They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. (Mark 5:1-17)
It was not a perfect life for the villagers. Their relationship with the man and his demons was fraught, but they had learned to deal with it. And by “deal with it”, I really mean that they forced him into a life of isolation, living not in the community, but in the tombs, forgotten by the villagers who trained themselves not to hear his cries.
It was far from a perfect life for the man. This is one of the first stories in the Gospel of Mark to zoom into the scene, to slow down and describe the person seeking healing–Mark wants us to have a visual of this man. Living among the tombs, dirty, strong (too strong), covered in bruises inflicted by the demons controlling him, voice hoarse from howling night and day, never sleeping. Unlike the villagers who could ignore the demons, he faced them every day and every night.
I wonder if the villagers felt guilty about that at all. What they might have thought upon hearing his cries:
“Such a sad situation… nothing to be done…”
“Well, he must have done something wrong to begin with or else these demons wouldn’t’ve entered him.”
“I just wish he wouldn’t scream so loudly…”
I wonder if they taught their children to stay away, that the man himself was evil, not simply oppressed by evil. I wonder if the children washed their guilt away by thinking, “Well, it wasn’t me who banished him to the tombs…”
I’m white. Nearly translucently white. Irish descent, from a historically middle-class white land-owning Southern family which means we are 95% certain that my ancestors owned slaves. And the thing about being white is that I don’t have to think about race. Macy Sto. Domingo writes, “White Privilege is being able to fight racism one day, then ignore it the next.” Just like those villagers didn’t have to think about the demons that plagued the man, I don’t have to think about the demons that plague people of color in America today. I can move on with my life. I can ignore the faint cries I can’t help but hear of unarmed people being shot, of trans women of color being brutally murdered, of a teenage boy being arrested for building a clock. I can say that it’s not ME who started all these problems, it’s my ancestors and I’m not connected to them at all, really.
But frankly, this privilege of the villagers is not even the most disturbing part of this story. The disturbing part of the story, for me, comes at the end. Jesus comes, casts out the demons, freeing the man from the oppression he has been subject to for as long as anyone can remember. And instead of rejoicing, instead of worshiping, instead of even wondering or marveling… the villagers are afraid.
Sure. You can make the argument that they were afraid of the sheer power of Christ that cast out even the worst demons. You can make some sort of argument about the damage caused by letting the demons go into swine. But no matter what excuses we make, it is rare to see this much fear and anxiety surrounding a miracle.
Why was this miracle so offensive to the villagers?
This miracle was a disruption to the life that they had come to know and expect, and that scared them.
Even though that miracle brought life and healing to this man whose existence could barely be called life before, the change, the disruption, was too much to be tolerated, to the point where the villagers begged Jesus to leave.
I want to believe we live in a time where systems will change. I want to believe that a rising social consciousness will overtake our churches and our governments. I want to believe that systemic injustices will be cast out the way that the demons were cast out of this man. I want to believe that this is the dawning of a new civil rights movement, that die-ins and shut downs and hashtags will be studied in history as catalysts for change.
But I know that the very systems that desperately need to be changed, the systems that bruise and afflict our neighbors, are systems that are designed to help me. And my family. And many of my peers. They are unfair, but they are unfair in our favor, and as well-intentioned as we want to believe we are, I can see us, I can see myself, acting like these villagers. Shocked by the disruption, terrified of the change, and telling those who come to do God’s work of casting out demons to leave. Get out of my neighborhood. Do your good work, out there, away from me, so I can share posts about it on Facebook and feel good about myself, but change nothing in my life.
I lift this text up to us as a warning. These villagers are the people we should not be but can very easily become, without even realizing it. The world is changing and people are coming to cast out very familiar demons. That is God’s work. Let us not beg God to leave in order to let us remain comfortable.
Colleen Toole is a third year MDiv student at Princeton Theological Seminary whose primary interests lie in worship, liturgical studies, and hymnody. Prior to seminary, Colleen worked in New York City as a director and sound designer in live theater. Colleen is also a familiar face at Montreat Conference Center, where she worked on Production Crew for four summers.