July 1, 2018
The Outsiders – The Tormented
Well, this is a pretty strange story. I have to say that, other than some of the writing in Revelation, this could be the most peculiar story in the bible. And I also have to say that it’s my favorite demon story.
I realize that by saying this I’m not only admitting to knowing more than one demon story, but have also taken the time to discern this one as the one I like the best.
I like it because it’s startling and strange – it kind of stays with you – because it really doesn’t make any sense. When I was studying at University this story got mentioned a number of times, not just because it’s one of the ‘miracle stories’ but because it is one of the stories that uses humour to make it memorable.
Today in the 21st century the humour is a little lost on us, as we no longer have the context or same cultural understanding of the world that existed in the 1st century. It’s a little bit of those “You had to be there” funny stories.
So let me try to to explain – then we’re look at why this old, strange story continues to matter today.
Some context to set the stage: The writer of Luke is speaking to a primarily gentile audience. Each of the gospels had a target audience, Matthew, was writing to a mostly Jewish audience, which is why his gospel has a lot of references to Jesus as the new Moses, he wanted the Jewish people to relate to Jesus’ and his stories in that way. Luke, however was writing to mostly gentiles, trying to convince them that Jesus was more than just a Jewish Messiah radical.
And this story plays a role in that. When Jesus meets the man with the legion of demons within him we’re told that the man lives among the tombs and there is a large herd of pigs nearby. This information is seemingly inconsequential to us, but to the readers of Luke – these two points are very important, because they tell us that under no circumstances is this man Jewish.
At that time a Jewish person would not live among tombs/graves – that’s a place of uncleanliness. A Jewish person would also never live near pigs – as they were the most unclean animal of all creatures. Therefore we know that Jesus, a Jewish figure, is in a part of Israel where Jewish people don’t live.
Here is this Jewish figure, Jewish Messiah, healing a non-Jew – this would be very meaningful for people curious about this person, but having little to no knowledge of the Jewish faith.
It would have been highly likely, tho, that one thing gentiles would know about Jewish people would be their laws about clean and unclean – and that pigs were at the absolute top of the list of unclean creatures. Back in the 1st century, and even today for some Jewish people, coming into contact with an unclean animal made you unclean. Ritual baths and cleansing is necessary before being able to show yourself in Jewish society again – so one would be very careful to not unwittingly contaminate themselves.
This doesn’t seem to bother Jesus tho, or the demons, so when the demons ask to be put into the pigs, Jesus says, “Sure, go ahead.”
But then the pigs, the most unclean and foul of all creatures, the lowest of the low can’t even stand to have the demon’s within them, so they run down the hill and drown themselves. They perform their own ritual bath to cleanse themselves, the irony being they’re pigs and can never become clean.
It’s unexpected, creates a pretty silly image in your mind and maybe a little chuckle. And you might find yourself going home after hearing this story and telling your family, telling your neighbour, “So I heard this funny story about pigs and demons…” and along with telling the story you’re also sharing the mystery and power that this Jesus person has to heal people.
It’s memorable and thus Jesus becomes memorable too.
And then there’s us in the 21st century and we’ve kind of lost the plot of this one. There’s plenty of the story that we just find really bizzare and of course theres judgemental overtone of people who are different being full of demons. Back in the day anyone suffering from a mental illness, a genetic illness, a brain disorder, could be labelled as a demonic; Someone possessed by a demon.
This would be the case especially for someone whose personality changed as the result of brain trauma, be it a physical injury or emotional trauma. Tho not limited to just those people.
We now know, of course that such things are not demons, or the result of the person having done something to deserve it. We know the brain is a complex organ susceptible to injury, and malfunction the same as any other organ in the body.
We know that thought disorders, like schizophrenia and mood disorders, like bipolar and depression can be treated with a multitude of therapies and medications. As can any number of genetic illnesses that affect the brain.
Neuroscience is making great strides forward in understanding the Autism Spectrum, ADD and ADHD as the brain not functioning as originally designed and people who present with A-typical neurological capacity need support and compassion – not name calling and removal from society.
Yet with all of that progress, a stigma remains. While we might not whisper behind our hands, “I think that person has a demon in them” anymore, there is remains a discomfort on what to say when it comes to people with mental illnesses.
The bulk of my experience is with mental illness in the form of a mood disorder – depression and anxiety, which is the place I speak from today. It’s not that other brain disorders are not as important, I just don’t have the experience to speak about them today.
For me, I have, as many of you already know a lived experience of mental illness. I am in recovery, in that I’m in a good healthy place right now, but the illness is never really ‘cured’.
