The release, a fortnight or so ago, of a report into the problems of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities, exposed a situation that I think we can only describe as a national shame. A lot of it, of course, was nothing really new – the problems of unemployment and boredom, glue sniffing and alcohol abuse have been well-documented, we knew about the appalling levels of domestic violence in remote communities – but I guess the report entitled ‘Little Children are Sacred’ shocked us all over again. Because the reality, it seems, across much of outback
Luke’s gospel tells the story today of Jesus’ trip across the
The second thing is to notice that Jesus sees the whole person underneath the seething conflict of the forces pulling him apart. However we think about the demons who have taken up residence in him, it is clear that this man is alienated and split off from his own centre. It sounds like a very modern condition, the divided and distracted self that has lost its moorings in the divine, pulled this way and that by forces it has no control over. In expelling the demons, Jesus reminds us of the divine will for wholeness that is always at work in us, whatever our circumstances, if only we are prepared to take notice. Maybe this morning’s story of Elijah tells us how to do that: we recover our equilibrium, and remember our connection to God, not in the busyness of life, not by listening to the loudest voices around us or by watching the most impressive displays but by attending to the stillness and the silence of God, and by reflecting on the question we hear in it: ‘what’s actually important? what are you actually doing here?’
But I think we can take the story a bit further than that. There’s another aspect of the demonic that it tells us about. Because Bible scholars tell us that this story, the way Mark and Luke hand it down to us, has got a few not so subtle clues built in that Jewish Christians especially would have noticed. This foray of Jesus into Gentile territory, the backdrop of a cemetery which Jewish people thought of as the abode of spirits and a source of ritual uncleanness, the comic image of demons sent packing firstly into a herd of pigs – regarded by Jews as unclean – and then stampeding into the deep waters of the lake which in Jewish folklore represented the forces of chaos – Jewish Christians would see this as an epic tale of the holiness of Jesus coming into contact with a whole range of potent symbols of unholiness, which promptly self-destruct. The fact that the ancient town of
This I think is the second really important thing about the truly demonic – which you’ll have realised by now I’m carefully distinguishing from the superstitious variety – as well as being that which robs human beings of their God-given identity, the power of the demonic is that it has a life of its own. It overwhelms human life because it is bigger than the individual. Which is why, for example, we used to talk about the demon drink. In the tragedy of remote Aboriginal communities the demonic takes the form of drug and alcohol abuse, addiction to pornography and glue-sniffing, the smouldering mood of resentment and boredom that spills over into violence and sexual abuse. We have to be careful when we name these things as demonic because what we have to be clear about, always, is where the responsibility for evil really lies. Naming social evils as demonic doesn’t take away the responsibility from perpetrators. But the advantage of naming these things as demonic is that we begin to recognise the structural sources of evil in the external circumstances, and the political and historical forces that have power over peoples’ lives.
So, what’s to be done about it? If the truly demonic is just as much at home in the 21st century as it was in the first, where’s the good news in this story for us? Is it just meant to impress us as part of the general miraculousness of Jesus’ career? Or are we actually claiming that Jesus still brings about a confrontation with the powers that hold people captive? Are we actually claiming that Jesus in some way can defeat the demonic circumstances of our own lives and the lives of other people in the world we live in? Because if so, it begs the question – how? What’s the good news in today’s gospel for Aboriginal children living the demonic nightmare of sexual exploitation?
I hope you’ll forgive me for having to admit that I don’t know. The timetable of God’s promises does defeat our expectations. Except that what we proclaim about Jesus makes a claim on our own lives. If we look carefully, we see in this story a clue about how we ourselves might be transformed, and how we might learn to be a transforming community. Maybe that’s what it’s really all about. Jesus recognises a kinship and a connection with people who his culture would have told him didn’t matter. The story makes an important point – one that you and I mostly take for granted but that first century Jewish Christians were struggling to accept – that Gentiles matter, that Gentiles also belong. Compassion, in other words, doesn’t recognise geographic or ethnic boundaries. The compassion of God that travels outwards to wherever we are, that we see modelled for us in Jesus. The sort of compassion that refuses to believe there are some people who just have to get left out.
It’s worth a try.