This past Sunday, my local newspaper published two establishment voices decrying the political craziness at work here in the US. One lamented the “disturbing” candidacy of Donald Trump and how it revealed “our country’s dark side,” the other condemned the “ideological extremism” of Bernie Sanders.
In the Bible, the gospels include a story of Jesus encountering political insanity. As it happens, the adult education class at the church where I am a member studied that story this past Sunday. It describes Jesus' encounter with an extremely violent man—likely a veteran of the Roman legion—who lived naked among the tombs along the Sea of Galilee’s east bank.
The story attributes the man’s rampaging violence to evil spirits that had possessed him. The name by which the spirits identified themselves—Legion—also named the notorious Roman cohort of 6,000 troops based in that particular place. In the year prior to Jesus’ birth, this particular military unit had destroyed the Galilean town of Sepphoris and terrorized the population by crucifying 2,000 Jewish rebels.
The double meaning of the name (“Legion”) provides the interpretive key, helping us to see in this story Jesus’ response to the Roman Empire. Using this key, other elements of the story become clear. The man’s craziness was a manifestation of his embrace of political domination and violence. He had become incapable of being accountable to anyone or anything. His desire for control was insatiable and could not be restrained.
This created a wretched isolation. No one could bear to be in the man’s presence. He lived alone in a graveyard among the dead, abusing himself with stones.
Nearby, an industry required by the presence of the Roman Legion flourished: pork production. It was a large operation consisting of 2,000 pigs plus human attendants. Historian R.W. Davies notes that typically members of the Legion received a food ration of one pound of meat per day, often pork. So lots of locals found paid work tending that herd, butchering the mature animals and preparing the soldiers’ rations.
Jesus commanded the evil spirits to leave the man, restoring him to “his right mind” (Luke 8:35). But the spirits of political domination and violence insisted they be allowed to occupy some host. Why not the pigs? Jesus agreed; after all, the pig was the mascot of the Roman legion resident in that locality. “Then the unclean spirits came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned” (Luke 8:33).
The image of the pigs rushing into the water brings to mind the destruction of the imperial army of Egypt as it pursued the Hebrew people into the Red Sea during their exodus from Egypt. One lesson is clear: the spirits of domination and violence cause self-destruction.
Though Jesus had restored the crazy man to sanity, the local people were not pleased. Perhaps they had found the man to be entertaining in a scary sort of way. Certainly they had enjoyed the economic benefits of hosting the spirits of domination and violence in their community. Now they would need to find other paid work. And so they begged Jesus to take his message of liberation to another place.
I find this story applicable to our time and place here in the US.
While we lament the craziness of this political season, we stubbornly refuse to make the connections between the craziness and the spirit of empire that sustains this country in its present form.
Why? Because then we would either need to evict the spirits of domination and violence or admit that we too have come to welcome and depend upon their presence. Rather than submitting to such an unpleasant but potentially liberating choice, we persist in our attempts to bind the beast with chains and shackles, pretending to limit the harm.
The election of Barack Obama—a very good man—was such an exercise. Indeed, the spirits of domination and violence have intensified their evil under his watch, adding Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen to the places where death and mayhem reign, and parts of Nigeria, Mali and Chad too.
In the biblical story, the authority of Jesus was sufficient to evict the crazed spirit of empire and leave the man in his right mind. But the story also reminds us that many actually prefer the turbulence of insanity to the uncertainty of healing.
As we live through this crazy election year, what will be our choice? Will we name the spirit producing the craziness?