Criminalized Insanity

Luke 8:26-35

Wielding a razor blade, Thomas Jefferson went after his Bible. Our 3rd President slashed at will, editing the New Testament verse by verse until the supernatural- a force beyond scientific understanding- was cut out entirely. The Immaculate Conception, gone. Joseph’s annunciation, gone. Walking on water, gone. Easter morning, gone. Influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, the Commander in Chief trusted rationality above all else.

But with piles left on the cutting room floor, the Jeffersonian Bible got sliced out of its context. In ancient Palestine, fishmongers on the Galilean docks had no use for heady explanations. Instead, they wanted reinforcements for the daily scrape of spiritual warfare, the omnipresent grappling between demonic persecution and divine liberation, and the paranormal conflict pitting Old Scratch against the King of Kings.

Luke’s Gospel dedicates an entire section to this diabolical struggle. Jesus calming the raging seas; Jesus resuscitating Jairus’ daughter; Jesus stemming the flow of blood; and Jesus, in the longest dispossession recorded in scripture, exorcising the demon in Gerasene. Yet, after he crosses over into Gentile territory and heals the deranged man, why do the townspeople tremble with fear?

Luke 8:26-35 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.

Congregational Responses: 

Jesus confronted them with their demons.

They feared what they didn’t understand.

The man could no longer be made invisible.

A consuming darkness, the depression shrouded his existence. Bouts of uncontrollable crying followed by suicidal ideations and a plan. One involved a noose, the other flexible tubing, and an exhaust pipe. A few hospitalizations later, the diagnosis came back as bipolar disorder. But the rapid chatter and irrational spending quickly escalated. Even after nearly 20 years as a firefighter and with a stable marriage, the mania overtook him. Heeding the illusory voices, Bryan Allen Sanderson ripped off his clothes. In 2006, at the Fairfield Inn outside Spartanburg, police responded to a call about a naked man in the hotel elevator. Rather than treat him like a patient, the law arrested him. The charge, indecent exposure; the punishment, jail. Terrified, he resisted the officers and landed in solitary confinement. Let go and repeatedly sent back, he never received a proper medical evaluation behind bars, further deteriorating his condition. Hallucinations about cyanide in the toilet water, secret messages from the white house about lurking assassins, feces smeared on the cell block walls. Still, the voices only intensified, demanding, “PLUCK YOUR EYES OUT!” Gouging one and scraping the pupil of the other, he blinded himself. Eventually released back into society and stabilized on medication, Bryan now negotiates life with a red-tipped white cane and a disability check, spending most days in a recliner listening to the Bible read over the radio. Rather than handcuffs, what if law enforcement instead gave him a prescription for Lithium?

In her book “Insane,” Alisa Roth details how the brutality of shuttered asylums didn’t disappear but instead shape-shifted into the modern detention center. As a result, people with mental illness are less likely to make bail, receive harsher sentences, comprise nearly half of all inmates, and disproportionately get the death penalty. Yet, the three largest psychiatric providers in the nation aren’t hospitals but jails. Roth argues what’s insane isn’t the chemical imbalances of the brain but our country’s barbaric response.

Despite two thousand years in between, the demoniac ended up criminalized too: restrained out of sight, segregated among the tombstones, subdued by a violent enforcer, and dehumanized over his tortured life. Ending the abuse, Jesus doesn’t just cast out Legion. He also expels the far more menacing band of demons occupying the entire town which kept the tormented man in captivity.

Jesus, says Walter Wink, “was not a reformer, bringing alternative, better readings of the law. Nor was he a revolutionary, attempting to replace one oppressive power with another. He went beyond revolution. His struggle was against … the structures of oppression- against the Domination System itself.”2

The City Council of Gerasene must have voted to make manic depression illegal; the cemetery landlord got rich by charging the municipality premium rent; the ironworks raised its stock price smelting more shackles; the private security company procured a lifetime contract guarding the prisoner. And Jesus showed up to overthrow it all. In response, the townspeople trembled with fear because he threatened their monetized tyranny, an economy wickedly dependent on someone else’s suffering now teetering on collapse.

This talk of spiritual warfare is so uncouth for the rationally religious. But if we minimize evil, and try to think it out of existence, then its territory only increases. Sit with the incarcerated, and they will tell you the malevolent forces vying for another principality to inhabit could not be more real. Thankfully, Jesus was so much more than a moral exemplar. After performing more exorcisms than miracles during his ministry, he unleashed the Holy Ghost, the most potent Spirit of all, on his followers.

Empowered, let us go to “release the captives”3 in his name. The Buncombe County Detention Center is 0.9 miles due east.

Alisa Roth, Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness (New York: Basic, 2018) 21-38.

Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Random, 1998) 81.

Luke 4:18