God is still speaking—and we're trying to listen.

by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 8:26-39

Today’s story of a first-century exorcism requires us to appreciate some ancient Eastern Mediterranean values, social and political systems, and ways of making meaning. For instance, Jesus and the writer of Luke almost certainly believed they lived in a world in which every misfortune and sickness was caused by a “’who’ (God, evil spirit) rather than a ‘what’ (germs, viruses, genes, hormones).” (1)

Today’s Lucan story was originally told to illustrate Jesus’s power over the demons of that day—and those demons included evil spirts associated with the Roman Empire. It would be anachronistic to say Luke authored a story about mental illness. Nevertheless, we can springboard from Luke’s story to a modern message about mental health. Completely coincidentally, we scheduled a suicide prevention training on the same Sunday the lectionary assigned this text about Jesus restoring a man to “his right mind” (v. 35) and, relatedly, to his home and community (v.39). How can I not use this story to preach about emotional/mental health?

Modern medicine does not speak of demons taking possession of persons who attempt suicide or experience symptoms of schizophrenia, paranoia, clinical depression. But those suffering from active symptoms of mental illness might find “possession” an apt metaphor for their sometimes terrifying or immobilizing experiences. Fortunately, modern medicine and pharmacology are coming closer to addressing a range of serious mental illnesses like autism among children and Alzheimer’s among elders. We are hopeful for treatments for eating disorders and drug addiction and post-partum depression and bipolar disorders and alcoholism. We are grateful for stories some of you have shared with us about your challenges with clinical depression or PTSD or addictions. However, before we judge too harshly the Gerasenes for their horrific treatment of a mentally ill man—keeping him shackled in a graveyard—we may need to confess that even today we sometimes “demonize” people with mental health problems.

Most people in prison have some type of mental illness. That means we have in effect criminalized mental illness, and we are less concerned about healing the afflicted than locking them away. Are we so different from the Gerasenes who chained up the demon-possessed man?

Yet each of us can be quite fragile at times. Even for those without genetic predispositions, we are all vulnerable to wounds that never appear on the body but cause just as much agony. Most of us can point to a time in our own lives when grief or stress or trauma brought us very near the brink of a dark precipice—which might figuratively resemble the abyss into which plunged those demon-possessed pigs carrying the healed man’s demons. On some really bad days, ordinary folks can feel as if they are close to the edge. What compassion we owe to, for instance, caretakers who deal with the strain of unrelieved responsibilities for loved ones. What compassion we owe to those in toxic work environments where their efforts are not valued or their continued employment is uncertain. What compassion we owe to those in homes where family members assault their personal dignity and destroy their self-esteem. It’s a wonder that so many, despite stress and strain, despite job losses and relationship worries, manage to maintain pretty regular contact with reality.

Perhaps war is the sickest environment for human spirits. As we anticipate our annual Fourth of July fireworks display, realize “the rockets’ red glare” may distract us from war’s horrors. After our nation this past week came within minutes of a military action against Iran, let us pray for calmer heads. As our nation remains engaged in long-standing conflict that sends women and men to battlefields with armored vehicles and protective helmets, let’s consider they serve without any shields to guard their fragile psyches. And how prepared are we as a nation to tend to their emotional wounds? Surely we owe our veterans more than fireworks on this July 4th. We owe them help reentering our communities and our best balm for wounded bodies and minds. And we owe our children and grandchildren our best peace efforts.

What does war have to do with today’s story? Some biblical scholars speculate that it was in fact a military situation that caused the ostracized man’s torment. “Legion,” as he names himself, may be a clue to his condition. It refers not simply to a large number—but literally to a Roman battalion of several thousand soldiers used to occupy and subdue colonies for the Empire. It’s theorized that the suffering the ancient Romans visited upon the Jewish people during their military occupation was so pervasive and brutal that it created mass psychoses.

In the 1950s, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon studied the terrible psychological effects of the French occupation of Algeria. He noticed patterns in mental disorders that had physical symptoms. He found, for example, many cases of hysterical blindness and lameness, which became more intense as French repression intensified. The physical and psychological illnesses Fanon described among that group of oppressed people are consistent with the illnesses Jesus healed in his day. And certainly the people Jesus ministered to were cruelly oppressed.

