Naming Demons, Facing Fear

You can read the scripture for June 19, 2016 here.



Did you know there are absolutely no instances of demon possession in the Hebrew scripture, the Tanakh? There are a few evil spirits, but they’re usually just causing jealousy or vengeance. Some are even said to be sent by God to false prophets… so they will then fool King Ahab, Jezebel’s husband…. Complicated. But in the Hebrew Bible, there aren’t any instances of demonic possession and certainly no examples of exorcism, the casting out of the demons that possess people.

Yet the first three Gospels are full of people possessed by demons! Even the Pharisees had their own guild of exorcists, and Jesus gives his apostles power and authority to cast out demons. And later in Luke, the apostles come across a freelance exorcist using Jesus’ name without permission. But Jesus tells them bootleg versions of his exorcisms are fine; it’s all good, he says.

So I was struck by this: in Hebrew scripture, there is no evidence of demonic possession or any practice of exorcism, yet by the first century, Jesus and the Pharisees and all the crowds and the worried family members: they all seem to understand demonic possession as — usually — just another in a long line of possible ailments. You’ve got your blindness, your hemorrhaging, your demonic possession, your orthopedic problems… You know, the usual.

But even in today’s story from Luke, which is maybe among the more cinematic exorcisms Jesus performed, we can recognize the rough outlines of what this guy suffers from. Luke doesn’t use the terms from the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but after just one convulsive treatment, followed by a session of talk therapy, this demon-possessed man in Gerasa goes from being the crazy, barely dressed guy you avoid on the subway platform to being the somewhat less crazy, badly dressed guy on the plane in the seat next to you who wants to tell you all the great things Jesus has done for him here take this pamphlet!

We all get that we are a more scientifically advanced people than the first-century Gerasenes. It sounds barbaric and primitive to our modern ears that they used chains and a guard to bring this man’s demons under control, whereas we now have antipsychotics and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors to prescribe.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment on their brutal, backward ways.

In our own city, one jail — Rikers Island — is the largest mental health facility in the state, holding more prisoners with serious mental illnesses than there are patients in all of New York State’s mental hospitals combined.

In the U.S., a seriously mentally ill person is 10 times more likely to be in jail or prison than in a state mental institution.

And when people with a serious mental illness encounter police officers, for any reason or in any way, they’re 16 times more likely to be injured or killed than other people — unless the officers have also been trained as first-responders to people in a serious mental crisis. Examples and studies show that when police are trained to talk the mentally ill off that metaphoric ledge, the number and severity of bad and violent outcomes go way, way down.

My point is that we may call these diseases in the Gospels by new names, and we may have medications and therapies for them, but because we’re afraid of them, we still often treat the people possessed by them like demoniacs, the same way the Gerasenes did 2,000 years ago: in chains and under guard.

And — while the modern scientific method doesn’t have much use for personifying and anthropomorphizing the things it’s studying or treating — personally, I’m comfortable with people demonizing diseases, whether they want to call their personality disorder “Legion” or their cancer “Adolf”: whatever works to help them understand that it’s not them, it’s something affecting and hurting them, and showing all of us there’s more work to be done to bring about the Kingdom of God.

It’s not just these things like full-blown psychosis or Stage IV cancer, either. Anyone who has spent time in 12 Step group meetings for alcoholism or addiction is familiar with the characterization: “I have a disease that wants me dead.”

Or, to acknowledge it wouldn’t take very many days or drinks for our lives to spin out of control all over again, sometimes we’ll say, “While I’m sitting in here in a 12 Step meeting, my disease is out there in the parking lot, doing pushups.”

It keeps it real — in a way that discussing dopamine levels and opioid receptors just wouldn’t.

So I haven’t been diagnosed with this particular Legion demon we heard about, but I have this other disease of alcoholism that wants me dead. Until about four and a half years ago, I was too afraid to name it for what it was. It was just another reason to hate myself.

Because, see, I also take medication for depression. I’ve taken it for years — and I was amazed to find out how much better the antidepressants work when I’m not diluting them with alcohol. But last year, my psychiatrist and I thought I might take a break from that prescription for a few months, in order to, you know: reboot it. Or reboot me.

It kind of made some sense at the time. But I will say now that the cloud of doom and self-annihilation that hung over me this time a year ago was easily bad enough to give that demon a name I can’t repeat in church. As the writer and priest Barbara Crafton said about the worst of her own depression: “I don’t ever want to feel that way again.”

So, yeah: I’ve got demons that want me dead.

And as we saw in Orlando last week, sometimes other people’s demons want me dead, too.

We’re actually having political and social media arguments over the names to give last weekend’s demons. Some people want to yoke the second largest religion in the world to it — the experience of God for one-quarter of the world’s people! — and name that demon “radical Islam.”

Others of us hear that and just can’t square it with the religion of the poet Rumi, of the boxer and fighter for conscience Muhammed Ali, of the young Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai — any more than we can hear about the Aryan Nations or the Ku Klux Klan and euphemistically agree to call them “White Christian Separatists.” C’mon! The Mennonites are Christian Separatists; the Sufis practice radical Islam. The Aryan Nations and ISIS are just very real hate hanging off of very false faith.

