Saturday, June 22, 2013

Over the Cliff

Here's tomorrow's homily, on the famous story of the Gerasene demoniac.  This is denser and more academic than most of my homilies, and I'm worried about whether it will be intelligible to a listening audience.  But Gary's approved it, and that's usually a good sign.


Back when I volunteered as an ER chaplain, I met a young man I’ll call Joe.  He was lying on a gurney in the hall.  He’d pulled the blanket over his head.  When I told him who I was and asked if he wanted to talk, he said, “No one understands.”

“What don’t they understand?” I asked him.

“They don’t understand what it’s like to hear the voices.”

“I don’t understand that either,” I said, “but I want to.  Will you tell me about it?”

The voices in Joe’s head started when he was a teenager.  There were three of them.  Nothing made them go away.  He heard them when he slept.  He heard them when he was on medication.  He’d seen psychiatrists and been in mental hospitals, but nothing helped.

The voices said only one thing, ever and always.  They told Joe to die.

Joe had managed to get through school and to hold down a job he liked and was good at.  His parents and siblings no longer spoke to him, but he’d found a woman he loved and married her.  They had a child.   A week or so before I met him, though, his wife had left, taking the baby with her, and the voices got louder.  Joe called the only friend he had left in the world, a woman in the Midwest, who told him to come to the hospital.

I told Joe that I thought he was very brave.  I couldn’t imagine the strength it took to stay alive in the face of such constant, merciless commands to die.  He barely heard me; I could tell from the distracted look on his face that the voices were drowning out everything else.  In any case, he didn’t want compliments.  He wanted a cure.  He wanted those voices out of his head.

I met other people in the ER who heard voices.  Joe was one of the lucky ones.  He was well groomed, polite, articulate.  He had a place to live.  He had health insurance.  Most of the other patients in this category were homeless, often filthy and raving, desperate and terrified.  Some of them wept when I offered to pray with them; some of them simply screamed at me. Staff avoided them the same way people on the street avoided them.  Such patients could be as frightening as they were frightened.   They cycled back and forth between hospitals or jails and the streets.  Schizophrenia is a poorly understood illness, often difficult to treat, and although most patients aren’t actually dangerous, they scare us.  We leave them alone.  We steer clear.

I imagine the Gerasene demoniac was a lot like those schizophrenic ER patients.  Many Biblical scholars believe that the “demons” in Scripture are various forms of mental illness.  Like the patients I met, this Biblical figure bounced between painful confinement and vulnerable isolation.  He lived in terror and despair, always in the shadow of death.  I wonder if his demons, like Joe’s voices, told him to die, to throw himself off the cliff into the lake.

He was luckier than Joe.  He found the ultimate doctor.  Even the demons recognized Jesus’ power.  Knowing they would be cast out, they begged Jesus to spare them the abyss, to let them go into the herd of swine instead.  Jesus agreed.  Was this his way of loving his enemies, even demons?  Did he hope that if the demons entered the pigs, they’d leave people alone?  Did he believe that this sacrifice of livestock was the only way to purge the infection, a price that had to be paid?  We can’t know.  All we know is that the demons destroyed their hosts.  The swine, who couldn’t resist them as the man had, rushed over the cliff into the lake and drowned.

Good riddance, we might say.  Surely the demoniac himself did.  But the demoniac’s neighbors didn’t.  They didn’t welcome the healing.  They didn’t welcome Jesus.  They were probably upset that a herd of valuable animals had been killed to heal a man none of them wanted around anyway.  Jesus’ healthcare was expensive.  They didn’t want to pay for it, certainly not with their own assets.  They valued the swine more than the man.

That’s one level of resistance, but there’s another, deeper than economics.  The Gospel tells us they were afraid, and while watching miracles can indeed be frightening, I think there’s more to it.   Three years ago I took a summer class on “Dissident Discipleship” at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.  The course gave us ways to think critically about American culture while remaining compassionate to ourselves and others.  We learned that wounds and behaviors we see as strictly personal have almost always been shaped and triggered by larger social forces and historical events:  military combat, economic hardship, bigotry and discrimination.  Private, individual suffering is a symptom of public trauma or dysfunction.  A mother’s neglect of her daughters, for instance, might very well mirror how she herself was hurt growing up in a culture that considered women inferior to men.

The teacher asked us a very important question.  “How does your suffering connect you to other people?  If you were abused by someone in your family who fought in a war, for example, you’re now connected to the children of veterans returning from Iraq, to children of military men and women around the world, and to the children of guerrilla warriors and freedom fighters, too.”

Much of the commentary on the Gerasene demoniac observes that the name “Legion” undoubtedly refers to the Roman Legion.  The demoniac’s possession by unclean spirits mirrors the occupation of the countryside by a despised military force.  Those drowned swine also remind me of Pharoah’s troops drowning in the Red Sea.   This isn’t just a story about a sick man who finds healing:  it’s a story about liberation, both personal and social, and about what that liberation might cost.  You lose a herd of pigs, but you get a person back.  Is the price worth it?

The healed man wants to leave this country.  He wants to join Jesus.  But Jesus tells him to stay where he is “and declare how much God has done for you.”  His job, now that he has been cured, is to tell other people that health and wholeness are possible, that freedom is within reach.   His job is to connect with the people who’ve previously shunned him, pushed him aside, locked him up or forced him to live in the wilds, in the tombs.  His job is to show them that his story is also their story, that they too can find liberation from bondage.

No wonder they’re scared.  They may hate the Romans, but they’ve got their livestock, their fields, their city.  They’re getting by.  Resenting their oppression is a lot easier, and a lot less expensive, than resisting it.   They don’t want to connect with the cured man.  They want his illness to be personal, private, his own problem, a sickness in his brain that has nothing to do with them or their society.

And what does Joe’s story tell us about our own society?  If nothing else, it tells us that we still isolate people with mental illness, that we don’t try hard enough to understand them, that we don’t use enough of our resources to find ways to help them.  Maybe we’re afraid of them not because they’re dangerous, but because the voices they hear are a bit too much like the ones  yammering in our ears, too:  telling us we have to be richer, thinner, more famous; that we should kill our enemies instead of loving them; that our houses and cars and iPads are more important than God’s suffering children; that curing our neighbors is just too expensive.

The story of the Gerasene demoniac is our story.  God calls us to connect with a hurting world, to seek healing for ourselves and others even when that healing costs us.  How much are we willing to give up to get rid of our demons?  What habits are we willing to break to be whole and healthy?  How much are we willing to pay to be free?

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