We know, for example, that around the time Jesus was born, the Roman military crucified about 2000 people to maintain control of the Galilean city of Sepphoris, located just seven miles from Nazareth. The Roman soldiers tortured these victims all along the roadside and left the bodies there to decompose in order to traumatize the locals into submission. Can you imagine a crueler form of terrorism? Can you imagine 2000 townspeople slowly dying over a period of days on crosses lining the roads? Many people Jesus ministered to would have seen this horror, would have known its victims, or would have heard of it. Such wide-spread trauma surely took its toll on the collective psyche of the Jews in Jesus’ day.

So the term the demons used for themselves in today’s story, “Legion,” perhaps means more than “many.” This possessed man may indeed represent what had possessed all of the people—a literal Roman legion, which had taken possession of their land. This man may also represent what can happen to any of us when we are, in effect, possessed by dehumanizing systems of oppression.

Of course, I can also imagine the possibility that in Jesus’ day the military occupiers themselves became traumatized as they carried out the Empire’s brutal orders. Maybe this man was not a victim but a perpetrator of violence. Maybe “Legion” was once a member of a Roman legion, a soldier traumatized by the very violence he was committing. Maybe soldiering made him psychologically unfit to serve the Empire, a damaged soul who could live only on the outskirts of the community he once helped to subdue. Just watch—if you can bear it–George Clooney’s new Hulu series based on the novel Catch-22 to appreciate “the madness of war.”

The Gospel of Mark includes this same story but with the added detail that “Legion” was bruised from his own self-inflicted wounds. Is it too far-fetched to imagine a former soldier inflicting injuries on himself? Are we complicit with our own version of a maddening Empire?

Here’s a third and broader interpretation of this gospel story. We might remove the word “Legion” from the setting of military occupation to suggest more generally how multiple, conflicting voices can divide a personality and fracture one’s sense of self. All of us have felt, in milder ways, the tension within us when we hear multiple voices urging us in different directions. Not audible voices. But sometimes we feel our allegiances are in conflict. For instance, parenting responsibilities may, at times, feel in tension with professional responsibilities. It can be maddening, quite literally, to hear contrary voices as equally compelling and never give priority to one over the others. To give equal weight to all voices that claim authority in our lives can produce a fractured, warring soul. The ancient formula of naming Jesus as Lord is a way to describe how an individual achieves a united, integrated self. To align our lives with the aims of Jesus is a spiritual practice that promotes a healing identity. Having the mind of Christ put us “in our right mind.” As is often the case, Jesus stories resonate with implications for healing of both society and individual.

Fortunately, the story suggests that if we can name and face our demons, as Jesus asks the man to do, the demonic power can be unmasked. For some today the demon’s name may be greedy consumerism. For others the power that controls may be an addictive substance. Still other lives have been overpowered by guilt. Exposing a power’s demonic nature is a first step to being released from its control.

You and I can foster peace in our personal sphere of relationships and influence and work to make Open Table is a sanctuary of peace. Some of us experience violence to our spirits each week from hectic schedules in response to all those voices out there. But in worship, week after week, the people of God re-center ourselves in Christ and practice the ways of peace around an inclusive table. We don’t always get it right. We are always wounded healers ourselves. But one role the church has always played is that of educating the next generation of Christians in Jesus’ ways of peace. Today that includes supporting families undergoing stress, helping parents raise children who know appropriate ways of dealing with frustration and anger, fostering peace among spouses that is founded upon mutual respect and confident selfhood, , cultivating Christian forgiveness and forbearance, eschewing violent words and tones and actions. We can provide a theology that is healthy for all persons.

Finally, this text suggests what we should not do. As disciples of Jesus, we are not to seek an escape. That’s what “Legion” wanted to do. After he was healed, he sat at Jesus’ feet in the posture of a disciple, and asked to follow Jesus back across the Sea of Galilee. But Jesus surprisingly refused this request. Jesus instead encouraged the once-possessed man to reconnect with his community and bear witness to all God had done for him. Jesus’s way is always compassionate—but it’s not always easy. “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you,” Jesus said.

Some people today try to escape when the voices in their troubled minds become unbearable—through anesthetizing entertainment, vapid consumerism, recreational drugs, binge eating, sometimes even through suicide. Jesus’s way is not that of escape. It’s connection. Returning to community. And then declaring what God has done.

(1) Pilch, John J. The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999) 72.

Category Mental Illness
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