At least for us here today, whatever our orientation, I bet the minute we heard about the dance club where this shooting took place, we all knew one name for this demon was obviously “homophobia.” Now we’re hearing that maybe it was something instead of or in addition to that led to the worst mass shooting in American history. Maybe it was “internalized” homophobia … which — oh… — is certainly a demon that I picked up early in Oklahoma and then spent way too many years with, even after I moved to New York. Like major depression, that’s another feeling I never want to feel again. Maybe “internalized homophobia” is redundant. Or maybe hate is sometimes just an intransitive verb.

Whatever the demons are called, they’re clearly comorbid with our national addiction to the cheap and easy access of assault rifles — the name the Nazis first gave them, by the way, speaking of names.

Does it even make a difference if we identify the demons that possessed a native New Yorker to rain down death in a dance club in Orlando? Maybe. We’re going to discuss things like that at a forum following this service, and everyone is encouraged to stay. In today’s reading, Jesus wants to hear the demons’ named. If only so he can use his power to cast them out.

There’s one condition or disability mentioned in this story in Luke that Jesus doesn’t heal, though. And in general, I notice, he can’t ever seem to heal it just by himself, all on his own. That’s fear. Here the very vocal and important Gerasa Council of Pork Producers see what’s happened and they are “seized with great fear.” Jesus can heal a demoniac without his or her participation and, in other cases, he can do it even from a distance, but he can’t simply heal the people’s fear.

As we heard, Jesus and his disciples come to the Gerasene countryside by boat, across the Sea of Galilee. (I hear there’s a lovely old cemetery worth visiting near Gerasa.)

It was on this trip, in Luke immediately before our reading today, when the wind picked up and the waves started to wash over the boat, and the disciples woke Jesus up, terrified they were going to drown. He rebuked them for their lack of faith, he rebuked the wind and the waves, and everything and everyone calmed down. But he can’t just erase the disciples’ fear from their hearts. He can command even the wind and the water, but not the faith of his closest friends, who know him and love him the most.

It happens again and again. People get visited by angels and the first words they hear are “Fear not!” Obviously the natural reaction to seeing an angel, or God’s healing power, or a resurrected savior is one of abject terror. Sometimes Jesus calms down the external cause of fear; sometimes — like the earth-wind-and-fire special effects that Elijah witnessed — you just have to wait it out.

There’s obviously the respectful, awestruck “fear of the Lord” that is a sign of piety in the Bible. But Jesus always asks us — well, often he gets bossy and orders us — to not let our fear get in the way. He’s like Cher in “Moonstruck”: “Snap out of it!” He can work wonders, but if all we can contribute is our fear and useless anxiety, then he might as well get back in the boat and head home.

So, yeah, I’m an alcoholic. I was in the closet for at least 20 years. I’ve got depression — it probably seems like I’m ready to cop to just about any demon that shows up in my Google search history.

But the truth is, even when I can clearly identify them, I’m not always ready for Jesus to cast out my demons. Like the people of Gerasa, I’ve numbed myself to the status quo, the political stalemate, so that when Jesus shows up, I can even mistake him as the threat. I often feel I’m the one shouting: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!”

So Jesus approaches me carefully, hands out and upraised. Going by the manual, he says the things you’re supposed to say to calm down the guy who’s out of control: “I’m here to help you. Don’t be afraid,” he says.

Perhaps most importantly, he quietly says to me — me, who’s crazy with fear, standing there naked among graves and tombs and horrible headlines and victim after victim after victim after victim of other people’s demons: “So, yeah, I’m Jesus. What’s your name?”

Now, Jesus knows my name is Derek. It’s on my birth certificate, it’s on my marriage certificate. He heard a minister at Lowman Memorial Methodist Church in Topeka, Kansas, call me Derek when I was baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (It was pretty old school, so he probably said “Holy Ghost.”)

And Jesus also knows me as DAB, which some friends call me, since that’s just how I’ve always signed emails, with my initials: D-A-B. (Yes, Jesus apparently hacked into my server and has read my email.)

And Jesus calls me and knows me just as “D,” since that’s the name my niece calls me — because that’s what her father, my brother, called me, all the way back to before he was able to say my full name.

This Jesus, he knows our names, he calls us each by name, by all the names by which we’re loved. But when I’m possessed by the demons and seized by fear, Jesus still asks: “What’s your name?”

He wants me to hear it. He’s trying to remind me that my name is not “Legion.” Or “Jack Daniels.” Or “Idiot.” Or “Faggot.” Or “Loser.” Those are just the names of some of the demons he wants to cast out of me.

Jesus calls me “Friend,” he calls me “Beloved.” He calls you “Beloved.” He calls us “Whole.” He calls us “Healed.”

So to distract me at least enough so that he can perform this unscheduled exorcism, so that the wind in my head and the waves of fear in my heart can subside, maybe Jesus even says something like: “Listen to me; you don’t need to be afraid, no matter what happens. I, Son of the Most High God, I call you by name — and you are loved.

“Now, see those pigs over there? Stay calm. But just keep your eye on them.

“We’re about to turn this whole town kosher.”

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