26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
In Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susan Cahalan chronicles her experience of mental illness. Many of her symptoms resemble those historically associated with demon possession. This excerpt comes from NPR, November 14, 2012 -
I don't remember anything from this experience... all told to me after the fact. My boyfriend heard guttural sounds coming from me... the grunts were very unnatural sounding, so he turned and looked at me. And he saw that my eyes were wide open but completely unseeing... At that point, my arms whipped out, and I had a grand mal seizure, and I was convulsing. I bit my tongue so that blood and a kind of a combination of blood and foam was coming out of my mouth. ... I slurred my words, I drooled... I believed that I could age people with my mind...He did not live in a house but in the tombs.
Her story is one of many found easily on the internet connecting an ancient understanding of demon possession with severe mental illness. In her case, she was finally diagnosed with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare autoimmune disease that can attack the brain. Cahalan says, "doctors think the illness may account for cases of 'demonic possession' throughout history."
As I was reading this week's gospel text, I began to wonder about all the people who had cared for this "demoniac" over his lifetime. Who is his mother? Did she have to send him to live in the tombs or did he run away?
Who feeds him? Do people from the village bring him food from time to time? Do they leave it for him at a safe distance or are there people he trusts to come near? Does he have friends?
Did he have spouts of being in his "right mind" before? Like so many suffering with mental illness, did he have periods where he was seemingly balanced, functioning, with clear thoughts? And if so, did his friends or family interact with him during those times? And if so, did they sit on edge waiting for the behavior to take its inevitable turn.
Fear, depression, suicide. Medication in our world. Chemical imbalances. Sleep deprivation. Anger. Rage. Sadness. Crying. Confusion. Hallucinations.
Have you ever befriended a person that suffers with mental illness? There is always volatility, always unknown outcomes, always concern, never stability.
Perhaps this is the week to begin an honest conversation about mental illness and the love of God. Perhaps this is the week to take seriously Jesus' want for wholeness for this man. Perhaps this is the week to see that Jesus honored the request of the demons over and above the financial livelihood of the Gentile village. This scene is an extreme account of Jesus interacting with "other." He's in a Gentile town with a major pork industry. The giver of life is befriending a man who lives among the tombs.
And when he leaves their town, he leaves them to befriend one another. I would love to know how this man's story ends.
6/19/2013 03:45:32 am
Since the modern world has decided that demon possession in the bible is nothing more than what we would call mental illness I have only one question ? When the demons entered the pigs and they all ran off the cliff, was that mass mental illness ?
6/19/2013 11:28:59 pm
Thanks for the comment. To me, it says that the disease was complex. Having walked alongside so many who struggle with mental illness, I'm not sure I'd ever categorize it as "nothing more than." By claiming Jesus' power over mental illness in this passage, the gospel stretches to those who are so often ignored in our pulpits.
6/20/2013 09:45:44 am
Beth, The title of your sermon/comments, "It is Time to Talk about Mental Illness," and your comments seem to suggest that this man in the passage is mentally ill. I suspect that you are right. An unclean spirit in any of us can cause mental illness. I believe that the scope of this story is much larger.Your comments if preached from the pulpit might give a person who struggles with mental illness the idea that you are saying that they are demon possessed.
6/20/2013 02:16:59 pm
Hi. Thanks for the comment. That's the opposite of what I would preach if I were preaching this text. I think that we so rarely give affirmation to those suffering from mental illness from our pulpits. I think that Jesus having compassion and offering healing to those with mental illness is encouraging. I mostly poke holes and ask questions in my reflections each week. Thanks for keeping the conversation going,
8/28/2013 01:50:27 am
We have a behavioral health unit in our hospital. I lead some spirituallity groups during the week and have met many people who suffer from various mental illnesses. Thank you for bringing this important subject up. This is a text that should encourage all believers to reach out to those who suffer from mental illness.
4/11/2016 01:53:20 pm
I believe every pastor should be required to visit a mental health education facility. Every pastor should learn the basics of what mental illnesses are. This will take the fear away and help them be better Sheppard's to their flock.
6/14/2016 08:53:46 am
i would support a very clear differentiation between mental illness and demon possession. Demons can be driven out, mental illness requires a completely different approach. Demon possession is demonic control, and the person needs to be set free. With mental illness you are supported, helped and in rare cases healed. Most people with mental illnesses will need to be helped to function with their illness. Presuming that "possessed people" are actually mentally ill just adds to the stigma attached to mental illness. Dealing with mental illness is important but there are better scriptures for doing this.
6/14/2016 06:40:34 pm
Hi Clive, thanks for the comment. I would agree with your want for a clear differentiation. At this point in my theological reflection, I really don't believe in demon possession if that means that something outside of us comes into us and changes nature. So that's an important thing to make clear in understanding this post. Instead of believing in demons (outside of us) I have grown to understand my own mental illness as something within my make up that seems to entangle me, physiologically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. So although there are plenty of other passages I could have used, I chosen this one because there are treatments (talk and pharmacological) that have allowed me to "drive the demon out." Hope that's helpful for clarity.
6/21/2019 10:38:03 am
on the newsfeed to talk about mental illness. I always talk about it with this text, for it is still something most people are uncomfortable with, dare I say treat it as "unclean" and the most beautiful lines in the text are He was clothed and in his right mind. Working with people with mental illness that is a wonderful description of being made whole.
4/21/2021 03:21:08 am
Lovely blog, thanks for sharing
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