The Geresene Demoniac

(This passage is the Gospel assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary for Year C Proper 7: Luke 8.26-39. In other words, this past Sunday. My point isn’t to stay ahead of the lectionary, obviously. This is too good a story with too many insights to let go without blogging on it, though.)

If you’re not familiar with the story, please read it at the above link.

 

[Reading this story as a] factually literal account of what happened…is not only boring, it impoverishes the text.

In this Gospel story, Jesus steps off a boat only to see a crazy man, “demon-possessed” in first-century language, naked and thrashing about in a tomb, cutting and bruising himself. He had shackles on his hands and feet, but had broken the chains. Still, he remained where he had been shackled. “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High?” the man screams as he sees Jesus approaching. Yikes! The demons inside him knew who Jesus was!

Jesus, being Jesus, engages him in dialogue.

“What is your name?” The crazy, not the man, replies: “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

Jesus commands the demons to leave the man alone, to never bother him again. Now, demons, just like the rest of us, apparently are not interested in being sent to hell. They beg Jesus to let them enter a herd of swine—which tells you how many of them there were!—instead, which Jesus does. Then they drown the pigs. Oops. Off to hell with them, now, we assume. The story doesn’t find that detail important, though, so doesn’t really say.

Sadly, to some, this story is nothing more than a newspaper account—a factually literal account of what happened. In my opinion, that sort of reading is not only boring, it impoverishes the text. To be clear—there’s nothing wrong with believing this all literally happened, or not believing it all literally happened, either. The point is that biblical texts have so much more to offer than a surface reading. This story isn’t just there to wow us with some cool miracle Jesus did, even if by being wowed by it we come to believe Jesus is the Son of God as he claimed—not that such an insight isn’t already quite valuable!

People who are oppressed or in captivity often internalize their oppression or captivity and become complicit in it. A literal, bodily freeing is a great first step, but healing is also necessary.

On a recent thread (NB: the link may break if the thread disappears) over at Ship of Fools, we were discussing this text, and I think the original question posed is a great entry into the text: Why did Jesus destroy the livelihood of the pigs’ owner(s) and/or tender(s)? In a story about healing and liberation, in which Jesus clearly values the demon-possessed man more than a herd of swine, doesn’t Jesus care about the person(s) who will suffer as a result of losing their swine? Pointing out that pigs are unclean under Jewish dietary laws doesn’t help much; this is the same Jesus we believe eventually gave Peter that vision of the sheet full of unclean animals and said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Meaning primarily, of course, the Gentiles who eat that stuff, but also the stuff they eat.)

It may be that we can accept that Jesus was, sometimes, and toward some people (and animals), a bit heartless. But this troublesome question might also suggest that we not take the pigs bit so literally. One common reading of this story actually has the pigs symbolizing the occupying Romans—after all, the demon(s) self-identified as “Legion.” I do find this reading helpful. In fact, it provides a further insight (as I realized while posting on Ship of Fools): that people who are oppressed or in captivity often internalize their oppression or captivity and become complicit in it. A literal, bodily freeing is a great first step, but healing is also necessary.

Note that the man possessed by demons actually broke his own chains. Yet he continued living in the tombs, cutting and bruising himself. Most of us read this story as the healing of a mental illness rather than the casting out of literal evil spirits, but the demonic is still a powerful symbol. Luke, in good poetic fashion, seems to take the opportunity to let the demonic oppression of this one man symbolize not only his own mental and physical suffering and captivity, but that of the people living in occupied Israel. And while Jesus drives out the occupying forces, letting them drown themselves (as God did with Pharaoh’s army in the prototypical liberation story), the most important liberation is the healing of the formerly-possessed man. He is seen, at the end of the story, “clothed and in his right mind.” He wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus gives him something more important to do: stay home, and declare what God has done for him. He now occupies his home land. But his neighbors are terrified of Jesus precisely because Jesus has returned this man to his right mind. What will they think of the now-sane man? Will they receive him? The story doesn’t say.

