Naming our Demons

We may not think we have common ground with the story of Jesus’s healing the man with a multitude of demons in this Sunday’s gospel passage of Luke 8:26-39. Most of us no longer believe in demons, so we assume there is little to relate to in the story. It is pre-scientific. It is fantastic. I wonder, though, whether we lack imagination, or consider sufficiently the importance of metaphor and analogy that Jesus and the gospel writers utilized in the stories.

For instance, I notice that Jesus asks the demons—not the man, whose silence suggests his loss of identity by illness—what their name is. And they answer “Legion.” The earliest Christians, though, would have been alerted by this name, knowing a legion to be an invading army—a force of six thousand Roman soldiers, shock troops who could roll over a weaker people and place them ruthlessly under Roman authority and keep them subjugated. Jesus himself would die at the hands of the Roman authorities who held the leashes of the legions. 

Thus, this story is about more than uncleanliness or illness. It is about oppression and suffering to which those listening to the story can relate. By naming the forces holding that man captive as “Legion,” the point is driven home as to the helplessness the man exhibited in the face of the occupying forces that had seized control of him– body, mind, and spirit–  and had taken away his voice and cut him off from all that he held dear.

“Demons” take away agency, try to convince us that we are helpless and powerless. So we should name it: our demons too, even in the year 2022, are legion. Our demons, just like those that afflicted this poor nameless person, are forces of oppression, chaos, and division. Our demons claim power by convincing us we are helpless before them. And just as Jesus demands their name before casting the demons out of the poor man who is held captive, it is important for us, too, to name our own demons as such—to name them, so that we may rebuke them and take up the fight against them in the name of love and community.

What if we understood our modern demons as those dysfunctions, illnesses, and delusions that destroy community? The names we use for these demons may be different; but they are, indeed legion. There’s alcoholism, drug addiction—meth, fentanyl, oxycontin being just the latest scourges– or even mental illness, which remains stigmatized even as we struggle still to recognize it as a medical condition rather than a personal failure.

But the list goes on. Our modern demons also include the institutional demons of gun violence, homelessness, indifference to the suffering of others, especially when it is inflicted in our name. Then there’s grinding poverty and demonization of the poor, racism, xenophobia, dehumanizing or even “demonizing” those who are different from us—and I would argue that another demon is our tolerance or claimed helplessness in the face of those demons.

There is one thing all these demons have in common: they destroy relationships and the ties of community. And putting back on our lens as disciples of Jesus, community is one of the holiest works and tasks that we are called to embody.

For Christians, community does not just mean the group of insiders in each parish or denomination. Christian community is understood as being OUTWARDLY focused. Each group of Christians is tasked with not existing for its own sake, but for the life of the world, to draw all the world into the radical idea that we are all God’s children, all beloved, all worthy of dignity and respect and peace and wholeness—what our Jewish friends encompass in a beautiful and often misunderstood word when we use it: shalom. Another name for God—and for the love-as-action-and-justice that conquers the demons that plague us.

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