1. Gaslighting Jesus
As we bid the Gospel of John a fond farewell for now, we return to the Gospel of Mark. We move from the deliberative discourses of the Fourth Gospel to the structural sandwiches of the Second (aka First) Gospel. In John, Jesus discusses everything in minute, but cryptic, detail. In Mark, discussion is minimized, and secrets are multiplied. In short, the contrast in style between the gospel writers could not be much greater. We’re to be forgiven if it takes a week or two to adjust.
It should be clear that this reading contains far too much to tackle as a whole. The structural sandwich combines Jesus’ fraught relationship with his family (verses 21, 31-35) and the Beelzebul controversy with some scribes who come down from Jerusalem (verses 22-30) Part of the middle of the sandwich includes the mention of the “unforgivable sin” which has caused tender consciences no end of misery over the centuries.
We read this text about halfway between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, so it raises anxieties about Jesus and family relationships. We have just left Mental Health Awareness month in May, so the worry on the part of the family that Jesus is mentally ill may be more salient.
The “parable” which Jesus speaks about the house divided has its most famous application in a speech by Abraham Lincoln just prior to the American Civil War. The gaslighting by both the family and the scribes may touch all sorts of nerves for some people in our pews (and many of them will actually be there).
Jesus’ self-description is interesting here as well. He portrays himself as a thief who ties up the homeowner and plunders the household goods. The homeowner is Satan. Jesus’ move from his “given” family to his “chosen” family may sound familiar to many people and is not a ringing endorsement for the “Leave It to Beaver” values of the previous century.
In the midst of this, we must resist the temptation to become once again “second-article unitarians” who forget that the Holy Spirit (mentioned in verse 29) breathes into us, works through us, and lives among us. I know that I have often been guilty of treating the Spirit like a groundhog who comes out on Pentecost, sees her shadow, and only returns to our pulpits for baptisms and confirmations.
Maybe John’s Gospel wasn’t so bad after all. But thank you, Holy Spirit, for the imperfect instrument of a lectionary (of whatever sort) that refuses to let us off the hook. So, let’s dive in.
First, I want to review the plot and the place of our text in that plot. Mark 1:1-20 is the “prologue” to Mark’s gospel. It’s not the same kind of literature as John’s prologue, but it has a similar function. We get the purpose of Mark’s gospel, the conflict that drives the narrative, and most of the main players in the drama. Mark 1:21-3:25 contains a series of controversies and conflicts, some on sabbaths and in synagogues, some out on the road.
The climax of this section is Jesus’ appointing of his new “family” of disciples and his clear notice that the real conflict is with “the strong man,” Satan. The call of the twelve happens in Mark 3:7-19 as does the cry of the demons, identifying Jesus as the “Son of God.” Crowds are so numerous and demanding at this point that Jesus has to retreat to boats offshore to keep from being accosted or trampled.
“It seems that the defeat of evil spirits was for Mark the representative deed,” Larry Hurtado writes, “showing the authority of Jesus and the nature of the kingdom of God in action” (page 62). In an age when many of us find the imagery of demon possession to be off-putting at best, this is a significant challenge for preachers. How do we talk about one of the big themes in Mark without appearing to renounce reason and to accuse sufferers of being in league with the Devil?
Perhaps we can begin with the psycho-social dynamics of this text. Jesus’ behavior in performing signs, transgressing Sabbath laws, and reinterpreting traditional texts, has produced a predictable response. Some of the local people were saying that he was mentally unbalanced (if that’s the right translation of the term – see later posts). Religious authorities from Jerusalem who were policing his behavior accused him of sorcery and/or demon-possession.
Jesus’ family wants to take him in hand and restrain his reputation-damaging antics. The crowds want a more manageable status quo. The authorities want to sustain their power and keep at bay any threats from the Roman occupying forces. All three groups resort to a means of psychological and social control that we might describe as “gaslighting.”
Gaslighting is the practice of manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity rather than challenging the behavior of the manipulator. This is psychological abuse and social control. It hasn’t really occurred to me until now that this text may well be a triggering experience for people who have experienced such abuse and control in the past.
It’s not the first time I’m late to the awareness game. I suspect that hearing this story could re-traumatize someone with that experience. It makes me wonder if the public reading of this text should come with a content warning.
Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs explores this dimension of the text in a fine homily available online. “We have an undercurrent of worry” in this text, Griggs writes. “Jesus’ family is worried that he is about to make them the target of condemnation of the religious authorities. The religious authorities are worried a) that he will bring down the wrath of the Roman authorities, and b) that he is attacking their own authority and credibility. This,” she observes, “is a tight spot for everyone.”
