Night and Day Among the Tombs

There is a story in the New Testament which I think lots of people find uncomfortable because it involves Jesus sending demons into some unsuspecting pigs and them jumping off a cliff to their death, as a result. Sounds pretty brutal. But it is one of my favourite Gospel stories.

It all starts (as so many of my favourites do) with a man in the wilderness. He lives “among the tombs and on the mountains” and “was always howling and bruising himself with stones”. His wilderness is literal and emotional. He self-harms almost constantly, is outcast from mainstream society, wandering around with no community, and people had often tried to restrain him “with shackles and chains”. He has been in a prolonged state of mental, social, and emotional distress. In first century Palestine, such behaviour was widely considered to be a result of possession by demons. In the UK in 2018 most would call it mental illness (and more specifically would call it dissociative identity disorder, as we learn more about him..). But it doesn’t really matter what you call it: he is not feeling ok, and he is profoundly distressed.

A part of this man does not want to be healed. Self-destruction must have been playing an important role in coping with what he was dealing with. In fact, when Jesus tries to heal him (using his own cultural and religious ‘demon’ terminology) the man initially shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me”. I can relate to him here, and suspect that many people can. In the past, if somebody had been kind to me or tried to ‘heal’ me when I was hell bent on self-destruction, I would have told them to get lost, too. But Jesus persists. He says, “What is your name?”

Jesus realises that in order to help, he needs to recognise, to name, to know him. And then, there is progress. The man says, “My name is Legion; for we are many”. The man is splintered into many parts and so has chosen a name which expresses this: Legion. A legion is also the name for 100 Roman soldiers. This man is in battle with something profound, and his identity is split into a whole army of people to aid him in this fight. Perhaps his howling and bruising is because of inner conflict between his splintered parts. But what I find incredibly poignant about his name is that it relates not just to any army, but to the Roman army. 

Jesus and his fellow Jews were living under the oppressive regime of the Roman empire. The name Legion might signify that the root of this person’s suffering – his inner demons – was Roman oppression or violence. Perhaps he had suffered trauma at the hands of the Romans, or perhaps the Romans had enabled some terrible trauma or disaster with which the man continued to suffer internally. It is well known that people can experience a splintering of identity when faced with overwhelming trauma, especially when that trauma has occurred from a very young age with no other support. Who knows what this man had faced at the hands of the Roman empire?

What happens next is nothing short of miraculous, even if you don’t believe in literal miracles: the man asks Jesus to send his inner demons not out of the country but into some pigs who were feeding nearby. It might seem like an odd request, but seemingly not to Jesus, who complies. Asking for his demons to be sent into pigs is very significant, since Jewish people don’t eat pigs, but Romans do. I think that Jesus performs the ritual asked of him because it symbolises something important: sending the inner demons the man was carrying – which had splintered him so extensively – into what was feeding his oppressors. Importantly, Jesus doesn’t send inner demons/splintering into the Roman army itself (which would probably only have caused more trauma and suffering and was not what the man asked for…) but rather into that which was feeding their regime.

To bring it to a more universal example, if we were to heal somebody of inner demons caused by sexual violence using the same pattern, we would send them not into the perpetrator(s) but into the things which sustain the violence of abusers: objectification, dehumanisation, isolation, greed, power-over, exploitation, selfishness, and, in many cases, patriarchy. Perhaps the story is encouraging us to request that which “feeds” violence to be sent off the edge of a very tall cliff. I think the story also encourages us to replace self-destruction with destruction of that which feeds oppression. How this happens in reality is for each of us to discern, and to ask for. I believe that Jesus already knows each of us by name, he is just waiting for our instruction.

Later, people came to see what had happened, and “saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind”. And then it says “and they [the people] were afraid”.

It can scare people when you stop destroying yourself, and choose not to take direct revenge. Replacing self-destruction with destroying what fed your abuse is not what people expect to happen and it can make people uncomfortable. But it also makes people curious – after all, the people in Jesus’ story did come along to see what had happened. Sometimes being afraid means you are about to do something really brave, so perhaps some of them could feel the stirrings of what might be possible if they did the same thing. I hope so.