What Kind of Spirit was Jesus Casting Out?

wreckedTrees1When Jesus opened his teaching ministry, Mark says that the people were “astounded” because he taught them“as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mk. 1: 22) Oddly, Mark doesn’t include anything of what Jesus said. The Greek work exousia is much stronger than the English word that translates it. “Powerful authority” would bring us closer to the meaning. That Jesus’ teaching was not like that of the scribes doesn’t give us much more to go on as to the content, but it indicates that this authoritative teaching was distinct from those who were normally considered the teaching authorities.

However, Jesus did something. Dramatically. He cast out an unclean spirit. In our time, we have trouble understanding what this is about and how we might draw any practical teaching from it. We tend to dismiss unclean spirits as coming from a primitive mindset and bring the affliction up to date by considering it a psychological problem which sends the poor man to a treatment facility far way from us.

I suggest that René Girard’s teaching on what he called “mimetic desire” gives us a richer approach. Basically, Girard’s insight is that our desires do not originate from within ourselves but are derived from other people; we all resonate deeply with each others’s desires. This resonance is fruitful if one person’s enthusiasm for a song inspires me to like the song so that we both enjoy the song. This resonance is more threatening if all of my friends hate a song I like so that I begin to doubt that I liked the song after all. This resonance with the desires of another becomes more dangerous if it becomes rivalrous as it does if two people desire to write and sing the best song. Some rivalrous relationships are more or less a fair fight but many times it is not. A strong-willed person, especially one with social power, can impose his or her desire on another in destructive ways. This is what happens in childhood trauma. Girard also teaches that a whole society can unite in a desire to destroy a person which is not a fight at all but a demolition.

However we understand the possession of this man, it is the imposition of something alien and oppressive. This is what a supernatural spirit would have done and maybe that was the case. But Girard’s teaching of mimetic desire shows us how an alien invasion could have afflicted this man and created a state of bondage through human agency. We get an important clue as to the nature of this alien invasion when the unclean spirit says: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mk. 1: 24) We often think that Jesus told the unclean spirit to be silent because the spirit was correct and Jesus didn’t want people to know that yet. But Robert Hamerton-Kelly points out that the term “Holy One of God” refers to Israel’s priesthood. One of the main jobs of the priest was to expel anybody who was “unclean.” Jesus’ silences the unclean spirit, then, because the spirit is wrong. Jesus does not represent a priesthood who expels the “unclean.” Quite the opposite. Jesus is expelling the collective attitude that the man is unclean when it is the crowd’s spirit that has invaded the man and declared him unclean. By casting out this spirit, Jesus makes the man clean and so that he can rejoin the community. If the community accepts what Jesus has done.

The crowd confirms that casting out the unclean spirit is Jesus’ teaching when it asks: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mk. 1: 27) Jesus is not healing an individual; he is healing a community. Or, Jesus is giving the community the opportunity to be healed. For healing to take place, the community must renounce the rivalry that had been imposed on one vulnerable person. In his stimulating book The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan confirms the conflation of teaching and power in Jesus. (O’Donovan, 89) Picking up on the political aspect of exousia. O’Donovan goes on suggest that Jesus is using his authority to liberate Israel while treating “the fact of Roman occupation casually, with little respect and less urgency.” (O’Donovan, 93) That is, Jesus was focused on strengthening Israel rather than attacking the Roman Empire. Mark shows that Jesus’ liberation of Israel includes judging the leadership both of the teachers (the scribes) and the priests. Jesus’ action/teaching caused quite a sensation as word “spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee..” (Mk. 1: 28) A sensation is not the same as a healing. The excitement could easily be mistaken for a communal healing when it only reproduces the scapegoating process. We are left with the question of whether or not our communities accept the healing of Jesus where the unclean spirits of human persecution are cast out or if we will be swept away on the excitement of the crowd.

For an introduction to René Girard see: Violence and the Kingdom of God.

Possessed by God

treeBlossoming1The First Epistle of John overflows with declarations of God’s preemptive love: “not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn. 4: 10). This preemptive love of God is not just a vague benevolence but an action, and a sacrificial act at that. God did, and continues to act on our behalf. John goes on to describe God’s love as an abiding presence within us, what amounts to being possessed by God. Is this just an added treat in life? We can quickly see that being possessed by God is much more important than that. Many cases of possession of a different sort were recorded in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus cast many demons out from people who were possessed by them. Without necessarily ruling out a supernatural provenance for some of these possessions, it is helpful to remember that René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire shows us how we can become possessed by other people, especially in rivalrous situations. (See Human See, Human Want.) We only need to reflect on how strongly another person we are at odds with has taken over us to realize how much another person can possess us. Crowds of people easily become possessed as the story of the Gerasene demoniac and the Passion narratives suggest. If we put John’s teaching of God’s indwelling love together with demonic possession, we are confronted with the conclusion that we are going to be possessed by somebody. It is not possible to remain aloof from the intentions and desires of other people. They will possess us whether we like it or not. The question is: By whom are we possessed? Jesus’ little parable about the evil spirit that was cast out but returned to the house “swept clean” with seven spirits “more evil than itself” (Mt. 12: 44-45) teaches us that casting out the spirit who has possessed someone is not enough. We must become possessed by the Spirit of one who is full of love, One who is not in rivalry with us or with anybody else.

Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches in John 15 gives us another take on the importance of being possessed by God’s love. Once again, we have the language of mutual abiding. The branches depend on the vine for both their lives and the vitality that gives them the power to act and bear fruit. This image reminds us of other vineyards in scripture. There is the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5 which the owner prepared to bear good fruit, only to have it bear wild grapes. Jesus is surely referring to Isaiah’s song in his parable of the vineyard. The evil workers who killed the messengers and servants and then the owner’s son show us what a crowd possessed by rivalry looks like. Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches takes us much more deeply into the heart of this parable. The “wild grapes” who killed the owner’s son are branches that broke away from the vine. Having no life in them, they can only offer death to others. But if we do not break away, we are pruned of our competitive spirit so that we can bear fruit. Unlike the parable of the vineyard, the owner does not stop with laying out the groundwork; the owner continues to care for the vineyard over time, just as God sustains us so that we abide in God’s love and God’s love abides in us. This possession protects us from the possession of the persecutory crowd and frees us to bear fruit by acting on God’s preemptive love. This freedom opens our hearts and minds to discern what we can do with what resources we have to help others in need. This freedom is dangerous. It could strengthen us enough to follow Jesus into the depths of the collective evil spirit that had possessed the evil workers in the vineyard where Jesus pulled off the greatest exorcism of all time on the cross.

Dispossessing a Town Possessed: The Gerasene Demoniac

peacePole1The 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.