I enjoyed talking about the story of the Gerasene/Gadarene/Gergesene demoniac in my Sunday school class recently. I explained why I believe that story (at least in the version in the Gospel of Mark) to be political satire. A Roman legion of unclean spirits comes to the Messiah to try to exorcize him, and then when that attempt fails, begs him not to exorcize them from the country. Showing a map to convey the geographical aspect of the story can be effective in conveying why it cannot and should not be taken as a literal factual account. That’s a long long way for a herd of pigs to run into the lake.
Yet there is a level of the story that connects with the real life phenomena that some cultures label with terms like possession. Living in the stress of occupation and political tension can cause anxiety, nervous breakdowns, and sometimes much worse. The risk for those who do not believe in literal personal demons is that we may fail to do justice to the extent to which evil transcends the level of individual minds and actions. We blame “society” even though we are society. Cultures embody, transmit, and enforce values. They become embodied in structures and institutions. They stand over against us and at the same time are rooted deep within us. At times, the spirit of the age is indeed diabolical, unclean, and must be so labeled.
There is a spirit to be exorcised that is relevant to both the Right and the Left, both to conservatives and liberals. The idea that problems can be solved by individuals has come up in relation to the partisan divide in connection with how racism is taught, whether structural racism exists, and how it is to be addressed. But many liberals seem to think that their own buying choices or vehicle use can adequately address issues related to the environment and ecology, among others.
There is a good illustration of this in a recent article about how the fossil fuel industry has sought to lay the blame for pollution and climate change at the feet of individuals, and so resist a cultural shift that would be more harmful to their financial interests:
Personal virtue is an eternally seductive goal in progressive movements, and the climate movement is no exception. People pop up all the time to boast of their domestic arrangements or chastise others for what they eat or how they get around. The very short counterargument is that individual acts of thrift and abstinence won’t get us the huge distance we need to go in this decade. We need to exit the age of fossil fuels, reinvent our energy landscape, rethink how we do almost everything. We need collective action at every scale from local to global – and the good people already at work on all those levels need help in getting a city to commit to clean power or a state to stop fracking or a nation to end fossil-fuel subsidies. The revolution won’t happen by people staying home and being good.
I also emphasized that it is wrong to demonize the mentally ill in relation to certain aspects of our society. Most people who commit atrocities are not mentally ill. They are selfish and angry. I also emphasized that most people do not make a choice to be evil, but think they are choosing good. They often think they are heroes rather than villains, as they oppose others in the interest of protecting themselves and their own group, however defined.
Addressing demons in demythologized fashion can allow us to see not only the ways that evil can be cultural and systemic and thus a force greater than and transcending any individual, but also something that can lead to mental and physical health issues as people experience injustice, oppression, and marginalization and these things take their toll.