Are we supposed to take all this
greed and fear and hatred seriously?
It’s like watching dust settle.
It never changes. It’s too consistent.
Mercy is not consistent.
It’s like the wind—it goes where it will.
Mercy is comic,
and it’s the only thing worth taking seriously.
T Bone Burnett, “The Wild Truth

One alternate way of reading a passage, at least on the occasions when the passage is read in church, is to listen to its juxtaposition with the other selections from the lectionary for that day. For the Sunday in Year C on which this Gospel is assigned, the Revised Common Lectionary allows a choice for the Hebrew Scripture reading. One of those choices—the one I heard in church this past Sunday—is Isaiah 65.1-9. In that passage, God declares judgment on those who “sit in tombs” and “eat swine’s flesh,” among other things. I doubt St. Luke intentionally alluded to that passage when composing this story, but when placed together, something interesting happens. Instead of judgment, Jesus brings the demoniac liberation and healing, restoration to his family and community. Yet no one had sent for Jesus. In Christ, God was, as Isaiah puts it,

“…ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,
to a nation that did not call on my name.”

Jesus overcomes the demonic oppressors just because he sees a suffering man and pities him. Mercy goes where it will.

When, and how often, do we really ask Jesus to leave, because what he might do, or lead us to do, is too scary?

This past Sunday evening, Jude Harmon, a minor canon at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, preached precisely on that compassion of Christ, pointing out two other instances that, unlike the first, are unexpected. First, Jesus has compassion on the demons, who ask to not just be sent back “into the abyss” (v. 31). Jesus honors their request. Of all the characters in the story to receive Jesus’ compassion! But at the end of the story, Jesus also has compassion on the townspeople, who are terrified by the whole event. They beg him to leave, and he honors their request too.

What were the townspeople so afraid of? It’s an interesting question. Liberation can be scary: it leads to the unknown. Clearly Jesus was a strong force who could effect that kind of miracle—what might he do next? Jude invited the congregation to see themselves—ourselves—at this point in the story. When, and how often, do we really ask Jesus to leave, because what he might do, or lead us to do, is too scary?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

In our discussion over at Ship of Fools, a member who goes by the screen name “leo” had another interesting insight about the drowning of the pigs. In his reading, not only does their drowning recall the Exodus, but it also symbolizes the now-bearers of the evil spirits being plunged into the waters of chaos at creation (to be re-created)—perhaps even into the waters of baptism! Recall that for the early Church, and still in the Catholic, Orthodox, and (sometimes) Anglican traditions, baptism was and is an exorcism. In the Catholic Church, there are prayers over catechumens during Lent that refer to this ancient understanding. In the Episcopal Church, it mostly turns up in our baptismal liturgy:

“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”
“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”
“Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”

Reading this story in light of baptism, then, actually makes sense—not that it’s the “correct” or only reading, but that the symbolism really is there. The man formerly possessed by demons is clothed as the newly-baptized are. Baptism, then, puts us in our “right mind”—what St. Paul calls “the mind of Christ.”

Personally, I want all these readings to be true. I want the story to tell of a literal physical and mental healing, of the liberation of a people, and of the spiritual liberation given in baptism (despite what political, mental, or physical captivities we might still suffer). While I still have questions about this passage—for example, why do the demons get a name, but ultimately the man doesn’t?—I find a lot of hope in the story. And why not? It’s the nature of a good story that it have many layers of meaning, many truths to keep telling. And this one is nothing if not a good story.

Especially if we re-write the pig bit.
(Image swiped from this blog post.)

Advertisements

Crumbs of Christ

As I partook in that great banquet—a tiny bite and sip of Infinity—I reflected on the hardened crumb in my left hand. It became for me an icon of our Lord’s chosen vulnerability.

On Saturday, we ordained a new deacon and a new priest at the cathedral where I work. The diocese‘s new Canon to the Ordinary, Stefani Schatz, delivered the homily. She urged not only the newly ordained but all baptized Christians to pattern their lives after Christ. Among the features of that pattern, she named love, and described it as a vulnerability.

