I have vague memories from Sunday school at the Lutheran Church where I was brought up of a video of the story of the demons that were cast into the herd of swine; I remember the image of pigs tumbling down an embankment into water, and I remember thinking that was pretty hilarious and strange.
Today, however, I find this story one of the most beautiful, moving, compassionate and terrifying segments in all of the Gospels.
So, last we talked about Jesus, he and the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee when a terrible storm arose and threatened to sink the boat and drown the passengers. Jesus calmed the winds and the waves, and the disciples were terrified.
Now they come at last to the far shore, and immediately they encounter a naked lunatic. This has to be one of the scariest images in the Bible, especially in the New Testament (outside of the Revelation): a naked man who lives in the hills among the tombs, howling incoherently, so violent and strong that he cannot even be chained down, for he rips the fetters apart, and he cuts himself with stones.
Do you believe in demonic possession?
For my part...yes, at least I think so. But there is also the reality of mental illness, and I think it's entirely possible that conditions which are diagnosable today would have been inscrutable in the first century and, not unreasonably, attributed to demons. Today I think maybe the opposite is true, that possession is often considered merely mental illness. I do not think they are the same thing, but they probably share many external characteristics.
My heart breaks reading about this man. For some reason, the image I have is of a young, strong adult who, if he weren't filthy and deranged, would be considered exceedingly attractive. He's bright, he's sensitive, and he's deeply troubled. He cuts himself with stones! And people are frightened by him.
I certainly get that. Having lived in Manhattan for many years, and now back in Portland which has a famously large street population, I've certainly beheld many people suffering from mental illness, and it can be very scary; it's that level of unpredictability and the knowledge/fear that you can't necessarily reason with them.
For me, the most terrifying part is when Jesus asks "the unclean spirit" what his name is, and the response comes, "My name is Legion; for we are many." It's the stuff of cheap horror movies, and yet I just...I can't quite articulate it. I really believe it. It raises the hair on my neck.
There is also a very deliberate political subversion happening here. A "legion," of course, was the basic unit of the Roman military; Rome was the violent occupier of Palestine and the empire that murdered the Christ. Scholars tend to think that the author of "Mark," whatever his (her?) name really was, was a follower of Peter (also murdered by Romans, in Rome), and the Gospel may even have been written in Rome. This is loaded and rich language, associating the demonic possession of a human with political and military occupation.
So, the demons negotiate a deal with Jesus to be cast into the swine, the herd of pigs leap into the sea and drown, and the man becomes his old self again.
Then what happens? Then people came to see what it was that had happened....and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.
Once again, we are shown how people witness the healing and saving power of God in spectacular fashion, and their response is not joy or comfort, but fear.