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Month: March 2018

Using the Story of Legion to Understand the Violence of the World 3

Using the Story of Legion to Understand the Violence of the World 3

This blog post is the third in a series. The overall theme is the use of the Legion narrative in Mark 5 to reflect on the violence of the world. I have advocated a thick reading of the story that considers the nature of this troubled man, the reactions of the surrounding community, and the transforming power of Jesus.

The second post proposed that a deep reading needs to examine the socio-historical factors embedded in the story (which would have been known people around Jesus) and the hidden power of evil to subvert and destroy individuals and their communities. This current contribution seeks to address the topic of evil spirits and demonic possession for people of our time and context.

New Testament scholar John P. Meier (1993) wrote of the enormous distance between the social world of Jesus and modern western societies in their views of unclean spirits and exorcism. People of the first century Mediterranean world, Jews and Gentiles, were apprehensive about hostile attacks of demons resulting in accidents, illness, or bizarre behaviour patterns. Certain individuals claimed to have knowledge of techniques that could to be used to exorcise or cast out demons. Certain amulets or prayers could be used for protection.

There are some indications that the vast differences in worldview are not as pronounced as Meier proposed. An internet search on means of protection from evil spirits contains product information on crystals, herbs, rocks, white light, jewellery, and prayers. Products and techniques can be purchased by worried consumers. I lived in the modern city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. People still burned herbs on Friday night to keep away evil spirits that might harm them. Certain apprehensions stick with us even as we use cell phones and computers.

How do we deal with the gospel accounts of demonic oppression in our churches? A point of departure is to outline the two extreme positions between which we will probably want to find our place.

  1. Scientific Interpretation: The first century diagnosis of unclean spirit possession was simply an explanation for behaviour outside the norms of society. Unusual and anti-social actions were explained as the work of demons that had invaded the person. Today we would use terms drawn from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders such as bi-polar, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
  2. Literal Interpretation: Satan directs the destructive work of a myriad of demons that serve him. We can attribute certain personality disorders and violent actions to the work of demons that operate in our world. The church should revive the role of exorcists.

I do not buy into either of these positions. According, I find myself in the mushy middle trying to defend my position on both sides. I have received help from two New Testament scholars.

Esther Miguel Percas is a Biblical specialist from Span. Her book published in 2009 has unfortunately never been translated into English. The author shows that spirit possession is a cultural phenomenon that is most prevalent among the poor in social contexts of violence and oppression. The victims are overcome by alien powers and no longer fulfill the social expectations attached to their positions in society. It is important to note two things; (1) the possessed are not held responsible for their actions and words, and, (2) there is no attempt to change their social circumstances. Their dysfunctions are attributed to demons. The remedy is exorcism.

Esther Miguel Percas opens the door for us to understand one of the impacts of prolonged oppression and violence. The Jewish and Christian literature dealing wiht evil spirits and exorcism is rooted in circumstances of conquest oppression under the Greeks, Hasmonean rulers, and Romans. Extreme repression has a general negative social impact on the weak and vulnerable that are subjected to threats, humiliation, and violence. In such circumstances, evil forces invade and take control of certain individuals. The communities of the Decapolis struggled to hold on to life in a situation of military occupation and the crushing weight of Roman taxation. The man called Legion seems to have been a special victim who had been overcome by evil that worked destructively in his life and relationships.

Walter Wink (1986) helped me to think through the way that evil works in our world. My scheme is somewhat different than his three-point outline. I propose that we experience evil or demonic power in four ways or categories.

