Sun, Jun 19, 2022

Letting go our demons

Duration:12 mins 39 secs

The British novelist, L. P. Hartley, astutely observed that… 

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

On one level, we know that.

Most of us can probably remember a time before computers dominated our lives;

and when technology was far less pervasive.

But it’s not just that they did things differently in the past.

It goes much further than that.

What we may not always appreciate is how we have changed…

along with the changes to our world.

Computers and technology have not just changed how we do things…

they have changed the way that we interact;

they have also changed our values, our expectations, our perceptions, and our aspirations.

We don’t always appreciate the extent to which people in the past were different from us…

because they inhabited a different world.

It’s not just that they did things differently.

It’s not just that their lives were different.

It’s that they were different.

They had different values, expectations, and aspirations.

They perceived things differently.

They understood things differently.


In the ancient world, people believed that a person’s character was fixed.

It was determined by their family of origin…

their place of origin…

their gender…

and how they looked.

So, when someone’s behaviour was deeply disturbed…

because they didn’t act like they should have––

or like they were expected to––

given their family and place of origin… 

their gender…

and how they looked…

then it seemed as if there were another person present, inhabiting that person’s body.

Thus, they perceived that person as ‘demon-possessed’.

Usually, the ‘diagnosis’ that someone was ‘possessed’ was made by those with power.

It was a means of making sense of that person;

but it was also a means of labelling that person and managing them.

And that was important because someone who didn’t behave as expected––

someone who was ‘possessed’––

threatened the fabric of their society…

and the taken-for-grantedness of their world. 

Labelling that person…

shunning them…

even ostracising them––

was all about protecting the well-being of the community…

and maintaining the status quo.

But there was also a flipside to that.

‘Demon-possession’ could be a socially-recognised––

or even, in some sense, a socially-accepted–– 

form of deviance.

A person could, subconsciously, assume the role of ‘demon-possessed’––

that is, they looked like, they behaved like, they saw themselves as, ‘possessed’––

either as a form of social protest or as a coping mechanism.

It could, subconsciously, be a form of protest against social oppression;

or, conversely, it could be an escape from it when someone was unable to cope. 

In particular, this form of ‘possession’ has been identified in situations of occupation;

that is, where the ‘demonic occupation’ of someone’s body becomes, if you like, a symbol––

or a metaphor–– 

for the political occupation of the country by another power.


Now, most cases of ‘demon-possession’ that we encounter in the New Testament fit the first form––

that is, we encounter a person whose behaviour is strange… 

and who is labelled as ‘possessed’ as a means of social control.

But, in this morning’s story from Luke’s Gospel, we have a clear case of the second form.

We encounter a man who couldn’t cope with life.

In particular, he couldn’t cope with his experience of Roman occupation;

he couldn’t cope with the fear and brutality…

the loss of freedom…

or the dehumanisation.

So he left his home, his friends and family, and his town––

despite their efforts to bring him back and ‘control’ him––

and he went off to live among the tombs.

Symbolically, he chose a form of social death.

And he wandered around naked, ranting and raving, behaving very strangely.

He assumed the role…

and he appeared to everyone to be ‘possessed’.

But the strongest clue as to what is going on is that he names his demon as “Legion”.

It’s the only time that a demon is named in the Gospels;

and the name is quite significant.

It’s a technical term referring to only one thing––

a unit of Roman soldiers equivalent to about five thousand men.

This is a man who is unable to cope with life, and he’s reacting or acting out––

probably as a means of escape––

unable to cope with the stress…

with the occupation and oppression…

with the presence of ‘another force’ within his land. 

So he’s withdrawn.

He’s withdrawn from society and the pain that he experiences there.

He’s withdrawn from his life and his family.

He’s turned his frustration and anguish in on himself.

And he, himself, has become ‘occupied’.


But then, in the story, Jesus arrives.

First, he asks the man to identify the ‘demon’.

He asks the man to name what it is that’s ‘possessing’ him.

Then he orders the ‘demons’ to inhabit a herd of pigs…

which, conveniently, just happens to be there.

Now, note…

in antiquity, the eating of pork was particularly associated with the Romans.

Furthermore, the Roman legion that was stationed in Palestine in the first century…

had a boar as its legionary emblem.

So, this conveniently located herd of pigs…

provides a perfect symbol of Roman occupation.

When, in the story, they duly jump off a cliff into the sea…

(or, more likely, are driven off it)…

it functions as a perfect ritualised form of symbolically letting go.

And, anthropologically speaking, that’s exactly what exorcism was––

it was a symbolic ritual…

a means of letting go…

of moving on…

of restoring balance and wholeness…

of being reintegrated.


The past is, indeed, a foreign country!

And, in nearly all respects, this story is foreign to us.


And yet, it’s in Jesus’ symbolic actions that I think this very ‘foreign’ story begins to connect for us.

In essence, this man’s problem was a form of stress from not coping with life.

And, in his stress, he’s internalised an external problem.

Don’t we do that too?

All of us experience stress but, mostly, we cope.

We have a certain level of resilience.

We adapt and we adjust.

But, sometimes, some of us don’t.

We can be overwhelmed by our experiences.

And, when we do, we often stop acting rationally.

We may withdraw.

We may turn things over in our heads until they’re blown out of proportion––

until they become distorted…

until our imaginations run wild…

until they, in a sense, ‘possess’ us.

And, in the case of depression, it’s not uncommon to internalise external problems––

whether it be problems of loved ones…

or the problems of the world––

problems that we can’t ‘fix’.

When depressed, we often blame ourselves for things that happen ‘out there’.


A symbolic ritual––

which helps us to re-externalise the issue––

can be a helpful, indeed, an essential component of our healing.

And it’s interesting that, through this, the ‘possessed’ man in the story finds a level of wholeness…

which the rest of his town doesn’t.

In a sense… 

they’re too afraid to acknowledge or deal with their own experience of stress and occupation.

Having seen how Jesus could help, they simply begged him to leave.


None of us can move towards wholeness––

none of us can begin to heal––

until we name our ‘demon’…

and admit that we need help.

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