Earlier this year I began volunteering my time with Pathways: Serious mental Illness, a non-profit society that seeks to educate people about mental illnesses. I visit high schools on the North Shore and speak about my own mental health story and we provide education to the students. Our goal is to bring awareness to mental illnesses and reduce the stigma and fear around talking about mental health.
One of the people I share these talks with tells a story about her child. When her child became mentally ill, to the point that she was hospitalized there was another student at the same school with leukemia. For the student with leukemia people knew what to do to support – send flowers, cards, make meals etc… for her child, those things didn’t happen – no cards, no flowers, no comment at all.
She doesn’t tell this story because she’s angry or wants to make people feel guilty, but rather to simply point out that we, as a society, really have no idea how to respond to mental illnesses in the same way that we know what to do in the case of cancer, surgery, physical injury.
We might want to do something, but we question if it’s the right way to respond, we wonder – does the person want more attention drawn to themselves?
The stigma, the discomfort continues. As a person who has had some very serious rounds with depression and has watched my family struggle to cope when I’ve been unable to rise from my bed, seen the hardship on my family through the cloudy haze of my darkest moods – a casserole would have been very welcome.
When we visit the high schools we show them a video – I’d like to show it to you all now – Empathy video.
“I don’t know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.” If you take away only one thing from today, please take away that line. Put it in your back pocket, write it on a slip of paper and put it in your wallet – so if someone ever talks to you about feeling depressed, feeling anxious, feeling grief or any of the hard emotions we as humans don’t deal well with you can say that line.
Humans like to fix things. We think that being supportive is to fix, to help find an answer, help make it better and make the bad feelings go away – which is next to impossible – and at times can do more harm than good when someone discloses something hard and painful.
Humans want to be heard. We want to know that someone listened to what we had to say and wasn’t spending their time thinking about what their response would be. We want to know that someone empathizes with us, even if they don’t understand.
Because if you’ve never experienced severe depression, a heart stopping panic attack, a psychotic break from reality – you’re never going to understand what it feels like. And that’s ok, I’m actually pretty happy when I met people who have no idea what I’m talking about when I explain what these things feel like.
A couple weeks ago I found myself trying to explain what being suicidal felt like during one of our Death Cafe meetings. We’d been speaking of some of the recent celebrity suicides and there was a lot of conversation about ‘how could someone feel that helpless” “that lost” “that unable to ask for help” and I tried to explain how when you’re that deep in a depression deciding to take your own life can feel like the one way you can stop being helpless. It’s a way of taking back control of a situation that feels so beyond your control that it is a choice that is both unbelievably desperate and completely reasonable all at the same time.
For me, when I was at my worst, when my spirit was the most broken it had ever been ending the pain by dying felt like the most peaceful option. Perhaps I had a demon in me, whispering those thoughts. Maybe I was under the control of a demon. It would be nice to think it wasn’t ME thinking those things, making that choice.
And in a metaphorical sense getting help, getting better and doing the things that made my brain healthy again could be seen as ‘excising an inner demon’. This is language we still use: fighting our demons, battling inner demons – and from this perspective the idea of demon’s isn’t so bad.
In the story Jesus goes against convention and heals a non-jew of their demons. He steps forward towards the frightening, the unclean, the tormented and extends his hand. He shows empathy towards someone struggling.
And then there’s a little giggle as the demons ask Jesus to put them in the near by pigs. And another little laugh as the pigs act out of the ordinary and run down a hill and drown. The intensity of the situation is defused with a smile.
Early this week I was at Safeway picking up some things. As I stood in the line up, I noticed some pocket kleenex packages. They’re in bright colours and have little sayings on them. One said, “Happy tears, are the best tears,” which is kinda sweet.
This one says, “Hard Times call for a soft touch.” I was moved by this little saying. I found myself thinking about some of my darkest and hard times, times when I couldn’t stop crying, times when everything hurt so much and I found myself imaging someone sitting with me and my tears, saying the line, “I don’t know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.” and then handing me this little silly package of kleenex with this ridiculous marketing ploy on it, “Here, you need this.” the person says and I can’t help by smile, maybe even laugh.
The pain is still there, the hurt and the hardness is still there, but there’s empathy and a little laugh. It helps.
This theme of the outsiders reminds us that there are people in this world who feel on the ‘outside of things’ who feel that they don’t belong, be it because they feel unworthy, they feel lonely, they feel stigma and these stories in Luke remind us that Jesus focused the most on seeking them out, making time for them and welcoming them into his circle.
As people of Christ, as people who seek to follow the same path and seek to find the Christ light within ourselves and in others – today we’re invited the simple act of Empathy.