Griggs’ description of the vise-like pressure applied to Jesus by this combination of family and authorities is helpful.
“It is a strategy of renaming what cannot otherwise be controlled. Renaming or labeling can be an act of uncreation—of dismantling someone’s core identity by distorting it. It is a strategy of sowing doubt in the community. The strategy of Jesus’ family and the Scribes is that if they label Jesus, he becomes that label in the eyes of others. He becomes Lunatic. Possessed. And when, in the eyes of others, he becomes Lunatic—when he becomes Possessed, he becomes less than human. And thus, easier to marginalize and control.”
Why was it necessary, from the perspective of the crowd, the family, and the authorities, to marginalize and control Jesus? From the crowd’s perspective, he didn’t fit acceptable categories and stereotypes. And it seemed that Jesus’ power over demonic forces made him scary and unpredictable. From the family’s perspective, he was drawing unwanted attention to himself (and thus, to them), and they didn’t want the risk. From the authorities’ perspective, he was connecting exorcism with a new regime, the Kingdom of God. He was destabilizing the political accommodation that kept the Romans from reacting with violence.
In fact, social scientists suggest that “demonic possession” was a first-century way to manage and accommodate the incredible stresses and tensions of life under Roman occupation. Guijarro points out that this reality was a sort of pressure-release valve in that setting. Attributing the chaos and disruption people experienced to supernatural forces allowed for a kind of homeostasis that maintained order. If disruptors could be labelled and marginalized as crazy, possessed, and evil, then no one had to think about changing the structures of society.
It’s no stretch at all to connect these dynamics to events and behaviors in local congregations and broad denominations. How do we react when someone brings new and disorienting ideas, information, actions, and visions? “That’s just crazy talk!” is more than a comedian’s cliché. It’s a way to push disruptors to the margins. If that doesn’t work, then we begin to attribute far more sinister energies and motives to Others. I was astounded at the number of times in congregational conflicts that people on one side would refer to people on the other side as possessed, demonic, or evil.
Guijarro offers this summary of Jesus’ response to the gaslighting.
“The responses of Jesus to the accusation of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul reveal that he never accepted this interpretation. He fought against it in every possible way and unveiled the real meaning and purpose of his exorcisms. Coherent with his culture’s perspective on nature, which included non-visible, person-like beings to explain certain effects, Jesus explained that he was possessed by the Spirit of God and that in his dealings with those possessed by demons he was engaged in a cosmic war against Satan. Victory over Satan was the sign of the dawning of God’s rule. The sign of the coming of God’s reign was the restoration to society of those who were at the margins. Jesus called them to be part of a new family together with him and his followers, and this was highly disruptive.”
Griggs puts it more succinctly and in interpersonal terms. “Jesus’ blunt words have turned the strategy of uncreating on its head. He has taken aim at a fundamental Jewish institution—the nuclear and extended family—and he renames it and extends it even further–drawing the circle wider, not more tightly. In response to others’ efforts to uncreate him,” she concludes, “he refuses to be gaslighted, instead opening his arms in an embrace of the crowd and declaring the presence of the Kingdom; Here, THIS is my family. God’s family. The family created by the power of Love.”
Well, that’s a rollicking start to a wild and woolly text, eh?
References and Resources
Guijarro, Santiago. “The Politics of Exorcism: Jesus’ Reaction to Negative Labels in the Beelzebul Controversy.” https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/30239993/1999__Guijarro__Exorcism-Beelzebul.pdf?1353730298=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DThe_Politics_of_Exorcism_Jesus_Reaction.pdf&Expires=1622209905&Signature=ZVadoEoDb-kqMkfEwrdxjnnTeCLdTtkU0MwKpTCy4G3iEZGNcYSXFAZL033OpQBtWTr69blZOLxZ7wyOs4BY2TE7~QMjbhMb6uu9M~3NwS81Hj9cw2lOsOTrf8GilWS5CGAIclR9ntJHzpI39PohmVXeY3nNp~1TwkhxNif1-yPQjcM8cKbzTJpymVxvYGMyY4hMTOM4fkArz2qE7fEBaaSJit4QjhCBUB9-HBDd04-9JeU7dP57KYZYZQ8eUkVt5XH7jlgSDVbrOTdWf4MvVV04kaT-OoSdbqm-34EFO7JqSmNmq2ol-ur5PeVl2zpwyCbmJLEFzP4iSvTx82GGMw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Griggs, Linda Mackie. “Gaslighting Jesus.” https://relationalrealities.com/2018/06/10/gaslighting-jesus/.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.