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. 

 

Shabbat: Wilderness in the Week

Two weeks ago today I began observing a technology Sabbath. It started out as just a convenient way to catch a break from social media, the news, and my phone, but as I deeply experienced the Sabbath I began to appreciate both the reality of my connection to information technology, and the full meaning and purpose of the Sabbath day.

The first couple of hours of each Sabbath have required a great deal of mental adjustment. For just over 24 hrs I cannot take pictures of cute things my cat does, tell somebody about a thought I have, organise anything, ask people to hang out with whom I have no established plans, watch netflix, or browse the web. My hand or mind automatically reaches for the location of my phone (which is usually within a metre of me at all times) an incredible number of times within the first couple of hours, highlighting just how much I use it. I realise I have become dependent on instant communication with other people or google, and reach for these before I have even given myself a chance to think about something or resolve it using the resources around me.

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One Sabbath, in lieu of Google maps, I had to find and use an A-Z map of my city for the first time ever. I checked the supermarkets, the garage, the post office, the library, the newsagents, and three charity shops before finding a dated A-Z in the fourth charity shop I looked in. We are now so dependent on the internet to find our way that some folk didn’t know what I was referring to when I asked for an A-Z and others looked at me as though I had taken a wrong turn out of the 90s and should probably go back there.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Exodus 20: 8-10)

The ten commandments state that the Sabbath is to be kept holy which means: no work. Although my Sabbath began not as a ‘no tech’ day rather than a ‘no work’ day, the two have very quickly come to mean the same thing. Most of my work is generated online and by mobile phone – this is where I am contacted by those who want me to do something,  either as part of joint projects or favours for friends. Many of my colleagues and/or friends don’t know my actual address and wouldn’t call round unannounced even if they did. When I put away my phone and laptop, and after the initial discomfort of being truly alone, I enter a state of bliss because I know that for just over 24 hrs the demands for my time and attention will stop.  And it is not just direct demands from other people that stop – the pressure I put on myself to stay connected, keep talking, reply immediately goes, too. I am with myself and God, with no distractions.

 

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Giving myself a true rest from the demands of life means that I am more able to show up for what I have in the week because I know that the day of rest is there, waiting for me, every single week.

So far, both Sabbaths have involved lots of reading, praying, and daydreaming. I have tapped into a skill I thought I had long-ago lost: the ability to get completely absorbed by a book. This is not a skill I mysteriously lost sometime around aged 15, as I had imagined. Rather, the internet has had me so hooked that I have been unable to concentrate on a book for longer that a few minutes. With internet access I read for five or ten (or two) minutes and then compulsively check my social media accounts, my phone, my whatsapp, etc. There is no way to enter ‘the flow’ of reading a book in these circumstances. Perhaps this call to observe the Sabbath is part of God’s call to lose that addiction.

There is something wild about a technology Sabbath in the 21st century. Unplugging and unwinding brings us back to a place of relying on the space around us for sustenance, information, restoration, entertainment, and relaxation. Without the steady humming of electricity through laptop screens and the compulsive thumbing of phone screens, I am more able to hear the small whisper of God and God’s movement in space and time.

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I think the Sabbath was an incredibly beautiful gift. It is a built-in time of wilderness each week where we can meet God without distraction, think without having to act, and check in with what’s true rather than what is pragmatic. Part of the gift of the Sabbath is that it is commanded, which takes the responsibility from us. We can throw our hands up to our boss, our friends, ourselves and say “God commanded it: that’s why!” If it were an optional bonus, then it would be much harder for those who want to observe it to do so – and I think God probably knew this this very well about us.

 

oh well

 

Jesus was challenged about his disciples picking corn on the Sabbath and he said, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” (Mark 2: 27) . Jesus understood that Sabbath was a gift from God for the good of human beings. He only advocated breaking Sabbath due to physical need: “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat.” (Mark 2: 25). Need sometimes necessitates breaking a commandment because, ultimately, commandments are there for the good of human beings.

When the Law is interpreted through the love of God, it simply gives us space to breath, and a structure to hold us as we navigate what it means for our lives.

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It is now nearly 7.15pm, which gives me just over an hour until the Sabbath begins. I will go to the shops for food now before the lighting of the candle, before sinking in to God’s gift of rest. Have a blessed and restful Shabbat and see you out the other side, refreshed and ready to plug in for another six days.

 

unplugged