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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