Imagine that you look up into the air and you see a formation of airplanes fly overhead. They are in perfect order – each plane equal distance from the other, each plane turning in perfect precision with the other. Except for one. There is a plane that is out of order, that is over to the side, seemingly doing its own thing. What would you think? How would you interpret what you see?
If you are like most people, you would assume that the lone plane was wrong. It was off course. But this is a logical fallacy – It’s very possible that the lone plane is the one who is on course, and everyone else is off course.
Our tendency to suppose that because a group is in the right formation, it is necessarily on the right course is called in philosophy the Gerasene (or Gadarene) Swine Fallacy. It takes its name from today’s gospel story, in which a large herd of swine march off a cliff. Their actions are orderly, and they are all headed in the same direction. If you had observed them from a distance, you would have thought they were going the “right” way – they must be right, they must be good.
But of course, they were all possessed by demons and headed to the abyss.
History is replete with examples of orderly groups seeming to be “on course” when in fact they are off course, dysfunctional, or evil. The Roman legion rolling across Palestine and other parts of the empire enforcing the peace. Wave after wave of people saluting the Nazi flag in large public squares in the late 1930s. The Italian trains running on time in Mussolini’s Italy. Slavery in this country was enforced by national and state laws and codes that were orderly and broadly accepted, as well as a well-developed theology employing scripture to defend it as part of the natural order. Anti-miscegenation laws in their day and our current mass incarceration system in the US are nothing if not orderly.
In general, these orderly, powerful but death-dealing systems use power to protect the interests of some people over against the interests of others. The order allows some to feel a sense of security and ethical superiority or purity, by labeling others as ineligible, unworthy, or demonic.
Today’s gospel story has been mis-read and misused in this way for a good bit of Christian history. This story has been used against people who are different to justify prejudice, violence, judgment, pity and exclusion. Just like the Geresene demoniac, the story goes, people who are different need to be healed, purified, changed, and until they are, we need to chain them up, lock them up, or push them away. We need to acknowledge that sermons will be preached today using this gospel that will do violence against the beloved of God. Those sermons will demonize people. We need to repent of the role the church has played in history of perpetuating this mis-reading of this story and others. Having a disability, being black or Hispanic, being gay or lesbian or transgender, having a mental illness are not forms of demon possession.
The story in today’s gospel is not about the healing of one man. It’s about the healing of a whole society – a community that appeared to have everything in order, to be flying in formation, but was in fact disordered, disfigured, and far from God’s dream.
The story begins with Jesus stepping onto the shore. A man is right there to meet him- naked, chained, writhing/falling in tombs. His situation is deeply tragic, but it’s also kind of curious. The people keep chaining him up, but not enough to keep him down – he breaks free again and again. For years he’s been running off, and they keep bringing him back. It’s almost like they need him to be sick or mad (Mark Davis).
He has a confusing conversation with Jesus. It’s hard to follow who is speaking – the man or the demon. It is not a linguistic problem, it is the problem of identity with anyone who has a demon. The spoken conversation projects the inner torment of the man, “Who am I? Who am I apart from or in cohesion with this demon? Can ‘I’ be separated from ‘it’?” What worse condition is there than to ask, “Who am I” and not to be able to answer?
And when Jesus asks him his name, he says: Legion. I am many – so many. The word would bring to mind for anyone of Jesus’s time a particular legion – a legion of Roman soldiers. The man has been occupied by outside forces. He is unable to think his own thoughts, so much has been imposed upon him.
Jesus heals him, of course, and immediately. But then Jesus does one thing more – He agrees to send the demons into the swine. He didn’t have to do that. Why kill off the pigs? This is where we start to see what’s really going on in the story: The swine belong to people – The herds are their livelihood. Jesus has disrupted the order in this society in a big way. The people thought they could depend on the demoniac to be a demoniac. And they thought they could depend on the swine to feed them. But Jesus has taken away their superiority over this man, and he has forced them to look for something or someone else they can depend on.
The demoniac sitting at Jesus’s feet, depending on Jesus, clothed and in his right mind – and their pigs missing in action – They are terrified. They want Jesus gone. Changing death-dealing systems threatens those who have misused their power for ill.
The invitation in this story is for us, like the formerly possessed man, to let Jesus heal us. Let Jesus touch us by depending on him – The invitation is to open our hearts and minds and wallets and lives to God’s love, and to join him in casting out demons.
To cast out demons isn’t to pray over someone in order to change them but to do exactly what we promised to do at our baptisms: to work against the powers in this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God – powers like racism, sexism, able-ism. Powers like apathy and despair. Powers like self-righteousness and self-satisfaction.
The order in our world needs disruption. The planes are flying in an orderly direction, but where are they headed. We who are clothed in Christ have been called to be the rogue planes correcting the course.
Are you frightened? Something will have to go. Maybe it’s the swines. Maybe it’s a prejudice. Maybe it’s your unwillingness to forgive enemies. Maybe its your belief that you’re not good enough or strong enough to cast our demons. I am here to tell you you are wrong. Lots of people cast out demons just in the last week. Here are some examples:
Two members of the US Congress walked out on moment of silence to disrupt the order of a Congress unable to pass legislation limiting access to guns and improving gun safety – Rep. Jim Himes tweeted: I will not attend one more “Moment of Silence” on the Floor. Our silence does not honor the victims, it mocks them. This protest was the casting out of demons.
The Lieutenant Governor of Utah, Spencer Cox, who is a Mormon, in light of the awful murders in Orlando spoke out about his own change of heart regarding the dignity of lbgt people:
As I’ve gotten to know lbgt people and taken time to listen to people that are different than me – what I came to realize was they’re really not that different than me. And that’s kind of simplistic I guess, but it was really eye-opening to see that the things we had in common were so much greater than the differences that we might’ve had, whether political or religious or otherwise.
[By speaking out about my change of heart]… I’m hoping, if nothing else, I give some cover to other politicians who are feeling these things but for whatever reason have talked themselves out of saying them. Just say it, and let the consequences be what they are.
This was the casting out of demons.
This week, thousands of people who had never taken any action regarding gun violence signed petitions for ending sales of automatic weapons. They were casting out demons.
And all over the country, people are organizing dance parties in the face of fear and despair – They are keeping alive the spirit of joy and hope alive at the Pulse nightclub, and they are raising money for the families of those who died. They are casting out demons.
In place of the prayers of the people and the confession today, we will be praying a version of the Great Litany. Our tradition invites us to pray the Great Litany in times of national crisis or threat. This is a long, deep prayer that takes us through lament, intercession, and confession – it names evil around us and within us, so that they can be healed. It brings to the surface the “legions” that hold us down and it helps us see how we might need to grow and change as well. We offer it to a God who knows first-hand how hard it is to be human, experienced first-hand how empires oppress and wept for friends he loved, and invites us to be clothed in his love forever.