Saturday, June 23, 2007

Pentecost 4

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 Australia is that children have been treated as anything but.  And so, yesterday, when I opened the newspaper to read the Prime Minister’s announcement of a massive intervention, strict community policing and the banning of alcohol and pornography, compulsory medical checks for all children in remote communities and the withholding of welfare payments from families who fail to send their kids to school – I think there might be huge problems in implementing it and part of me thinks a return to the bad old days of treating Aboriginal people like children might bring about problems of its own, but you have to cheer the attempt.  What’s at stake is an entire generation that has lost not only its way but its identity.  A whole generation defined by the interlocking logic of problems that seem to have a power and a life of their own.  I guess we can only wait and see – and pray that the Government’s new approach is going to free the people of outback Australia from their demonic dreamtime, instead of adding yet another layer of compulsion and resentment to the mix.

Luke’s gospel tells the story today of Jesus’ trip across the Sea of Galilee into what Jewish people would have seen as the moral and spiritual darkness of Gentile territory - where he deals with a bad case of demon possession.  It’s one of those stories where we need to take into account the difference between our own worldview and the worldview of the first century, where demons and good as well as evil spirits were thought to take possession of people fairly routinely.  Certainly, a lot of what passes for demon possession in the Bible we would probably think of today as mental illness, and so this story of Jesus having compassion on this unfortunate man and expelling his unwelcome psychological tenants can be a real word of hope for people who suffer from depression or anxiety.  God’s intention is for human beings to be whole and free.  The authority that Jesus shows over the evil spirits reminds us that what is sometimes too hard for us is never too hard for God.  The self-defeating habits of mind, ways in which human beings limit their own potential through negative self-talk, the unwanted baggage of failure or rejection or shame left over from some ancient episode that we mistakenly believe is who we really are – these things are demonic in the true sense of the word because they rob us of our true selves.  And so the first thing Jesus does is to force the demons to name themselves – the identity of the man in this story is so submerged that he can no longer even give himself a real name – he can only name himself as the mob battling for control within and over him. 

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 Gerasne was actually about 60km from the Sea of Galilee tips us off that there’s been a bit of poetic licence in the retelling.  Or else that the pigs had a mighty long run.  But here’s the underlying joke – the name the demons give themselves - Legion – isn’t a numerical reference, it’s actually the name for one of the armies of ancient Rome – the one stationed in Palestine, in fact, which carried on its standard the picture of a wild boar.  It’s as if the story is reminding us that the external circumstances that control peoples’ lives can be every bit as demonic as the internal ones – certainly Jews in the first century would have had no trouble seeing the presence of Roman troops in the same terms as the madness of demonic possession. 

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.