likely struggling with a mental illness, most commonly schizophrenia… and need the help of physicians and psychologists, not exorcists.
But here is Jesus, silencing demons and casting them out. Jesus boldly commands the demons: Be silent, and come out of him!
Jesus isn’t about to put up with any back-talk from demons. He’s got places to go and people to set free. I imagine Jesus, hands on his hips, asserting: “I’m reclaiming my time!”
Now, it can be quite challenging for us to engage with this Jesus… this Jesus who is so intimately involved in healing people’s bodies and psyches, in the supernatural and paranormal. We might have a desire to just gloss over this passage and find our way back to Jesus’ more digestible teachings–his ethical precepts and social statements–while leaving the complexity of exorcisms and healings behind.
Because these phenomena are, I would guess, outside of most of our lived experiences. These phenomena seem suspiciously irrational, and can, therefore, make us anxious about the content of our received faith tradition.
How can we be disciples of a man who did things that we don’t believe are possible? Or, if within the realm of possibility, certainly extremely rare and unusual.
So how do we reconcile this piece of Jesus that seems so foreign to us–even embarrassing and uncomfortable.
Consider with me for a moment: what the arrival of Jesus on the ancient Jewish scene would have been like. You see: in Jesus’ time…There were religious teachers galore. A multitude of competing interpreters of Scripture. Even an abundance of messianic hopefuls.
But here’s the thing, then, just as now, people were hungry…hungry for more than just good ideas, more than just powerful words. Then, just as now, people had all kinds of irresolvable physical and emotional needs: things that stood between them and the fullness of life.
People needed more than a fresh take on religion. More than better ways to read Scripture. People needed a God who could heal. A God who could make a difference. A God stronger than pain, stronger than evil, stronger than hopelessness.
And I think that many of us still need that kind of God, still show up to church hoping for some kind of personal healing and transformation…still show up hoping and praying that SOMETHING is more powerful than all the pain and suffering in the world around us and within ourselves. And maybe this is wishful thinking.Or…maybe it isn’t.
Either way, a primary reason that it’s so difficult to wrap our minds around demons and exorcisms is that…as we’ve progressively demythologized the cosmos, we’ve left ourselves in a conundrum about evil.
The notion of Satan, of some sort of concentrated personification of evil, no longer makes sense within our rational worldview. But in lieu of Satan, most of us have little in the way of explanation for how and why things so often go so terribly wrong, for why the world so often rebels against the ways of God. We place an awful lot of the weight of evil on individual actors–on bad eggs, as it were.
But we tend to have a much weaker account of collective evil, of the kind of evil that seems able to self-propagate, without much conscious participation by those involved. And yet, we can easily acknowledge that much of what is evil in our world, seems bigger and badder than the work of individuals. There is a kind of evil, it seems, for which we don’t have much of a story.
We never managed to replace Satan, which means that evil lurks among us unnamed, doubly terrifying in its newfound anonymity.
But things weren’t quite as confusing in Jesus’ Jewish context. As one scholar explains this worldview, for Jesus and the Gospel writers:“Evil and hostility to God was perceived as unified and deliberate–and demons were only one way of understanding or picturing the malicious effects of that single will opposed to God. Jesus and his disciples were clearly conscious not only of the world as imperfect and flawed, but also of an organized and unified centre of evil manifesting itself both in the partial incapacities of some and in the total domination of others.” These manifestations were often referred to as demon-possession.
Importantly, all of this is not to say that those suffering from demon possession were personally guilty of evil. Demon possession was not a punishment. Rather, demon possession was a graphic demonstration that collective evil was running amok, disproportionately accumulating in the lives of certain groups and individuals. Demon possession was, effectively, oppression made visible. Indeed, many scholars think that demon possession increased dramatically among those most impacted by Roman colonial occupation–the weak, the poor, and the marginalized…Jesus’ friends.
Consider, as well, a contemporary example. In our culture, people who struggle with ongoing sadness are often diagnosed with clinical depression. Medication and therapy often help, but depression still tends to be seen mostly as a “personal problem.” And if it doesn’t go away via ordinary measures, one can even end up being labeled as “treatment resistant.” It somehow becomes the individual’s fault, rather than an indication of inadequate or inappropriate treatment. As such, depression can end up feeling like a very personal failing.
To help ameliorate this, many people depersonalize depression by focusing on its biochemical underpinnings.
But what is less often considered is that many people’s depression can also be closely linked with injustice…with oppressive systems and structures that are set up for anything but their flourishing.
In my own life, the pervasive impact of homophobia–in my family, in my schooling, in my church–made it very difficult for me to experience myself as worthy, whole, and loveable as a child and teenager. I was told constantly in my younger years that being gay was dirty, gross, disordered, and the most severe of offenses against God.
Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t seem to become un-gay.
So, of course, I inevitably became depressed. And even when my circumstances changed and I found myself surrounded by more accepting people, the negative impacts of my formative years did not immediately or easily dissipate.
I worked for years in therapy to overcome the early deficits of love in my life. But the process was often isolating. It’s still not acceptable to talk about depression in many social and professional contexts. I often felt the need to avoid “airing my dirty laundry,” so that I wouldn’t come off as unprofessional or unhinged. And sadly, the compunction to hide my depression only compounded and prolonged my struggle.
Throughout my development, it would have been enormously helpful for me to hear from others, loudly and clearly, that I was not suffering primarily because of poor coping skills, but because forces of evil had acted upon me, over and over again. Acted upon me in and through homophobic individuals and institutions, many of whom claimed that they were trying to help me, many of whom I believed were acting in my best interest.
Hearing what I experienced called evil, called demonic, would have been profoundly liberating. Because not hearing this meant that the homophobia eventually came to live within me, where no one else had to perpetrate it any longer. Internalized homophobia took on a life of its own.
So I needed someone, anyone, to call my demon by its name. Instead, they called it: low self-esteem, depression, anxiety.
And in and through this clinical labeling, I came to believe that maybe something really was wrong with me. I badly needed someone, anyone to witness the demonic scourge of internalized homophobia within me and to bellow fiercely Be silent, and come out of him!
I needed the demon inside me to be named, and to be called evil, in order to undo the strength of my own self-blame. MY difficulty with MY depression and MY anxiety.
Perhaps more than anything, I needed a church that could clearly call evil, evil…a church that would, in Jesus’ name, proclaim my freedom from captivity to the evil of homophobia. I needed a church that believed it was called to set captives free. A church that would do more than say “all are welcome” but also ask: from what demon are you suffering? How can we help you get free? And, what gifts do you have to help set others free?
Church: we have limited our imagination for healing most severely. Other people’s suffering is our business. Our suffering is other people’s business. Jesus made us a church so that we could provoke one another to love and good deeds. So that we could practice telling the truth, and calling things what they are. So that we could busy ourselves with loosing the bonds of injustice and helping the oppressed go free.
So I worry, sometimes, that we’ve lost the capacity to hope for something more from God and from one another….that we’ve lost the taste for liberation. Like in our Gospel today, when everyone was looking for Jesus.
Can you imagine? Everyone wanted to find him! Because they knew he could help them. They knew he was about freedom and healing.
And maybe he can help us, too. You now know the demon I’ve fought.
What is yours?
How have you suffered?
How are you suffering?
Tell me, and together, let’s go searching for Jesus the healer.