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When Jesus Faces Legion: Making Sense of Today’s Evil

New Testament scholar John P. Meier wrote of the enormous distance between the social world of Jesus and modern Western societies in their views of unclean spirits and exorcism.

People of the first-century Mediterranean world, Jews and Gentiles, were apprehensive about hostile attacks of demons resulting in accidents, illness or bizarre behavior patterns.

Certain individuals claimed to have knowledge of techniques that could be used to exorcise or cast out demons. Certain amulets or prayers could be used for protection.

There are some indications that the vast differences in worldview are not as pronounced as Meier proposed.

An internet search on means of protection from evil spirits contains product information on crystals, herbs, rocks, white light, jewelry and prayers. Products and techniques can be purchased by worried consumers.

I lived in the modern city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. People still burned herbs on Friday night to keep away evil spirits that might harm them. Even as we use cell phones and computers, certain apprehensions stick with us.

How do we deal with the gospel accounts of demonic oppression in our churches? A point of departure is to outline the two extreme positions between which we will probably want to find our place.

1. Scientific interpretation: The first-century diagnosis of unclean spirit possession was simply an explanation for behavior outside the norms of society.

Unusual and antisocial actions were explained as the work of demons that had invaded the person. Today, we would use terms drawn from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, such as bipolar, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

2. Literal interpretation: Satan directs the destructive work of a myriad of demons that serve him.

We can attribute certain personality disorders and violent actions to the work of demons that operate in our world. The church should revive the role of exorcists.

I do not buy into either of these positions. Accordingly, I find myself in the mushy middle trying to defend my position on both sides. I have received help from two New Testament scholars.

Esther Miguel Percas is a biblical specialist from Spain. Her book, “Jesús y los espíritus” published in 2009, has unfortunately never been translated into English.

The author shows that spirit possession is a cultural phenomenon that is most prevalent among the poor in social contexts of violence and oppression.

The victims are overcome by alien powers and no longer fulfill the social expectations attached to their positions in society.

It is important to note two things: (1) the possessed are not held responsible for their actions and words, and (2) there is no attempt to change their social circumstances. Their dysfunctions are attributed to demons. The remedy is exorcism.

Percas opens the door for us to understand one of the impacts of prolonged oppression and violence.

The Jewish and Christian literature dealing with evil spirits and exorcism is rooted in circumstances of conquest oppression under the Greeks, Hasmonean rulers and Romans.

Extreme repression has a general negative social impact on the weak and vulnerable who are subjected to threats, humiliation and violence. In such circumstances, evil forces invade and take control of certain individuals.

The communities of the Decapolis struggled to hold on to life in a situation of military occupation and the crushing weight of Roman taxation.

The man called Legion (Mark 5:1-20) seems to have been a special victim who had been overcome by evil that worked destructively in his life and relationships.

Walter Wink helped me to think through the way that evil works in our world. My scheme is somewhat different than his three-point outline. I propose that we experience evil or demonic power in four ways or categories.

Category one: There are personal battles against evil, which are won and lost by ordinary men and women.

We succumb to pressures that compromise our morality and service to God. Ephesians 6 places our struggle in the context of cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil. I embrace the understanding that sin is more than bad personal decisions. We play small roles in a larger battle.

Category two: Evil works at a collective level in communities and society.

There is a destructive nature to governments, social institutions and community networks even at the best of times.

The collaboration of Canadian churches in running Indian residential schools in Canada is a prime example.

In the U.S., the unwillingness to come to terms with the legacy of slavery is a collective evil that divides a nation that desperately needs reconciliation. Evil is more than personal sin.

Category three: A small number of people are overcome and possessed by the power of evil. They are victims with a history.

I take note that Jesus never blames the possessed for their condition, but their past personal history is related to their present enslavement by demonic powers.

Category four: There is a collective possession, which Wink described as a kind of mass psychosis. The forces of evil seem to take over.

Here I would mention the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, Stalin’s Holodomor (forced starvation of up to 10 million Ukrainians) and perhaps the Syrian conflict.

People are not absolved of responsibly for moral choices or acting as bystanders, but there is a recognition of evil powers at work behind the human actors.

I think these four categories may help us use the Legion story in a congregational setting to consider and discuss the destructive violence of our time.

Gordon King is on the pastoral staff of Westview Baptist Church, Calgary, Canada. He is the author of “Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus.” A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: A previous reflection on this theme from King is available here.