Pastors have a frequent question when they begin to discover mimetic theory. “That’s great. But how does it preach?”
Reverends Laura and Tom Truby show that mimetic theory is a powerful tool that enables pastors to preach the Gospel in a way that is meaningful and refreshing to the modern world. Each Wednesday, Teaching Nonviolent Atonement will highlight their sermons as an example of preaching the Gospel through mimetic theory.
In this sermon, Laura and Tom discuss the story of the man possessed by demons. Mimetic theory helps us understand that he is not to blame for his predicament; that he is a function of the rejecting crowd. “The demons are the voices of the village that reject him. They reject a part of themselves and project that into him so he can carry it for them.” But Jesus provides healing love and acceptance for the man, which changes his life. How will the villagers respond when their scapegoat is healed and they have nowhere to place their hostility? In a real sense, that question is left open for us all to answer.
The Rev. Laura and Dr. Thomas Truby
June 19, 2016
Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
All Means All
It’s a hugely evocative story. No matter how many times we hear it we’re captivated by the man who had demons. He was not seen as a child of God, but as someone utterly different than the rest. Sadly, he even viewed himself that way. He had internalized the community’s rejection. He lived “in the tombs” on the edge of the city, naked and homeless, where he was often placed under guard. Though tied down with irons and chains he’d break out of the restraints and head into the wilderness.
Henry Nouwen, who lived in a house with developmentally challenged people, gives an example of scapegoating oneself. One of the handicapped men, Raymond, after many years in an institution, defined himself as the guilty one. Nouwen says:
“He simply cannot believe that there is anything good in him and thus has become incapable of giving thanks. When I say “Good morning, Raymond,” he says, “I’m not awake yet.” When I say, “I will miss you when you are gone for the weekend,” he says, “I won’t miss you for sure.” When I call him long distance to say hello, he says, “Don’t bug me, I am eating.” When I bring him a nice gift, he says, “My room is too full for new things.” It is not easy to live with such a voice close by, but it is the voice of our broken world saying: “You are to blame for your suffering. You got what you deserved and if you have a broken body or a broken mind, you are the guilty one.” The endless chain of Raymond expressing self-rejection, self-blame, shame, and guilt brings the challenge of the new teaching of the risen Lord right into the heart of our life together.
Once, after a long litany of negativism, I shouted at Raymond in desperation, saying, “But Raymond, you are a good man.” And with a most emphatic voice he shouted back: “No, no, I am not!” And suddenly I realized that he was clinging to his deep sense of guilt as the only way to make sense out of his immense suffering. All the violence that rips the world apart became suddenly visible in the “No, no I am not!” shouted by my own brother. Raymond is such an important member of our family. I see my own guilt, shame, and self-rejection in his anguished face. I hear my own self-complaints, self-accusations and self-condemnation in his screams and I cannot run away.”
A scapegoat is the one cast out into the wilderness, away from the community. The town’s folk need him to be there; he is carrying away something they don’t want to face in themselves. He is driven by their unresolved issues. He is run by others who have displaced their anxieties, their anger, their hatreds, and their violence onto him.
Jesus encounters this situation when he crosses the lake from Galilee and commands the unclean spirit to come out of the scapegoat. The demoniac shrieks and falling down before him, says, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” Even though he is in a painful position, he is terrified of being called to something different and resists being healed. He has internalized the role of the abandoned one. If he abandons the idea of being abandoned, who is he?
Jesus asks his name. “Legion,” he answers. The Romans had Legions so he was filled with the enemy other. He was speaking his truth—that he was Legion, the carrier of many others and not at one with himself. The demons are the voices of the village that reject him. They reject a part of themselves and project that into him so he can carry it for them. They then can think they are good because they’ve projected him as bad. He plays an essential role. His role is to protect the community from facing its fighting and violence with each other. Without him, they would have to face their unsettled demons, their animosity toward each other. The community doesn’t want to see that it’s the problem.
The demons plead with him not to make them go back into the abyss, and instead beg Jesus to send them into the pigs feeding on the hillside—which tells us it’s a Gentile village. Jesus gives them permission, so they depart by entering the swine that plunge down the embankment into the lake below. They immediately self-destruct, a picture of what the community fears, shorn of their scapegoat. Through the intervention of Jesus, the demons are cast out of the tormented man and he is released from being the scapegoat for his community.
In the next scene, we find him clothed, completely sane and sitting at the feet of Jesus. He is no longer thrashing about with anger or lashing out in hatred. He has come to himself; he is now “in Christ” to use Paul’s language and is calm in his heart. The voices he’s hearing in his head are no longer the community voices, but rather Jesus’ voice….. We are formed of the other. That’s why the particular other can determine whether it is a violent man in the tomb or a clothed, calm man in his right mind.
But when the people come out to see what has happened, they are not overjoyed, they are not relieved. At first they are awestruck, but that quickly turns into fear. In fact, it says they are overcome by fear. Jesus is taking away their scapegoat. They are not pleased with his healing which tells us they are complicit in the demoniac’s condition and do not know what they will do with the division undone. If that man won’t serve that function, then which of them will be drafted next? Who gets caught in the negative lottery? So they hope the demonic will revert, and ask Jesus to leave their area.
Paul Neuchterlein writes, “This passage is a classic one for seeing the scapegoating structure to human communities, the structure which the cross of Jesus is meant to reveal. This healing story is also a revelation of that structure. A scapegoat carries all the bad stuff for a community. The vital thing to see here is not just the healing of one person, as dramatic as that was. But that it took a whole community for this man’s illness.”
The man, now free of the demons, wants to be with Jesus. But Jesus tells him to get on with his life by returning home and courageously telling the story of how much God has done for him, thus keeping God at the center of his relational network. This sharing, essential to his healing, keeps his focus on God rather than the legion of voices who would like to run him as before. In many ways this is why I must preach.
It’s been a heartbreaking week for the LGBTQ community and for us all. We are deeply saddened by the tragedy in Orlando and the loss of 50 souls at a night club. Voices armed with powerful weapons want the LGBTQ community to continue to carry the anxiety the culture as a whole generates. But the LGBTQ community has been set free and is beyond that. We need to be healed as whole communities and as a nation. The healing that we need can’t be complete in isolation. We have to be baptized into a community of non-violence and forgiveness where the failed scapegoat, the Lamb of God, is at the center as source of healing and calm. It is only if he is at the center, as he is in the Eucharist, that we can be in our right minds.
It’s time to become part of the healing. It’s time to challenge our divided world where we are either an insider or an outsider. It’s time to be a completely different kind of human community where division is undone. Here at All Saints Episcopal Church it’s time to become a “Believe Out Loud Congregation”. We are actively moving together in that direction, working on our mission statement to convey clearly to those who are often scapegoated by exclusion and violence that All Saints is a safe place for all to gather and be incorporated—A place where All Means All. Amen.