The story of the Gerasene demoniac and the herd of pigs running off a cliff bewilders modern readers. In his book The Scapegoat, René Girard offers an anthropological interpretation based on the concept of mimetic desire. According to this theory, the desires of all the people in any town, not just Geresa, are intertwined. That is all of the people are possessed by each other. If one person stands out as being “possessed,” that person is possessed by mimetic rivalries in the town that have reached (or sustain) a crisis level that is pushed into one victim, the “designated patient,” to use the term of Ed Friedman.
When Jesus and his disciples arrive on the scene, they are not greeted by the mayor or any of the “normal” people; they are greeted by the demoniac who begs Jesus not to torment him (them). That the demon(s) gives its name as “Legion” confirms that this man is possessed by the community, including political possession of the Romans as possession by an invader increases the tensions within a local community. The demoniac is regularly chained but regularly breaks free in a pattern that mimics the repetition of ritual. That is to say, this pattern represents the town’s sense of stability, much as the incarceration of multitudes of black youths from the ghettos gives the US a similar sense of stability today.
Jesus sends the demons into the herd of pigs that then runs off a cliff into the sea. We have here an interesting reversal of the scapegoating mechanism since usually it is the town that drives a single victim off the cliff, a fate Jesus has narrowly avoided himself. Upon seeing the formerly possessed clothed and in his right mind, the townspeople ask Jesus to leave. One would think that they would be happy to see a sick person cured and would ask Jesus to stay and cure everybody else of whatever ails them. But they don’t. Why? Because the people of the Gedarene region are not happy over being robbed of their victim. The demons requested that they not be expelled from the town because the people, possessed by their rivalries, wanted to remain possessed. When robbed of their victim, the possessed town implodes in its collective violence and becomes the sacrificial victim.
The anthropological dimension of this story can be seen more clearly by comparing it with the Samaritan woman at the well, which has none of these mythological trappings. It is the woman at the well, and not any of the other people of Sychar, who greet Jesus. The woman is alone at the most social place in town, an indication that the woman is the town’s scapegoat. There is no exorcism but the woman eventually becomes possessed by Jesus when she drinks the water he has to give, just as the Gerasene demoniac became possessed by Jesus. The woman goes to tell the townspeople about Jesus as the Gerasene demoniac was told to spread word of what Jesus had done in his own area. The story in Sychar has a happier ending in that the people come out to listen to Jesus, a mimetic process where they give up their collective victim in exchange for the water of rebirth that Jesus has to give. Perhaps this foretells a happier ending for Gerasa someday and a happier ending for our own society.