or “Telling of the great things that the Lord has done for us…”
Recent events have provided me with an opportunity to reflect again on the dangers of being controlled by the crowd, of being conformed to the spirits of our age rather than allowing our minds to be transformed by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Two weeks ago in the revised Orthodox liturgical calendar we read Luke’s version of Jesus’ encounter with the demoniac who was possessed by Legion, so called because the forces that were driving this poor man were many. The timing was providential, reminding me of the readings offered by René Girard and subsequent adaptions by theologian James Alison.
My parish priest acknowledged the incredulity with which modern people look on stories of demonic possession. We have largely substituted psychological and biochemical narratives for older explanations of strange and destructive behavior. But inwardly I smiled as he attempted to steer the story onto more comfortable ground.
I know what it’s like to be run by a crowd that attempts to shape my narrative,
driving me on toward acts of self-destruction.
Girard is no metaphysician. His explanation brackets supernatural forces to examine the anthropological elements in the gospel’s account. A member of a group, chosen by his whole town, is driven out and bound in chains. Though he breaks his initial bonds, he still runs naked among the tombs and hurts himself. The demoniac has internalized his community’s narrative. He believes that he is bad, that he deserves exile, and that as long as he stays away, the rest of the community lives at peace.
Alison adds a new layer to the story, connecting it with the all-to-familiar dynamic of self-destructive behaviors among gays and the responses of their Christian communities:
The very fact of the evil acting-out reinforces our adherence to the belief structure offered by the group: the group can explain it, make it seem tolerable, even forgive it on occasion, because it actually contributes to making what they claim to be good appear to be, in fact, good. If you only know being gay as a series of sordid, furtive, highly-sexualized sorties from “normal life,” where you are constantly ambushed by guilt, then you will consent to the group definition, and agree with them that since this is what being gay is all about, the group’s portrayal of it as the dark side of normal life is right. A bit of will-power and all will be OK. Perhaps this is why so many closeted gay people in religious organizations are so prone to persecuting other gay people, because their goodness, and hence their belonging, depend on their having agreed to displace, and expel as evil, part of their being, an expulsion which needs constant reinforcement, a sacrifice which needs constant repetition (Alison, 129).
We demoniacs learn to turn our destructive impulses on ourselves, acting out in ways that are harmless to the group that defines us. In the Gospel account, Jesus disrupts this unconscious pact between the demoniac and his community. Rather than buying into the narrative and leaving him alone as the demoniac requests, Jesus looks at the man and exorcises his demons. Ever so gently Christ begins to provide a new identity, one rooted in relationship with him.
The townspeople are afraid. They ask Jesus to leave! As long as they have a demoniac to label as bad, they can call themselves good. But the formerly possessed man, now “clothed and in his right mind,” upsets the system by which the townspeople define their own self-worth.
The demoniac wants to leave with Jesus. But Alison notes this runs the risk of looking like expulsion from the community. It would be indistinguishable from the normal scapegoating mechanism by which we unconsciously pick out the evil-doers we will hold responsible for all the ills of our group, heap our scorn and contempt upon them, and drive them out. (In archaic societies, Girard notes that we used to kill our scapegoats. This still happens in some situations, where a unanimous group finds them guilty of crimes deserving death.
Instead of taking the man away from his community, Jesus gives him a new task:
Go and tell of all the good things that the Lord has done for you.
What a hard thing! The crowd certainly doesn’t want to hear it. Their reactions can be dismissive and cruel. Sometimes they even drive you away when you no longer play the part they’ve given you. But this is the way that God often works, leaving those who have received healing in the midst of the group, witnesses to the power of God.
In the same week we revisited this story, Fr. Robert Arida published an essay on the “Wonder” blog, a resource provided by the Orthodox Church in America for young people.
In his essay, Fr. Arida challenged three common misconceptions among contemporary Orthodox:
- the Holy Fathers of the Church have provided ready-made answers for all the questions asked in modern society,
- the Patristic sources are unified in their theological opinions, and
- they are beyond critique.
In his conclusion, he suggested that the Church should not be afraid to engage with the questions of contemporary culture—real questions around issues of “human sexuality, the configuration of the family, the beginning and ending of human life, the economy and the care and utilization of the environment including the care, dignity and quality of all human life” (Arida, 4).
The ensuing firestorm took a few days to spark and burn through the Internet, and has been well documented elsewhere (for example, Eric Simpson’s excellent overview). But what has me writing today is another reaction.
