They came to the other side of the lake, 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.’ – Mark 5:1-9
I wrote the other day that I have been feeling a real need to reconsider the reality of evil. In all its guises. I think it only right, then, to consider evil at its most basic and most mysterious. No story in the Gospels of Jesus encountering a person possessed by an evil spirit or demon is as frightening, both in description and detail, as the Gerasene demoniac. This is not just a random evil spirit in some guy. This is a poor soul so afflicted and beset by demons that despite the best efforts of his friends and family, he breaks confinement, preferring to live among the tombs, the company of the dead preferable.
This person is moved by the spirits inside him to approach Jesus and his Disciples even as they are just coming ashore, and Jesus commands the spirits to leave. The struggle that then ensues is frightening in its implications. Rather than flee instantly when commanded by Jesus, the demons plead not to be cast out; if so, they ask not to be sent away from “this country”. Ending up in a herd of swine, however, the swine rush headlong in to the water.
Now, water for the Jewish people for a very long time was the dwelling place of evil. When the herd of swing plunged in to the Sea of Galilee, the “Legion” were sent away from “this country”, returning to the place from which they came. Rather than being sent directly to the pit, these demons escaped being cast out completely. That they were tricked by having their plea answered by Jesus, well, that’s more an issue of gamesmanship rather than the overpowering will of God in Christ.
So here’s my issue specifically with questions of demonic “possession” to give it a common name. What, exactly, is the purpose of such an action? The common answer is the death of the one possessed, which, really begs more questions than it answers. Wouldn’t it be far easier for a demon to tempt a person toward death, either through foolishness or depression? I think, however, I might well be missing an important facet of the phenomenon: the fear such possession causes through the terrifying reality of a person in the grip of such a force. For want of a better description, these are forces that relish evil, terror, bringing fear and death. To try to consider the matter with too much attention to simple logic and rationality, I think I’ve missed just this aspect of the phenomenon.
At the end of the day, evil that exists for its own sake is strong precisely because of and to the extent to which we deny what it really is.
I also believe I have been far too glib in my rejection of this phenomenon. Not least have I thought that the depiction of exorcism as a long, excruciating process. I have, rather, looked on the Biblical testimony at the ease with which both Jesus and his disciples went about “casting out demons”. This particular event, however, tells a very different story. When confronted by something stronger than we ever can be, the challenges we face are multiple, not the least of them the threat to our own spiritual integrity. What better weapon to challenge someone wishing to demand its ouster might a demon possess but to shout to the world our own sinfulness, our own failings, our own weakness? How can we stand? Even Jesus wasn’t immediately successful when confronted by “Legion”.
Thus, I think it is important to go back , ask those same questions I have always had, but remember that evil isn’t just insanity or political tyranny. Evil is what it is. As such it is greater and more terrifying than either of these, despite how frightening they are. To look in to a mirror and see something not only alien, but terrifying looking back . . . something more than just our worst selves, but something not us at all . . . I wonder, just wonder if this, too, is a reality with which we must wrestle.