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What Did Exorcism Mean To Jesus?

Jesus, it seems, frees people not only from their individual afflictions but also from social and communal exploitation.
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Mark's Gospel runs full of healings and exorcisms. From the story's very beginning, Jesus wins widespread acclaim for his authority over unclean spirits (Mark 1:27-28). He casts out so many demons that on multiple occasions Mark simply summarizes these activities (1:34, 39; 4:11).

But wise readers know better than to let their guard down. Though the Gospels feature many healings and exorcisms, we look for what makes each one distinctive. And the healing of the Gerasene demoniac possesses several distinctive qualities. For one thing, Jesus has ventured into Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) territory for the first time. We know this because the villagers own pigs -- Jews didn't own pigs. Then there's Jesus' interaction with the demoniac. Throughout the Gospel Jesus carries on a remarkable relationship with demons: they recognize Jesus when mortals do not (1:24; 3:11). In this case the demon cries out, "What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me" (5:7, NRSV). What's more, this demon has a name, "Legion" (more on that later).

But one thing about this exorcism particularly grabs my attention. This story attends to the demoniac's set of relationships. He's totally isolated when we meet him. Indeed, folks have given up on restraining him with chains, perhaps the most merciful treatment they can conjure up. He engages in self-injurious behavior, bruising himself with stones, and he lives among the tombs. Totally removed from civilization, this man. When Jesus delivers this man from the demons, he naturally wants to follow Jesus. Then other relationships come into view. This man belongs to a household, something many translations gloss over, and he has friends. Jesus restores the man to his relationships (5:20-21).

Now Mark's Gospel couldn't be more clear: this man is demon-possessed. Modern readers, most of whom have not experienced personal encounters with the demonic, more easily imagine the demoniac as mentally disturbed. Abandoned by society. Living among the tombs. Howling and injuring himself. I don't even want to imagine the torment implied by this story. And I will not venture a mental health diagnosis, which is just plain silly.

Nevertheless, mental health problems come with hosts of related social costs. According to researchers, in modern societies "people with mental illness are robbed of the opportunities that define a quality life: good jobs, safe housing, satisfactory health care, and affiliation with a diverse group of people." In other words, relationships break down, opportunities vanish, and even physical well-being deteriorates. Mental illness extracts a fearsome toll from those who love and care for its primary victims as well, including social isolation and financial distress.

When I consider the Gerasene demoniac and his web of relationships, I suspect similar dynamics are in play. The story reminds us that this man has a household and friends, but they're mostly out of the picture. Their efforts to protect him from himself have failed, and it appears folks have given up. We have no idea where he finds his meals. We do not know how many people may be grieving for him, powerless to help.

The connection between mental illness and social disruption works in both directions. When things are wrong with society, psychological problems increase and intensify. Our current economic malaise has produced an astonishing increase in reports of mental illness.

Depression increased from 6.6 percent of the population in 2001 and 2002 to 9 percent in 2010. Social scientists around the world observe the link between social oppression and mental illness. In short, mental illness leads to social problems, while social distress contributes to mental illness.

Let's return to the demoniac and the name of his demons. At first, it seems he is possessed by one, albeit really bad, demon; the man is described as having "an unclean spirit" (5:2). But when Jesus demands the demon's name, the response is chilling: "My name is Legion; for we are many" (5:9). From this point on, there's no confusion. We're dealing with a host of demons. Cast out, the demons drive 2,000 pigs into the sea. Should we assume one demon per pig, or should we assume the demons so influence many pigs that the rest plunge to their death?

Here's the thing. In the ancient world, "Legion" had one and only one meaning. Legion was the basic unit of the Roman army, comprising up to 6,000 soldiers. Jesus and the demoniac both lived in Galilee. Galilee was possessed by Roman imperialism, just as the demoniac finds himself possessed by a Legion of demons.

It seems our story is making a social and political point to go along with the point that Jesus delivers individuals from demonic oppression. Legion, pigs and the sea: What would any faithful Jew desire more than to see those Gentile (pigs) Romans (Legion) chased back where they came from (the sea)? Indeed, lots of biblical and ancient Jewish imagery depicts the Romans as coming up from the sea (see Revelation 13 for a famous example) and envisions their being driven back into the sea. Jesus, it seems, frees people not only from their individual afflictions but also from social and communal exploitation.

We've neglected one more set of relationships. Jesus returns the demoniac to his household and to his friends, but one group is deeply unhappy with the proceedings. Some people in the city see that liberation can be disruptive. Freeing people from their structural and individual oppression doesn't profit everyone. We see this today in widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric, and we observe it when politicians deprive minorities of access to the voting booth. The story of the Gerasene demoniac reveals that Jesus' liberating power bears implications for individuals, for those who love and support them, and for the broader human community.

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