by Isaac S. Villegas
June 23, 2013
The possessed man is set free, healed, clothed and in his right mind, and the people are afraid. “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them,” the text says, “for they were seized with great fear.”
They see a man who had been in chains and shackles, tormented by a demonic presence, a man who had lived among the tombs, wild and naked — now they see him restored. But the people don’t rejoice. They don’t celebrate. Instead, they are afraid, seized with a great fear, it says. Jesus returns the man to village life and the people panic.
We are not told what this man has done to deserve violent restraints. We don’t know why the authorities lock him up. We don’t know the danger he poses. We don’t know his name, his story, or his crime. All we know is that the people like to keep him close, him and his demons, to keep all of them in the city, under the authority of guards, of officers. He isn’t banished. He isn’t sent into exile. Instead, he is kept in the city, for people to see, to examine, to pass by. But he would escape, every once in a while, in a jailbreak of sorts, and spend time alone in the wilderness. That’s the routine: capture and escape, capture and escape. “He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles,” it says, “but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.”
When Jesus comes to town, the man is living among the dead, in the cemetery. Actually, the text is more explicit than that: it says, “He did not live in a house but in the tombs.” He lives in tombs. The dead are his companions. He is a living corpse, reeking of death, of contamination and disease. He is unclean.
When he sees Jesus, the man bows down — an act of abasement, of degradation, of submission, and he says to Jesus: “I beg you, do not torment me,” “do not torture me.” The greek word is Basanidzo: to subject to punitive judicial procedure, to punish, to torture. It has to do with law enforcement, with judgment and punishment, with official beatings. The man sees Jesus and begs Jesus not to torture him, perhaps because that’s what he’s used to, that’s what usually happens to him when people pay him a visit — they punish him.
But that’s not what Jesus does. Instead, Jesus asks him his name. The man has a name — he’s a person, a human being, deserving a respect and honor. “What is your name?” Jesus asks. Jesus invites the back and forth of conversation, of communication and mutuality, a relationship between “I and thou” as the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once put it — the intimacy of dialogue, of acknowledging someone else as a “you,” a “thou”: “Who are you?” “What’s your name?” Despite being dehumanized, despite being shackled and chained, Jesus treats the man as a you, not an it, not someone to be talked about, in the third person — he, she, it, that wild man, that demoniac — not someone to be talked about, but someone to talk with, someone worthy of a relationship. “What is your name?” Jesus says.
The man tries to respond but he can’t, he doesn’t have a voice, his voice is not his own — someone, something speaks for him, instead of him, keeping him anonymous, without a name, without the sense of personhood that comes with a name. “I am Legion,” it says. The demon speaks in the language of the Roman military, the occupying force in the land. A legion is a regiment of soldiers, 5,000 soldiers, perhaps 6,000. The point is that the man is overwhelmed with a multitude of impersonal forces, oppressive spirits, powers that try to eat away at his humanity, to strip away his dignity. He is an image, a picture, a microcosm of an oppressed people, rendered voiceless.
That’s what the demonic is: a force of subjugation, a power of domination, of slavery, of chains and shackles and handcuffs.
A few months ago I was at Central Prison, being escorted up the long, wide passageway that connects all the units of the prison. Doors, made of thick plexiglass and metal, opened and closed as we walked, operated by someone somewhere, watching us with cameras. As we entered one section of the passageway, the door closed behind us and to our left, another door slid open, the door to Unit 1, also called the segregation unit or close custody. The prisoners call it “the hole.” Unit 1 is solitary confinement, where prisoners are isolated from the rest of the population, each person kept in a concrete cell, 80-square feet. They are let out for one hour per day, to walk around in a recreation cage. They are allowed three 10-minute showers per week.
I stood with my escort as five or six guards walked with a man from Unit 1. The prisoner was in what’s called “full restraints” — wrists handcuffed together in front of him, connected to a chain belt around his waist and the shackles on his ankles. He was naked, except for what looked like a tight mini-skirt, made out of white plastic, like the kind of trash bag we use in our kitchen.
As he shuffled passed us, our eyes met. He looked into me with a blank stare, an emptiness that, I imagine, mirrored the isolation of the hole, the isolation of solitary confinement, the emptiness of staring at a concrete wall for 23 hours a day. As the man passed us, my escort told me that the prisoner was on his way to the mental health unit.
Recently, the news broke that guards have been beating prisoners in Unit 1, routinely. The accounts of abuse, of torture, are too disturbing for me to repeat.
All I’ll say is that a group of guards, who called themselves the “A-Team,” would take advantage of blind spots in the facility, where there weren’t any cameras. For the prisoners, stuck with the A-Team, their only break from maltreatment was to escape for a few days, maybe a week, to the mental health unit, where they would be placed under the supervision of doctors and nurses, people who cared about their wellbeing. The only catch, for the prisoners, was they had to convince the guards in Unit 1 that they needed to be sent to mental health. You can only imagine what they had to do to themselves to be convincing, which is, I think, how we can begin to talk about demonic possession — where the powers of domination, of dehumanization, become so oppressive, so overwhelming, that a person can’t help but internalize them, they can’t help but internalize the forces of torment all around them, internalize the voices and chains and police batons and pepper spray that tell them that they are nothing, that they are not as human as the rest of us, that they are living corpses, that they belong in the hole, that they deserve to live in a tomb.
When Jesus arrives on the scene, the man is set free from demons — healed, it says — and restored to his home in the city, but he doesn’t want to stay there. Why would he? After all, those were the people who locked him up, the people who tormented him in public. But Jesus asks him to stay and bear witness to what is possible, to bear witness to new life, to let his healed body, his restored life, open up a new imagination for the people in his hometown, of a new way of life together, a new vision for being together, without chains and shackles, without torture as punishment, without beatings.
The part of the story that should trouble us the most is that, when the man is healed, the people are overcome with fear and ask Jesus to leave — they are afraid, city people like us, ordinary people, going to work, spending time with friends, raising children. Jesus’ act of grace disturbs the order of the city, the people’s way of life, their sense of safety. After all, how do they know that the man won’t relapse? Once a demoniac, always demoniac. Once a criminal, always a criminal. Violence is a condition of the mind, they say, something always there, perhaps in remission, but ready to take over in the heat of the moment. The last thing we want, I imagine, is for that man, locked up, living in a tomb, to move in next door, supposedly changed, healed, different, but with a history of being unstable and dangerous.
But that’s what Jesus does: Jesus invites him to be our neighbor, and we are left wondering what will happen to us, to our society that depends on handcuffs and legalized violence and prisons that feel like tombs.
“Then all the people asked Jesus to leave,” it says, “for they were seized with a great fear.”