Pearls about swine

Another highlight from James Alison’s The Forgiving Victim (see previous post) is his discussion of the Gerasene demoniac (from 29’25” to 43’25” on the video here).

Fr Alison is always at his best when he looks at a specific incident in the Gospels and illuminates it by showing how it reflects and demonstrates René Girard’s anthropology (mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism). This post therefore sets out the account of the Gerasene demoniac from Mark 5:1-20, with selected observations on the text based on Alison’s discussion in the video. Worth watching the whole thing, though.

They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.

This poor unfortunate will have been a familiar figure to the people of his town. He will also have been a source of comfort for them: “we know we’re OK, because we’re not like Crazy Joe”. In the end, the demoniac had internalised the townspeople’s exclusion of him, and “lived among the tombs”.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’

This is the extent of the demoniac’s internalisation of his exclusion. He has no stable self left, so self at all outside his introjection of the hatreds and fears of his neighbours: “my name is Legion, for we are many”.

He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

As Alison observes, the “unclean spirits” that inhabit the demoniac understand full well that they have no existence apart from the web of social relationships that have have given birth to them. So they beg Jesus not to send them away from that web, but to allow them to remain in the area by entering the herd of pigs. Alison then provides a brilliant Girardian insight into what happens next.

The pigs “suffer from a grave disadvantage”: namely, they are pigs, not humans. Human beings have a mechanism for dealing with when a mad frenzy descends upon us as a group: identify one person who is to blame, and drive them out. The pigs “haven’t learned this art of human civilisation and survival: unity at the expense of the excluded other”. So all they can do is rush en masse into the lake, rather than singling out one “bad pig” who can be driven into the lake while the rest, the “good pigs”, remain on land.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood.

The townspeople are seriously unsettled by the change that has come over “Crazy Joe”. They have lost the social crutch on which they had been relying, in which the ostracism and exclusion of the demoniac reassured them that they were OK. So they ask Jesus, ever so politely, if he would kindly leave.

As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

The ex-demoniac asks to follow Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t let him, but instead sends him home. This must have been painful indeed for “Joe”: the last thing he wants is to stick around with the people who had previously (literally) demonised him and who were now terrified of him, but Jesus knows that for Joe to leave with him would be too close to his acting out his being expelled all over again.

As Alison concludes, this may be the hardest instruction Jesus ever gives anyone in the whole of the four Gospels: “Go and be a former whipping-boy among those whose whipping-boy you used to be. Go and be an ex-crutch among those who don’t know how to walk without crutches.”

That is how Joe is to glorify God: by showing how God humanises people in the midst of the degrading and dehumanising structures we create for ourselves.

(For more examples of James Alison analysing Gospel accounts, see: this post on Nicodemus, this (and the preceding posts) on Holy Week, and this excerpt on the man blind from birth.)

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