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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
The story doesn’t end with this man’s isolated experience, though.
“[Legion] begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.” (Mark 5:10-17; Emphasis added)
In this Hellenized, mostly Greek region (Gentile with very few Jews), pigs were a farming commodity. Here the author zooms in to focus on the economic dimension of Jesus’ politics. If the larger community embraces this man’s liberation from internalized oppression, what will this mean for them? If they honestly estimate the Roman occupation, that will change everything, including their economic structure. Economic change is emotionally unsettling even when it’s more distributively just: it’s challenging what some people need for survival on one hand, and what others have hoarded for security and anxiety management on the other hand.
Jesus began by restoring the man, but the story quickly redirects us to the man’s surrounding society. His liberation of the man from internalized oppression threatens the unity and peace that the privileged of society had found in Roman occupation. Jesus turns their way of life, their stability, on its head and forces them to see the man as a fellow human being, like themselves. Jesus un-objectifies the man, de-dehumanizes him, un-degrades him. Jesus lifts this man up and returns him to a place of belonging in the humanity in the sight of a society that had found unity and coherence by purging him to the tombs. Jesus challenges the entire arrangement of this society.
The story doesn’t end well. The people choose economic and political security over the liberation Jesus pointed to. They cry, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds us.” Jesus and his liberation are not welcome with them.
Just this week I had a discussion with a neighbor of mine who was expressing their views about the upcoming election. He admitted that the present administration had economically benefited him and his business. At last, though, he said that even that economic benefit was not enough for him. He felt he also had to consider the thousands upon thousands whom the administration had harmed. He was choosing harm mitigation and planned to vote for change come November. My neighbor made the opposite decision to the privileged in Mark’s story.
Seeing the man set free from his internalized oppression, the society around him refuses to get free of the same “demons.” Until then, this man had become infected with the bigotry of his own society toward himself. He had allowed how his society defined him to become the way he defined himself as well. When people get free of collective violence toward a marginalized sector of our society, (whether in themselves toward themselves, or within themselves toward others) they are following the social truth within this gospel story.
This is my story, too. I am a member of the kind of scapegoating society this man lived in. But I have also seen the humanity of the ones I once marginalized, and it has turned my world upside down. I wish I could claim some credit for this transformation, but I did not go looking for it. Once it was laid at my doorstep, though, I did have to make a choice.
Today, I simply want to bring others with me. Has it brought me some economic uncertainty? You bet. The ministry I direct has gone through huge economic shifts as our support base has changed. I hope it will continue to recover. Too often, economic reasons drive us to reject positive changes and this story is a cautionary tale for just such moments.
What would happen if we saw those people we have placed on society’s altars as having just as much value, worth, and right to be included as we have? Though we are living with a very different worldview today than those for whom this story was written, our society, political, economic, and even religious bigotries are no different than those in this gospel story.
This story calls us today to once again see those whom we have labeled as different or other as human, bearing the image of the Divine just as we do. Jesus calls us to embrace the reality that they are our siblings, we are part of the same human family, and they deserve a place at the table, too.