Glynn Cardy Luke 8: 26-39
Where I lived for the first 17 years of my life there was cemetery up the road. On a bit of a hill. I could see it from the bus stop. Not particularly well looked after in those days. I never went in there, and I never saw anyone else there either.
Later, when I was a teenager, I learnt that a bunch of my relatives are buried there. Including my grandmother. We never visited her grave. Which struck me as strange. It still does.
I didn’t get to have that conversation with my parents before they died. Or with other folk in the neighbourhood for that matter. Why did we stay away from cemeteries? Certainly, they were places to respect, and vandalizing a grave stone, then and now, is an offence in all the cultures in Aotearoa. But did the dead really want us to stay away?
Much later, in my mid-thirties, we lived in Epsom next to a graveyard where I, as the minister, had some responsibilities. This was a very different graveyard though from that one on a Birkenhead hill. People came into this graveyard all the time. There were lots of flowers. Children’s laughter could often be heard. The graveyard was, and probably still is, a place of community.
When we read back about the early Jesus movements there are two contradictory things we learn about graveyards. Firstly, they were places of defilement. They were the abode of spirits, to be avoided in the darkness. Not dissimilar in a way to the traditional Māori understanding of urupā, with the need for a washing rite for transitioning from tapu (sacred) to noa (ordinary).
And, secondly, like in the Roman catacombs, a number of Jesus groups gathered in cemeteries to not only mourn and remember but celebrate their connections with the dead and with one another, and to eat and drink in that gathering. It was if they were not frightened of the spirits, or of the darkness. Being together they made hope alive in this seemingly hopeless place. Just as the healing of the possessed man happened in the graveyard.
Which brings us to our Gospel story today. There are a few things that are helpful to know:
Firstly, location. Gerasa, about 60 km south east of lake Galilee, was where Roman soldiers had killed a thousand young Jewish men, plundered and burned the town. Was the mental illness, the possession, of the man due to the violence he, or his family, or friends had suffered? And the location of Gerasa makes for a very long run for the pigs to get to the lake! 60 km! But trauma and loss are more important to this story than any fact-checking about pigs and lakes.
Secondly, language. The name of the demons said to possess the ill man is Legion. Legion had only one meaning back then: a division of four to six thousand Roman soldiers. Similarly, the term used for ‘herd’ – inappropriate for pigs that don’t travel in herds – was used to refer to a band of military recruits. The phrase (Jesus) ‘gave them permission’ implies a military command, and the word for the pigs ‘rushing’ into the lake suggests troops rushing into battle. Enemy soldiers being consumed by water also brings to mind the demise of Pharaoh’s army in the Moses saga.
And lastly, linking. There is a deliberate linking of things considered impure by those who belonged to Israel – especially the impure pigs, demons, and Roman soldiers. All are good at consuming.
Pigs eat pretty much anything, in quantity. As the immortal Miss Piggy says, “Never eat anything you can’t lift”.
Demons – and let’s call ‘demons’ the personification of psychological dislocation of both individuals and communities – consumed the mentally ill man
Romans, the colonizing overlords, also consumed. They dispossessed people of their land, disempowered people in multiple ways, including dislocating them from their community. The Romans ate at the heart, the self-esteem and self-belief, of the people in order to control and subjugate. In our story the consumption is total: physically, mentally, and spiritually the possessed individual and his community was in chains.
So, this is not a simple Jesus healing story – like of someone blind or with leprosy. Instead, this is a symbolic story about being consumed, being colonized, not only in your land but also in your mind and heart. The man is symbolically both a prisoner and mentally ill, externally and internally fettered. It’s a story about loss and trauma, not just for this individual, or his community at Gerasa, but for all who experienced the brutality of Roman colonisation. In the telling and retelling of this story the hearers would revisit and acknowledge their own suffering.
And the hearers would also laugh. For there is a very deliberate insult included: the Romans are pigs. The Legion of Romans go and inhabit the bodies of pigs. Swine to swine. But the story is encoded enough so that its not heard as a ‘throw-the-Romans-into-the-sea’ insurrectionist tale. So, laugh, but not too loudly.
Being together, remembering the trauma and loss, making a joke at the oppressors’ expense, having the pain healed (at least for a while) by the counter-spirit of their crucified saviour… such things generate hope, and some in the Jesus movements used such a story-telling strategy to engender it.
The Jesus movements in those first centuries had three things in common. Firstly, the all-pervasive violence of the Empire, writ late in following the Anointed Jesus, a man who himself was tortured and died a horrid Roman death. His spirit of fearlessness, courage, and honour lived on, and lived on in them and in their communities. Their healer, if you like, was a man whose body was broken by Rome. Suffering shaped the self-understanding of these Jesus groups.
And the responses to this suffering, the strategies to cope, were widely different. Some told stories like this one. Others told stories filled with joy and beauty, in order for a while to forget the violence. Others created fantasy fiction – like the Book of Revelation – to encode their anger at Rome and their desire for its demise. Others, like Paul, took the language of brutality (crucifixion) and refashioned it as a language of honour (“I am crucified, yet I live. The Anointed lives in me”).
Secondly, the Jesus movements had an overwhelming need for places of refuge – places in which they were safe and could care for each other.
Most Jesus movements did not fit within the normal, socially sanctioned, institutions of society. Like households for example with a paterfamilias (patriarch) in charge. So, they repurposed, experimented, and reimagined households, where the gender distinctions were minimalized, or the roles reversed. Where the normative hierarchal structure of class was flattened, or even lampooned. Some groups, for example, called themselves “the Enslaved of God”.
The biggest experiment was the representation of safety itself. Usually safety was associated with fathers, generals, emperors, and their gods. But the Jesus movements turned all that health and safety stuff upside-down with their image of a crucified (read ‘loser’) saviour whose Jewish god was also a loser (beaten time and again by Rome).
The third, and last, thing they had in common was their practice of eating together. This was their most characteristic trait, that only started to die out after the advent of the 3rd century’s Constantinian Christianity. Jesus followers ate together, feasted together, toasted each other and Jesus, talked, argued, and wept together, and – from this community building base – grew a set of participant behaviours and morals ensuring respect, honour, and reciprocity.
And they were considered mad. Just as Jesus was considered mad (Mark 3:21). Theirs was no simple survival strategy of keeping your head down until the storm of empire passed. No, they made communities that practiced a reversal of society’s conventions – conventions about who was in charge, who was to be honoured, even who was to be considered ill or mad – and while hovering on the edge of provoking the empire’s wrath, created an alternative, upside down ‘empire’, that lampooned the existing one.
So, the challenge for Jesus communities now is not to replicate what our forebears did. Their context was different. The violence was different. The insecurity was different. The pyramidal patriarchy was different. Though, of course, violence, insecurity, and patriarchy are still alive and well. And their resources were very different than ours in Aotearoa today.
Yet the challenge is still how to make community, how to make safe spaces – in body, mind, and heart – refuges for all those marginalized by the mainstream and its conventions.
The challenge is how to find time and space to do what really matters and that breathes life into us – like eating together, dreaming together, experimenting with those dreams together.
And the challenge is still how to face the big myths and assumptions of our culture, and our global culture, like having, owning, and getting ahead (all motivated largely by a desire for security). These big myths and assumptions can possess us, consume us, dislocate us. Instead, we need together to find the freedom and security in a counter-culture, a counter-spirituality, of giving and losing.