Demons of Distinctiveness

Demons of Distinctiveness

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

“‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ And he went away proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.” — Luke 8:39

This week the Lectionary again links Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, and Luke the Gospel for the Gentiles, and their message of our common humanity reaches a climax. Paul writes the iconic declaration, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). Luke tells the story of a mentally ill homeless man who had been expelled from his town and lived in the environs in a cemetery. So here are: one message of inclusion, one story of exclusion, and one Jesus reconciling all, beyond the distinctions of religion, social status, gender, and neighborhood. (Living in the open in a cemetery would surely ruin ones social life).
We immediately recognize these forms of social distinction and how alive and well they are today.

Last week in Jerusalem a school for the children of orthodox Jews built a wall through itself to keep the Ashkenazi (European) Jews separate from the Sephardic (North African) Jews. Both groups are ultra orthodox but the Europeans claim that the Africans are not orthodox enough to mix with them. I know this social attitude well, from my South African childhood. The signage of distinction then read “Europeans only” and “Natives.” Racist distinction was likewise disguised as religious distinction. So Apartheid is not gone, it has merely moved its principal residence.

Last week in Kirgizstan the native Kirgiz rose up against the Uzbeks living in their midst, murdered many and drove about 100,000 out of the country into refugee camps over the border.

Within the last year or so two women were given forty lashes by their Muslim states, one for wearing Western style pants in public and one for meeting with her former boyfriend without chaperone on the eve of her wedding to return certain photographs to him.
And some years ago a number of Saudi schoolgirls fleeing a fire in their school dormitory were sent back into the burning building to get their headscarves before they could appear in public. They were all burned to death; the man on the spot who ordered this is now a minister of state.

On one of her many visits to us my late mother noticed that the homeless on the streets of Palo Alto very often displayed signs that identified them as ” unemployed vets.” She turned to me and asked with real concern why so many veterinarians were out of work. (In British circles veterans are called, rather clumsily, ex-servicemen). We have all been accosted by mentally ill, hugely obnoxious, nuisances like the one who accosted Jesus on the outskirts of Gerasa, even on the “nice” streets of Palo Alto.

These are all examples of the distinctions Paul and Luke have in mind when they claim, in statement and in story that Jesus can bring an end to these punishing differences. Jesus can cast out the demons of distinction and discrimination, but only if we allow him.

Note that The Pauline statement begins by laying down a proviso: ‘provided you have been baptized into Christ …you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ It is very important to see this rocklike proviso, otherwise the declaration of a common humanity is merely a humanistic hope, such as many utopian prophets have vainly foretold. They have all, however, had their own peculiar proviso – common ownership of the means of production, pure Aryan race, strict gender equality, totally free markets, untrammeled big oil (Obama you socialist, apologize to BP for shaking them down!), environmental apocalypse or complacency.

These provisos are also called ideologies, and too much Christian theology is nowadays just such an ideology. Having given up believing in Jesus we identify his kingdom with the fruits of free markets or the benefits of female dominance or the promise of green technology or the beneficence of big business, or one of the many other ideologies that have become from time to time the fashionable idolatries of the Protestant pulpit.

But Christ Jesus alone is in fact and in truth our only proviso; he is the rock of faith and our divine other in the relationship that is life. He is neither an idea nor an ideology, he is a person, and our link to him is personal. He is the person of our Creator God made available to us for a relationship of creativity and love. He is joy and satisfaction, he is hope and love.

Let us conclude with a short meditation on the madman from the cemetery. Jesus meets him and instead of rebuffing him Jesus rebuffs the demons in him. Jesus, so to speak, embraces him and chases his tormenters. He loves the sinner and hates the sin. When the people from his village find the man, he is sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to the teaching. Can you believe that they are not glad, they are afraid (vs. 35). “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Garasenes asked him to depart from them; for they were seized with great fear; so he got into the boat and returned.” (vs. 37).

Why were they afraid? Several reasons, one of which is that Jesus had disrupted the comfortable contours of their social organization. The man in the cemetery was integral to that organization: “All is well with the world, God is in his heaven, we are cozy in our kitchens, and the scapegoat is out in the cemetery. He is a big reason why we feel so cozy because in order to be an “in” there has to be someone who is “out.” The stuff of cultural identity is a pattern of distinctions and differences, and the most important distinction is the one between the “in” and the “out.”

The man in the cemetery was no longer mentally ill and was returning to the village to be a walking, talking witness to the possibility that outcasts can be re-accepted, scapegoats can return and violent hostility can become friendship again. This transformation does not happen easily or in the natural course of things. We need Jesus to do this for us. This in fact is what only Jesus can do for us,… if we let him.

What is the chance that we will let him? Not good! In the story the potential beneficiaries of his gracious power are terrified of him and beg him to go away. They do not want their order of society altered. They love their violence, competitiveness, scapegoats and mythology.

Jesus respected their freedom to choose the dark side. He went away, … but he left behind as a witness the erstwhile demoniac, now lucid, peaceful and whole. Why did he send the poor man back into the very situation that has destroyed him before?

How long do you think it would be before he was back in the cemetery, full again of the demons that were really only the mythic forms of his fellow citizens’ hostility?

Why does Jesus send us back into the toxic environment of sacred violence? This is a difficult question for which I have no answer. Perhaps Jesus thought that his witness could change a few people. If so the madman has become a figure of Christ, one who goes into the violence to experience there the Cross that Jesus experienced.

So only the Cross can change the world if we believe in it and witness to Jesus who made it a way of salvation and healing for us who follow him.