  1. Category One: There are personal battles against evil that are won and lost by ordinary men and women. We succumb to pressures that compromise our morality and service to God. Ephesians 6 places our struggle in the context of cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil. I embrace the understanding that sin is more than bad personal decisions. We play small roles in a larger battle.
  2. Category Two: Evil works at a collective level in communities and society. There is a destructive nature to governments, social institutions, and community networks even at the best of times. The collaboration of Canadian churches in running Indian Residential Schools in Canada is a prime example. In the USA, the unwillingness to come to terms with the legacy of slavery is a collective evil that divides a nation that desperately needs reconciliation. Evil is more than personal sin.
  3. Category Three: A small number of people are overcome and possessed by the power of evil. They are victims with a history. I take note that Jesus never blames the possessed for their condition. But their past personal history is related to their present enslavement by demonic powers.
  4. Category Four: There is a collective possession that Wink described as a kind of mass psychosis. The forces of evil seem to take over. Here I would mention the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, Stalin’s Holodomor (forced starvation of up to 10 million Ukrainians), and perhaps the Syrian Conflict. People are not absolved of responsibly for moral choices or acting as bystanders. But there is a recognition of evil powers at work behind the human actors.

I think these four categories may help us use the Legion story in a congregational setting to consider and discuss the destructive violence of our time. I hope to offer some suggestions next week.

My next blog post will offer suggestions on how the Legion story might be used in the life of a congregation.

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Using the Story of Legion (Mark 5.1-20) to Reflect on the Violence of Our Times 2

Using the Story of Legion (Mark 5.1-20) to Reflect on the Violence of Our Times 2

We will observe in April the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide. Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN Forces in Rwanda, wrote a book entitled “Shake Hands with the Devil.” The devil, for Dallaire, was embodied in the person of General Theoneste Bagosora, one of the principal authors of the murder of an estiimated 800 thousand people in 100 days. Evil is incarnated in people.

People often do thin readings of accounts of mass violence. North Americans that visit Rwanda today are impressed with the beauty and warm relationships that they observe. Their analysis of genocide stories is generally flawed in one direction or another:

  1. There is a tendency among some people to attribute the violence to some form of demonic possession that temporarily descended on the country. This facile explanation overlooks decades of overt and coincealed structural violence suffered by the Tutsi minority. Furthermore, it falls to hold government leaders, like Bagosora, responsible for planning and facilitating the massive death agenda in communities.
  2. The second error is to attempt to explain the genocide simply through a rational academic consideration using tools of sociology, psychology, history, and political science. There were inexplicable forces of evil behind the cruelty and vicious violence

The violence of the man called Legion opens a narrative door for a deep discussion of the nature of the violence that destroys the lives of individuals and communities. Almost a decade before the Rwanda genocide, Walter Wink (1986) observed the naïve optimism of western societies that believed that education, laws, science, and government institutions could solve the problems violence and injustice. Scientific rationalism and the ideology of progress had, according to Wink, deprived us of a vocabulary that could help us to understand evil.

The story of Legion in Mark 5.1-20 invites us to pull back the curtain and enter into uncomfortable territory with mysterious forces at work behind the scenes. Here we come face to face with evil that is out of control and threatens the well-being of social networks and communities.

The man called Legion lived in an region known as the Decapolis (ten cities). The main urban centre was Gerasa. The Decapolis had been invaded by Alexander the Great and subjected to foreign domination. Decommissioned Greek soldiers had settled in the area. In the first century BC, Alexander Jannaeus, a Judean military leader, attacked and destroyed several cities in the region. Thirteen years later, in 63 BCE, Roman legions arrived, conquered, and placed the area under the control of Herod the Great.

It is certain that Legion was raised with traumatic stories of violence inflicted on communities of the Decapolis. We would like to ask the text if he had been a direct victim of the forces of repression. Perhaps poverty had led him join the Roman army as a local soldier. He may have actively participated in the intimidation and oppression of his own people. This might account for the fact he is isolated from the community that he so desperately needs.

The text does not answer our questions. We are left to stand with the disciples and to feel their fear. We look on a naked man who lives alone in the tombs, is sometimes restrained but never controlled, and inflicts injury on his body. Somewhere in this horrific isolation there must be family or former friends that bring him food.

Jesus asks him: What is your name? He responds: My name is Legion, for we are many. A Roman legion was a frightening force of 5 to 6 thousand armed men and 120 horsemen. We notice that from this point the dialogue is sometimes with Legion and at other times with the demonic presence that inhabits his body. This suggests a deep division and painful division in the heart of this man.