As with many skirmishes in the ongoing culture wars, I find myself assailed by new pronouncements of the same old rhetoric. Again and again we hear about the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, the harm that open discussion will cause our impressionable youth, the lavender mafia out to undermine the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Each new post comes with an unhealthy dose of mischaracterization, describing me and other LGBTQ folk as people especially subject to disordered passions and demonic oppression. We are to be mercilessly driven out of the church. Anyone seen as supporting us is invited to leave Orthodoxy to become an Episcopalian (apparently its own special form of punishment). The mechanism that defines the righteous “us” over and against the sinful “them” is hard at work.
While I haven’t gone out of my way to look for reactions to Fr. Arida’s essay, my fellow demoniacs repost each new diatribe or decidedly unpastoral response. As a scholar of religion, I dutifully clip these responses and file them away for later perusal from a more objective remove. Perhaps for some future article…
But more troubling still is the desire to go back and revisit past slights. The Orthodox blogosphere is littered throughout with anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-modernity posts. (Had the Internet been my only source of information, I would never have embraced Orthodoxy myself.) We’re all too eager to dredge these posts up, breathe new life into them, and post them all over again.
Even when we’re no longer chained to the rocks, we still act out our roles, cutting our own flesh and throwing ourselves on the fires kindled by our enemies. We needn’t be in direct contact with them. We’re good at carrying out their punishments all by ourselves.
As we collectively pick at our wounds and tell stories of our oppressors, we unconsciously reverse the dynamic. We are good because they are bad. Jesus is with us because we are being oppressed by them. (Note: This is not to blame the victims. It is the impulse to join in keeping things stirred up that I am critiquing, rather than the individuals who succumb to the voices that command them to do so.)
The demoniac’s story resurfaced just in time, reminding me of what I already know…
When the townspeople asked, Jesus respectfully withdrew. He didn’t take the demoniac with him, but he did free him from the Legion of voices that sought to run his life. And Jesus gave him a new task: to declare all the good things that the Lord had done for him. There’s a certain logic in this. It is very hard to continue to engage in negative behaviors and relive the hurts suffered at the hands of the mob when one is busy declaring the praises of Christ who has saved us and given us new life.
As the noise continues, coming from both the “good” crowd that derives its identity by not being “one of those” and also my fellow demoniacs who are still enthralled to the voices they have internalized and act out, I can only look to Christ. It is Christ who greets us, rescues us, drives out the other voices, provides us with a new identity within his Body, and commands us to tell of the good things he has done for us. It is only through this dynamic, keeping our eyes on him, that we can stand calmly in the midst of the tempest.
Girard tells us that human beings are fundamentally imitators of those around them. Contrary to the entire Enlightenment project, we are not self-made individuals who set our own rules, our own goals, our own desires. We are driven by the desires that we see around us. It is the Holy Spirit that breaks through the crowd, offering us a vision of God that defies the mob, calling us to the imitation of Christ.
To imitate the voices of the age (and they are Legion) or to imitate the example of Christ: these are the options laid out before us. As the culture wars continue, may we all to continue to look on Christ, to live into his call, and to tell of all he has done for us.
Luke 8:26-39. The Gospel reading for November 2, 2014.
Girard, René. “The Demons of Gerasa.” In The Scapegoat. Translated by Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
Alison, James. “Clothed and in His Right Mind.” In Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2001.
Arida, Robert M., “Never Changing Gospel; Ever Changing Culture.” On Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral. http://holytrinityorthodox.org/articles_and_talks/Never%20Changing%20Gospel.pdf (accessed November 7, 2014).
Simpson, Eric. “Why Wonder When You Already Have All The Answers?” On Marginal Accretion. http://marginalaccretion.tumblr.com/post/102114173805/why-wonder-when-you-have-all-the-answers (accessed November 9, 2014).
And for those seeking a meditation:
Badham, Raymond Joel and Martin W Sampson. “In Your Freedom.” From the album Savior King. Sydney: Hillsong Music Australia, 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AZPUigI0Nc (accessed November 14, 2014).
Crocker, Matthew Philip and Joel Timothy Houston. “Mountain.” From the album Zion (Deluxe Edition). Sydney: Hillsong United, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLSHKhgvbys (accessed November 14, 2014). (This version will have to do until the version from No Other Name makes its way onto the Internet.)
Revised December 21, 2014. Hopefully it’s not quite as wordy as it was.