A Cautionary Tale for Society (Part 1 of 3)

A Cautionary Tale for Society (Part 1 of 3) October 13, 2020


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city landscape at night

In Mark’s gospel we read a story that many people find difficult:

[Jesus and his disciples] went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills, he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of Him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” (Mark 5:1-9)

The original audience of Mark’s gospel would have recognized the symbols and codes in this story. We are removed by time and context, and so it’s harder to follow. 

I believe this story is a symbolic portrait of Roman imperialism. Ched Myers notes in his commentary on Mark’s gospel that this story is a story of “symbolic confrontation” and has a specific political meaning. The name of the man, Legion, was the name of a division of Roman soldiers. 

“The conclusion is irresistible that we are here encountering imagery meant to call to mind the Roman military occupation of Palestine,” Myers writes in Binding the Strong Man (p. 191). This occupation was destroying the spirit, independence, and will of the people Rome colonized, and this story depicts what we refer to today as a person’s internalized oppression.

As soon as Jesus arrives in this story, he is met with immediate resistance. This ancient exorcism story is full of symbolic action: oppression by foreign rule appears as occupation by a foreign “spirit.” The man Jesus meets, whom no one could bind, cut himself with stones. Self-cutting in this context is a form of auto-lapidation. Lapidating is the act of pelting or killing someone with stones until they die, and the gospels typically attribute this activity to a crowd stoning someone (Matthew 21:35; 23:37; Luke 20:6; John 8:7, 59, 10:31–33, 1:8) Why would this man do this to himself? 

In the gospels, it is always the many, the majority, the privileged crowd that engages in this form of capital punishment, but this man has internalized this kind of violence toward himself. So this is a story where societal oppression leads someone to believe their oppressors’ valuation of themselves, and that leads to self-hatred and self-destruction.

This is where our story leads us next.

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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