EVIL AND LOVE
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost (C) - The Shooting in Orlando - Luke 8:26-39
Terrorized by evil. That’s what we are this week. Not that this is a new thing. Since 2001, we’ve lived in a country where our safety and security has come unbalanced. We knew that other parts of the world—the Middle East, for example, or parts of Africa—lived in constant fear of what other people might do. But that was over there. Here in the United States, we were far removed from those sorts of things. Not so anymore. Oklahoma City was the first hint of it, but since then, the anger, and hatred, and violence have seemed unstoppable. The World Trade Center. The anthrax scare. The Boston Marathon. The Charleston shootings. San Bernardino. And now Orlando.
The shooting in Orlando that took place a week ago was the largest gun-based attack on American soil ever. Or almost ever. Some Native Americans have pointed out that the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 was larger. The quiet fear that these First Peoples have of the Europeans who stole their land continues even today. In any case, the Orlando attack took place not in the midst of broken relations and misunderstanding between an indigenous people and a government, but in a night club. Fear now runs through the gay and lesbian community who thought such environs were a safe place for them, but who now see that there is no safe place, not anywhere. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone; [as many of you know,] my best friend Andrew is transgender, and these days he is often afraid to just go to the bathroom in a public place. Then again, the shooter in Orlando purposefully chose Latinx night at the Pulse club. Queer people have no monopoly on fear; people of Latino descent feel this attack on their community as well. It’s nothing new; when I lived in Omaha, I got to know a Mexican-descent family well. In April of that year, they suffered the loss of an uncle, shot and killed leaving work one day, by someone who assumed he was undocumented. (He wasn’t, but that really shouldn’t make a difference, should it?) Meanwhile, Muslims in our country must feel fear that they will be identified with the shooter, and with the Syrian Islamic State that claimed responsibility for his attack. Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic organization in the world, has condemned ISIS, as has a gathering of 70,000 Muslim religious leaders in India. But we are not willing to identify the difference between these people and the fundamentalists who commit atrocities. And we, as mainline Christians, should be, especially as fundamentalists in our own religion spew the same kind of hate—for example, Pat Robertson announced Friday that the best thing Christians can do is sit on the sidelines and let gays and Muslims kill each other. How some people can justify such talk with the name of Jesus is beyond me. We know well that one of the reasons we don’t talk about our faith or do the work of evangelism is that we are afraid of being confused with those people. It is not safe for us to proclaim the Good News. We are not safe. We are afraid.
And so we can imagine, at least in part, what it must have been like for the people living in the town of the Gerasenes that Jesus visited in our Gospel story today. They were terrorized by something a lot closer to home, perhaps, but the fear is the same. A man, naked, living in the cemetery, described as possessed by demons. That’s language we don’t make much sense of today, in our modern, scientific world. Perhaps envisioning him with some severe mental illness will help, although the way this man is described doesn’t sound much like any mental illness I’ve come into contact with—despite having done my chaplaincy in mental health. This man is routinely bound with chains and shackles, kept under guard, but he breaks through his bonds and disappears into the wilds. His demons give him enormous strength, a kind of violent strength, and an unpredictability that must keep the villagers frightened of him—more so when he’s disappeared into the wilderness where they can’t keep an eye on him.
If their fear is great, what must the man himself feel? There’s a schizophrenic man who comes occasionally into the coffee shop I frequent. He’s noticeable by the conversations he’s constantly having with people who aren’t there. Sometimes his arguments get heated, though he always seems to be somewhat aware of the fact that something’s wrong, and he keeps the shouting under his breath. Despite all this, he manages to ride his bicycle up to the door, walk into the coffee shop unobtrusively, navigate the process of ordering his drink, wait to receive it, add cream and sugar, and take off on his bicycle again, all done quite well and correctly. This is what severe mental illnesses are like. He sees and hears things that aren’t there, but he still has his dignity.