Love does make you vulnerable, and we see that nowhere so clearly as in the Incarnation. In joining the human nature to the divine, God the Word became that most vulnerable of all God’s creatures: the human baby. Unlike other species, we humans remain helpless and fragile for years, doing the energy-intensive work of wiring up our brains while our animal cousins are mastering the hunt or achieving sexual maturity. We, instead, still live with our parents who dress us, feed us, and protect us, because we can’t defend ourselves. Willing in love to unite God’s creation with God in eternal wedded bliss, the Logos—the very Wisdom of God that sparked the Big Bang—entered the creation in need of human parents to change his diapers and burp him after feeding.

He grew, but not into the kind of man our own culture would encourage or admire. He pushed back at all temptations to worldly success, opting instead for the true power of vulnerable love.

That choice got Jesus killed, as we all know. The Roman world saw this as a clear mark of failure. But as early as St. Paul, Christians were foolishly claiming and proclaiming that shameful death as the way of salvation. The vulnerability and self-giving that had characterized Jesus’ life and led him to his death is the same pattern through which the Triune God loved creation out into being and is now, in Christ loving it back into union—unity-in-diversity, not dissolution of difference—with God.

Jesus’ death wasn’t merely reversed in his Resurrection. Rather, his Resurrection reveals the power of that love which has scandalously joined, for all eternity, the human and divine natures. The risen Christ reveals to us what our death, that ultimate ecstasis, now leads no longer to the extinguishing of the self into nothing but to a rebirth into a new kind of being.

Anticipating that new kind of being, Jesus, “on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.” Somehow, in a mysterious way we can’t fully understand because we have nothing else to compare it to (it being only possible for the One who alone is fully God and fully human)—somehow, in the Eucharist, Christ comes to us in another most vulnerable form: under the species of bread and wine.

On Saturday, as I knelt at the altar rail to receive Communion, I noticed a sizable crumb—well, morsel, really—of the home-baked bread we use for the Eucharist every Sunday. It was nearly wedged behind the kneeler cushion. Had it been there since the most recent Sunday, or longer? Being a sacristan through and through, I picked it up for proper disposal. It was crisp as a crouton. I held it in the palm of my left hand, my right hand placed over it to receive a fresh morsel. As I partook in that great banquet—a tiny bite and sip of Infinity—I reflected on the hardened crumb in my left hand. It became for me an icon of our Lord’s chosen vulnerability.

Bread that is broken and shared is also easily wasted, spilled, stepped on, or left to harden behind a kneeler cushion, despite our best intentions. That little bit of consecrated Bread was no less potent, no less “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” than all the other bits that did make it onto communicants’ tongues, to be mashed between and into their teeth, and swallowed like ordinary food. But there it was, unused, lost, forgotten, stale. A symbol of the prodigally vulnerable and abundant love of God, willing to risk, to accept such waste in the course of distributing spiritual food to us needy people.

Many paintings of the Crucifixion didactically depict angels collecting Jesus’ blood in little chalices. Yet no one would deny that Jesus’ blood actually soaked into his Cross and spilled into the dirt. Ancient peoples, including the ancient Hebrews from whom Christ and his disciples descended, believed that blood was the seat of life. As such, it possessed great power. In sacrifice, that blood was released, and could be manipulated to ritually cleanse, consecrate, and give life to others. That metaphor was applied early on to Jesus’ death: the shedding of his blood released the power of his life to be applied to us, in much the same way ancient priests had sprinkled blood on the people in various liturgies. What, then, does it mean that such power should fall into the dirt? As Jesus continuously demonstrated during his ministry, when the holy or pure comes into contact with the unholy or impure, it isn’t tainted. It consecrates. It makes the impure pure. It transforms death into life, sickness into health, hatred into love, fear into peace. Light shines in darkness and it is not overcome. It’s completely backwards to our human way of thinking, but it isn’t magic. It’s the actually real, normal course of things: it’s God loving creation back to Godself.