Most of us do not feel comfortable talking about unclean spirits or demons. They seem part of a world view that might include elves, dwarfs, and leprechauns. I wish to close with a few items for consideration:

  1. Most cultures, past and present, recognize that there are unseen forces at work in our world for good or for evil.
  2. The New Testament’s treatment of demons and exorcisms is limited to the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts. But these first century documents share a common understanding that unseen powers of evil were at work in the Roman Empire and in the lives of ordinary people. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6.12).
  3. The research of social scientists has shown us that spirit possession occurs most frequently in social locations of oppression and violence (Miguel Pericas, 2009). We might think of the possessed as special victims that have been overwhelmed by the presence of evil that surrounds them. Each person has a unique story of repression and the longing for liberation.

I realize that this blog has barely opened to the door to a thick analysis of the Legion story and stories of our world. I hope to continue next week. I hope you also do your own work.


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Using the story of Legion to Understand the Violence of the World (Mark 5.1-20)

Using the story of Legion to Understand the Violence of the World (Mark 5.1-20)

The violence of the world generates death, destruction, terror, trauma, anger, and apprehension. This list of six impacts could be expanded. Organized violence leaves direct victims, mourners, and threatens the well-being of communities and nations.

Many of us believe in a gracious and loving God. We hold that God desires dignity and fulness of life for each person that bears his image. How do we explain the following violent events in our world and our reactions to them?

  • The murder of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School committed by a former student.
  • The 12 uninterrupted days of bombing of Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.
  • The ongoing civil conflicts in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo including the use of child soldiers and rape as a weapon of war.
  • The massive build up of nuclear weapons in Russia, North Korea, and the USA encouraged by the leaders of those countries as a form of protection.
  • The continued abuse, disappearance, and murder of indigenous women in my own country of Canada.

There is a recent story that haunts me. I am still trying to unpack the meaning of an event that happened in South Carolina on the evening of 17 June 2015. A young Caucasian man entered an African American church and participated in a prayer meeting. He then pulled out a gun and killed nine people, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney. He later stated that he hoped to ignite a race war. It seems to me that this frightening narrative reveals deep lessons about the time in which we live. The meaning of the story cannot be confined to the United States. This is a human story with universal implications that is rooted in a particular location. The killings that happened that night were not an isolated and inexplicable event. There were layers of human evil all around the scene.

I am stunned that we have come to accept violence and the malicious use of force as a necessary evil or unredeemable feature of modern life. The usual response is either apathy or momentary outrage that is soon dissipated.

One of the duties of Christian leaders is to deeply read both the stories of our social world and the stories of the scriptures. I think that too often we offer congregants “thin readings” that include light observations and moralizing conclusions. Then we move on to other matters over which we have greater control.

I propose that the story of Legion in Mark 5.1-20 can be useful in the life of the church. The account demands a “thick” reading because it is the most detailed healing narrative in Mark’s Gospel. I agree with Ched Myers (2003) and Richard Horsley (2014) that the military vocabulary and imagery in the description must guide the interpretation. In this blog post, I want to draw attention to just one aspect of the narrative.

The people in the country of the Gerasenes try to manage and control the violent outbursts of the man called Legion. They confine him geographically to an area where tombs have been carved into the mountainside. He is kept away from their homes and places of work. They restrain him physically with chains and shackles. However, they are never fully successful. Legion can unexpectedly break through the bonds that hold him. His voice rings out in the night as he roams the mountainside where the tombs are located. They attempt to mitigate the threat of Legion, they monitor the situation, but they lack the power to bring healing to the troubled man and the community.

The people of the region appear when Legion sits at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. They were formerly afraid of his uncontrollable strength. Now they are provoked to fear by his transformation. They beg Jesus to leave their region. Was their request motivated by the economic loss of a herd of pigs? Or were they simply more comfortable with trying to control evil and violence within limits that they attempted to establish? These seem like modern considerations as we face the violence of our times. One wonders if we are afraid of God’s peace and the requirements of discipleship connected with healing individuals and communities.

I will write more about Legion in the coming days. This is the beginning of what I hope will be a deep reading of the passage.

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