The man in our story doesn’t fit this description. No, calling him demon-possessed works better. He’s unable to live his own life, driven by forces beyond his control, preventing him from living with dignity and purpose. He can’t stay in his home. He can’t wear clothing. He can’t even be contained by the best the villagers can come up with. Everything in his world must be terrifying to him.
And then Jesus arrives. The demon knows him immediately, even before his boat reaches the shore, because the moment he steps foot on land, the man is there to meet him. He cries out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus Son of the Most High God?” Jesus hasn’t spoken a word, but the demon can identify him. Peter hasn’t even figured out who Jesus is yet—that will come in the next chapter of Luke—but the possessed man knows.
And so Jesus asks the demon its name. Which is not what he’s supposed to do. Jesus is supposed to cast the demon out of the man. Back in chapter 4, that’s exactly what he does with another man with an unclean spirit. Jesus says, “Be silent and come out of him,” and it’s done. But here, Jesus pauses first. The man says it is a whole legion of demons in him, and they beg Jesus not to send them into the abyss.
And again, we know what Jesus is supposed to do. This is an unclean spirit. Jesus is going to send it out, send it back where it came from, back to the outer darkness where such evil things lie. But instead, Jesus gives the demon permission to enter into a herd of pigs. What on earth is he doing? Scholars talking about this passage have lots of ideas. The unclean spirit could go into the pigs, they say, because pigs are also unclean in Judaism. Or it may be that in ancient thought, demons couldn’t survive in water, so Jesus lets them go into the pigs in order to destroy the unclean spirit. Except why did Jesus have to destroy the pigs in the process?
It’s a very strange passage, to be sure, but I think it shows something quite remarkable. Jesus has compassion on the possessed man, freeing him from the demons that are inside him. When all is said and done, the villagers find him sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. But it seems Jesus does not treat the evil that infested him unkindly, either. He gives the demons their say, asks them their name, and allows them to live. Jesus treats both the man and the demons with love.
Of course the swineherds have lost their livestock, and they stir up the villagers who are seized with great fear, and they ask Jesus to leave. The man sitting at Jesus’ feet asks to go with him. Of course he does. Jesus has made him safe for the first time in his life. Jesus has freed him from his fear and terror. Why would he stay in this place that has been the site of such a terrible life when he could start over by following after the man who saved him? But Jesus doesn’t allow him to do so. “Return to your home,” he says, “and declare how much God has done for you.” And so he does. He goes and proclaims the Good News to anyone who will listen.
Terrorized by evil. That’s what we are. Our world is filled with evil, and we find ourselves possessed by fear. Some among us want to simply hide under our beds, but that doesn’t get us much of anywhere, does it? Other want to do something! We should enact stricter gun control, they say. And while you can probably guess what the political part of me thinks about that, the truth is, gun control is just an excuse. Someone had to pull the trigger. Others will suggest that the scourge of fundamentalist Islam must be dealt with, but that’s just another excuse. The shooter didn’t choose his target because of his religion. There are other excuses we could come up with, but the truth is, we are a society that glorifies violence and hatred, that thrives on power and fear. Like every other human society that ever has been. Our tools are different than the Romans, for example, but our methods are the same.
And look what the Romans did. They took a political dissident, arrested him, tortured him, crucified him, executed him. We repeat that cycle of violence in our own world. And the same thing that happened then also happens now. God’s love frees the oppressed and defeats the oppressors. It conquers even death itself. It bursts forth in new life, and multiplies redemption a hundred fold. Violence and evil will never win. The victory has already been claimed by God.
Jesus sends us into the world. Like the Gerasene demoniac, we are not called to follow him into perfect safety. We are called to follow him into the world, proclaiming the Good News that God’s love defeats all evil to anyone who will listen. We are called to follow Jesus into the world, loving even those who hate us, caring for our enemies, lifting up the oppressed, exorcising our demons, and treating even the worst among us with compassion. Jesus draws all the darkest parts of ourselves into the light. The only thing that can defeat the terrible evil is love.