The New Exorcists
“Do you,” a candidate is asked before joining the Church, “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness [and] reject the evil powers of this world…?” 1 By answering “I do,” each member-to-be is affirming an essential tenet of our faith: that spirits, some angelic and holy, some malevolent and diabolic, assail every moment of our lives, contending for our allegiance, vying to put us under their influence.
While mainline denominations have mostly discarded demons altogether- originally understood as spiritual intermediaries capable of good or bad- for scientific and psychological explanations, our Savior couldn’t be more definitive. The One who came among us, ultimately, to release the captives.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus asserts his power on four different occasions over and against the supernatural agents thwarting the will of God. Here, in the longest and most detailed exorcism recorded in scripture, he crosses over the Sea of Galilee into Gentile territory. A man is at the water’s edge, bleeding ankles and wrists from the broken shackles, thrashing body from the warring adversaries trapped inside his skin, screaming voice pleading for relief. He has no name, no home, no clothes, no associations among the living, only a condition.
Until Jesus casts out the unclean spirits.
In today’s text, what demon is Jesus exorcising most?
Luke 8:26-39 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As 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. When 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”– for 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.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now 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. Then 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. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then 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. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then 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. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “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.
Demon of isolation.
Demon of unbelief.
Demon of dismissing another person’s suffering.
David Finnegan-Hosey is co-pastor of Bon Air Christian Church in Richmond, VA. He also lives with Type II Bipolar disorder. In June of 2011, after finishing his first year of seminary in D.C., he became overwhelmed by a sense of irrational failure, confining himself to the basement where he began a plot to throw himself off a Metro platform in front of an oncoming train or swallow a nearby bottle of pills. After staying awake for days and self-mutilating, he voluntarily checked into Sibley hospital, ward seven west. Escorted upstairs past the locking glass doors and elopement signs, hospital staff removed David’s shoelaces, issued him a gown, and the first psychiatric mediations of his life. He then requested pen and paper and began journaling about his experience, writing out entries that would inform his first book, “Christ on the Psych Ward.” Post-discharge, and three more hospitalizations later, he penned, “Mental illness is an experience of fragmentation and alienation. It shatters our narratives and forces us into the hardest task of our lives… [trying] to make some sense of it, out loud or on paper or on canvas… forge[ing] communication and connection out of [the] silence and stigma… to choose the pen instead of the razor…” 2
While mental illness and demon possession are not the same, for longer than recorded history, we have conflated the two, assuming that barbarism is the only response to anyone disturbed by the spirits. Horrific examples include trephination- the forced removal of a skull section using an auger; lobotomy- severing the prefrontal cortex of the brain; bloodletting, insulin coma therapy, and, most devastating and traumatic of all, involuntarily committing patients to asylums of separation.
The demon Jesus is exorcising most is the demon of demonization. Not Legion, the demon inhabiting the man, but rather the collective demons occupying the townsfolk, the demonic forces that convinced the citizens of Gerensene to repeatedly strip and chain one of their own, to exile him among the tombs, to ignore his incessant groans for release.
Refusing to perpetuate further stigmatization or the spiritually violent deliverance ministries of the Church, let us contest any characterization of a person as wicked. And instead, claim our calling as the new exorcists, bolt cutters in hand, headed for the nearest cemetery, followers emboldened by a Spirit greater than any power or principality we’ll ever face.
1 United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992).
2 David Finnegan-Hosey, Christ on the Psych Ward (New York: Church Publishing, 2018). 3.