Comments before Scripture reading from Luke 8
How many of us remember the account of Jesus calming the Sea of Galilea? That event occurs just before this reading from Luke 8. You may also remember that Jesus from the boat “rebuked” the wind and raging waves. In the mind of Luke the Gospel writer, Jesus reveals his ability to calm the raging storms on earth.
Now after the storms are tamed Jesus crosses over into even newer territory – he sets foot not on Jewish land but gentile territory. He comes to the Gerasenes, a country in which it is okay to raise pigs.
Do not be distracted by the pigs that rush into the lake. This is not the main point of the story; the main point is Jesus’ ability to exude compassion and to heal. Whatever happened with the pigs is almost insignificant. The truth is that, according to Jewish historian Josephus, the Legio 10th Fretensis of the Roman army decimated this area around Lake Galilea, in the late sixties of the first century, before Luke penned his Gospel: they executed 1000 young men, burned towns and small cities, and killed women and families because of the Jewish revolt. The symbol on the banners of this legion of Rome was a pig. The people of Palestine were first oppressed and then traumatized by the pigs of Rome. If they heard a story about pigs drowning, they likely would have cheered. When the healing powers of Jesus are fully realized, then the current cultural assumptions, power structures and economies will be upended.
January 25, 2020
Jesus steps off the boat and there is a sea change in the land of the Gerasene gentiles, a disturbance in the Force immediately attracts the attention of a man who lives among the dead. He moves from the tombs to the feet of Jesus. He moves from hell towards life. He moves from isolation toward community, but he moves with deep fear.
A few years back, Kelly and I moved from Piney Orchard to Crownsville and naturally people were curious as to where and why we moved. Interestingly enough, I remember very clearly that more than a dozen people made comments like, Oh why Crownsville, did you get committed? Are you moving into the loony bin? Well I’m glad you are finally getting help! Going crazy are you? Best town in the county for a mad man. Oh your meds aren’t working? All of them were funnies; people were ribbing me. All of them were referring the former hospital in Crownsville that treated the mentally ill. All the jokes conveyed a common stigma associated with mental illness. Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.
It could be that without knowing it, these people were also conveying a stigma toward African Americans, because Crownsville State Hospital was founded in 1911 for the “Negro insane.” The NAACP and the Baltimore Sun uncovered just how terrible a place the hospital was in 1949 and the Sun ran an expose called Maryland’s Shame, which detailed the terrible environment, the experiments performed on patients and the very crowded living conditions. The mentally ill were not treated with compassion.
Things are scary in the Gospel of Luke as Jesus approaches a horrible situation and a shadow of a man, a wretched creature, draws near to him. Crawling in pain, yelling and shouting, very much tormented, he falls down in front of Jesus and begs him not to inflict agony. He recognizes the power of Jesus and cowers. In a spasm from the ground, he shrieks aloud wondering what Jesus has to do with him. Luke describes him as being possessed by demons. He is so out of sorts, that he is without clothing.
Towns are places for the living, but the demoniac resides among the dead, not with a family in a house but alone in the crypts. He is such a perceived danger that the people of the town have taken to binding him by chains and shackles. So violent is this child of God, that apparently he is able to free himself from manacles.
What is your name? asks Jesus, and in a horror movie voice the demoniac croaks that his name is Legion. A legion was a measure of the Roman Army: 5000 men. This man was infested by all sorts of challenges. Part of it no doubt, was his background, his family history, his genetic predisposition for mental illness, his chemistry, his saga as a victim of abuse, his past exposure to personal horrors. Whatever it was – this guy scared the people of his city silly. Sometimes when people are really low they seriously alarm the people around them.
Shakespeare said all the world is a stage, and we are merely players. Legion’s role was to haunt a cemetery on the edge of town, on the edge of living. For some reason the people of his city needed a screamer out there. Sometimes families and groups of people identify one of their members as the Legion type: the one who will be sick, the one who will be the lightening rod for all the issues in the group. They may or may not deserve this role on stage, but they learn to act it out. There are likely all kinds of issues in the church, or the workplace, or the family, but the one who is Legion gets the blame and takes the blame. If Legion has the problem, then I don’t have to change. If we focus on Legion’s problem, on Legion’s illness, on Legion’s addiction on Legion’s compulsion, then we won’t have to focus on ours. After all Legion means five thousand. Legion has a lot to work on.
Jesus, however, did not see a beast or an ogre. Jesus did not see Legion as he was, but as he could become. Jesus loved and encouraged all people to overcome whatever their demons were—not solely by their own ability, but by seeking help and by trusting in God. Jesus did not see some-thing that should be chained up. Jesus saw some-one who needed to be healed. Although contemporary psychiatry would name it as something else, our text says that Legion got his name from being possessed by many demons.
We will have trouble appreciating the special meaning of Jesus healing the man who was called Legion, unless we understand the intensity with which people in that time believed in the vast underworld of demons and evil spirits. Our 21st century understanding of mental illness and other medical conditions makes it difficult for us to put ourselves in the conceptual framework of people who believed so strongly in evil spirits. They really saw themselves as vulnerable. Many people fear what they don’t understand, and that leads to stigma. The problem is that stigma leads to fear and inaction, and then people don’t reach for the help they need.
Here is a short clip from an hour long interview Oprah did with Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga has just admitted that she struggles with mental illness: https://youtu.be/da3iA6-9jWc
I will put my shame in a box and make it very small and put it all the way over there.
Stigma according to many doctors is perhaps the single most significant barrier to recovery, resulting in feelings of isolation, hopelessness and helplessness. [Remember the Gerasene demoniac.] It undermines relationships and creates barriers to employment, housing, even access to quality medical care. Stigma is not simply a negative attitude or lack of political correctness. It can have life threatening consequences……one of the most challenging problems facing our communities today involves the prejudice and discrimination against people with behavioral health disorders.
As you know Ark and Dove is a member of Anne Arundel Connecting Together (ACT), and our Behavioral and Mental Health Action Research Team has been working this past year to identify serious mental health challenges in our community and to recommend actions we can take to address them. Stigma can prevent people from getting treatment, so this week we are running what we call an internal action. Many of our member churches are focusing in on stigma today in worship. Other organizations in ACT, like our nearby Mosque, have already done this or have an event planned in the near future.
The Gerasene people did not know how to deal with the demoniac, or they could not muster the energy to do so. They shunned him; they deported him from town; they chained him; they did not, it seems, provide him clothing. They treated him like a leper; they treated him like HIV/AIDS patients were treated in the 80s. This is the heart of the matter—to be loved and treated with dignity. Mental illness often puts up blocks in relationships and friendships. This is because we want relationships that are easy, maybe, that benefit us or that feel “productive” …but relationships are not about productivity convenience and cost-effectiveness. We are here, as Jesus shows us, to love and be loved. We do not have it in our power to fix our mentally ill friends or our friends with addictions. This is mostly work that they need to do on their own with doctors or mentors and sponsors, but we can be a part of their healing. We can be kind. We can enjoy them for who they are as full human beings. We can remember that many of us, if not all of us, endure periods of mental illness. We are all, in God’s eyes, the recipients of undeserved grace, so let us treat each other with grace. Ark and Dove is open-hearted and open-minded; our call, therefore, is to create a place where lives can be transformed, so that God’s dream is carried into the world.