Jesus and his disciples enter occupied territory. Alien forces had controlled the land of the Gerasenes for three hundred years. The territory was overwhelmed first by the unstoppable power of Alexander the Great. He created ten Greek cities in the region. Alexander filled those cities with retired Greek soldiers. Those soldiers brought their own courts, currency and culture. They sought to civilize this barbarian wilderness, using force whenever necessary.
The land, of course, was not empty. The Jewish natives had to be moved and removed. The Greeks saw these natives as backward and boorish, stupid and superstitious. The natives were beneath contempt and beyond concern. Moving them was no problem–no problem, that is, for the Greeks. After the Greeks came the Romans. And the tyranny continued.
White Americans need only to remember the Trail of Tears or the Wounded Knee Massacre. Then we can glimpse how wrong the Greeks were, and how wrong forced removal is today. We witness the legacies of destroyed communities, desecrated lands, and generations of poverty and addiction. These are the results of forced removal. Occupation requires displacement. Displacement produces disease. That disease is physical, mental, spiritual, social and cultural.
Jesus and his disciples enter occupied territory. Immediately they meet one of the victims of displacement. He is possessed by the demons of dispossession, driven mad by grief and rage. He wanders among the tombs, perhaps remembering family and friends murdered by the masters. He is naked to the world, stripped of his dignity and identity. Local authorities try to restrain him. But his pain is more powerful than chains. Now, his mind is occupied territory.
Worst of all, the demons have stolen his name. “Legion” may simply describe the division of devils who own his sanity. It is also the name for a Roman division of six thousand soldiers. When the man meets Jesus, the demons use a verb for armies meeting in battle. When the demons seize the man, the verb is one used when prisoners are taken into custody. The words for the hand and foot chains describe the shackles worn by convicts.
The man has no name except the one his oppressors permit. Every word he speaks is an echo of life under occupation.
The man is captive to mental illness. But what causes the sickness? We struggle to understand. We live in a culture that insists on the separation of mind and body. We know how to deal with a broken leg. We avert our eyes when we meet a broken mind.
But mental illness is not just in our heads. It is in our bodies and our spirits and our communities and our culture. Our mental health resources–impoverished as they are–cannot keep pace with increasing numbers of PTSD cases, many suffered by veterans returning from war. Anxiety, depression and suicide–the illnesses of despair–track precisely with the increasing brutality of our political culture. Abuse produces addiction as a strategy for masking and medicating personal pain.
We live in a culture that creates damaged veterans, terrified youth and people made desperate by powerlessness. Those who struggle with mental illness carry the symptoms of our social sickness. We manage our moral failings by blaming the victims. We, too, live in occupied territory. We, too, are named “Legion.”
What does our faith say to us today? In Luke, chapter four, Jesus lays out his mission plan. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he reads from the prophet Isaiah, “to proclaim release to the captives and…to let the oppressed go free…” Jesus invades the occupied Gerasene territory to continue that mission. Jesus invades the occupied territory of the nameless man’s broken mind to continue that mission. Jesus invades the occupied territory of our captured hearts to continue that mission.
We are captive to sin, we confess in our liturgy, and cannot free ourselves. Our liturgy is our plea to be set free. We too are possessed by the demons of dispossession. We wander among the tombs of resentment and regret, frustration and failure. We are naked to the powers of sin, death and the devil, stripped of our dignity and identity. Our hearts and our spirits are occupied territory.
I declare to you the good news of liberation. “As many of you as were baptized in Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Children of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. In that freedom, we can sit at Jesus’ feet every day, clothed in the mind of Christ.
The devil’s deepest desire is to possess human hearts. We can be stripped of our identity, sapped of our sanity, deprived of our names. Mental illness is one symptom of Satan’s oppression. We live in a time when our ability to treat such illness is greater than it has ever been. It is not the resources we lack. It is adequate access to those resources that impoverishes our mental health system.
But the insanities of racism, poverty, privilege and violence point to a far deeper madness. Even when our hearts are set free, we live in occupied territory. On a daily basis, the powerful tell us to doubt the testimony of our senses. When we see obvious oppression, we are ordered to blame the victim. Weakness and disability are mocked. Raising questions is treated as treason. Evidence is suppressed and investigators
are unemployed. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Victims of abuse will tell you that systematic disinformation can cause us to doubt our own sanity. I do not find it surprising in such a time as this that rates of mental disorder are increasing. Disturbed hearts and minds mirror the chaos around us.
Jesus invades occupied territory and takes no prisoners. He brings good news to the poor. He proclaims release to the captives. He gives sight to the blind. He lets the oppressed go free. He proclaims the beginning of God’s reign of justice and peace. That message is the real source of healing for body, mind and spirit, for community, country and culture.
Will you and I look for ways to invade the occupied territory around us and to speak those words of freedom?