We handle the elements of the Eucharist with respect not because they’re magical and would bring harm to us otherwise. There’s no seven years’ bad luck for spilling Communion wine. Rather, we treat these elements with respect because God has honored our prayer to “sanctify them by [God’s] Holy Spirit to be for [God’s] people the Body and Blood” of Christ. That’s a pretty amazing gift, one that certainly shouldn’t be tossed into the trash or poured into the sewer system. But in choosing bread and wine for the Sacrament, and telling us to share it, surely our Lord foresaw the inevitable and eventual crumb in the kneeler cushion or wine stain in the limestone floor. (Well, maybe he didn’t foresee such things as kneeler cushions, but the point stands.) Like the sower in the parable who scatters seed on the rocky, hard, and thorny ground as well as on the good soil, God is not ashamed or afraid to be profligate when dispensing grace. Rather, God places Godself into fumbling human hands. The potential for spillage is tremendous—but it also means you never know where you might find Jesus.

The story of Detroit’s “Nain Rouge”

Nain-nain nainnainnain! My city’s demonic harbinger of doom can beat up your city’s demonic harbinger of doom!

What? Your city doesn’t have one?

Well, it kinda figures that Detroit does.

The Nain Rouge (French for “Red Dwarf”—but not that Red Dwarf) has become a sort of mascot for the city…a pet, even. But when Detroit’s first white settlers plunked down their little fort, church, and ribbon farms with the highest of hopes, the “Demon of the Strait” was a fright to them.

As far as we know from the lore, the first Frenchie to encounter him was Detroit’s megalomaniac founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (mentioned in a previous post). On his way to Detroit, ol’ Antoine attended a party in St. Louis, Québec. A mysterious fortune-teller, mistaking this history for a fairy-tale, showed up uninvited and proceeded to tell people’s fortunes. When she got to Cadillac, she rightly guessed that he was on his way to found a city. According to the legend, anyway, she foresaw both the Battle of Bloody Run (Chief Pontiac’s attack in 1763), the War of 1812, and the fact that Detroit would eventually become U.S.: “In years to come, your colony will be the scene of strife and bloodshed, the Indians will be treacherous, the hated English will struggle for its possession, but under a new flag it will reach a height of prosperity which you never in your wildest dreams pictured.”

Her vision, apparently, only went so far as, oh, let’s say 1883, when the book that quotation comes from was published. But that’s not bad, considering this exchange happened in 1701. Cadillac pressed her for personal information: would he leave a large inheritance to his children? As every good fairy-tale hag has ever done, she offered him some foreboding advice: Should he encounter a fuzzy little demon with beady red eyes and terrible breath, he should avoid poking it with a stick. (OK, she just said not to offend the Nain Rouge. Apparently, he didn’t ask, “the what?!?”) Should he offend the creature, he would lose his fortune and reputation, and die penniless. Or sou-less, or centime-less, or whatever currency the French were using in Canada at the time. Cadillac, like every decent tragic hero ever, found this advice entertaining. The prosperity bit he could understand, but this demon talk was hilarious—er, amusant. He amused his wife with a retelling of it later, since she wasn’t at the party. But as downfall legends go, a spouse has to be let in on the secret.

So Cadillac went on to found Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit on the northern bank of the strait between lakes Erie and Huron. One lovely evening, he was out for a stroll with the woman who had been foolish enough to marry him, when a hideous creature appeared in their path. Non, Kwame Kilpatrick wouldn’t arrive for another 300 years, give or take. This was the dreaded Nain Rouge! Standing only a few feet tall, covered in reddish black fur, with glowing red eyes and rotted teeth, it was enough to make Mme. Cadillac gasp and remind her husband not to do anything stupid. At this point in their marriage, sans doute, he did not actually need to impress her, and even if he did, ignoring her advice was likely to have the opposite effect. So for no reason evolutionary psychology could have predicted, M. Cadillac struck the creature with his walking stick, laughing at it and telling it to go away. Which, apparently it did. To scheme perhaps. In the end, Cadillac did lose his reputation and died penniless, with nothing to leave to his would-have-been heirs. But something tells me that might have happened anyway.

CompatriotsThere’s no physical resemblance at all,
but they do have the same effect on Detroit.

And no one’s ever seen them together in a room.
Just sayin’.

The thing is, it’s unclear whether the Nain Rouge causes misfortune or simply turns up to (a) warn about it, or (b) revel in it. A few more sighting stories will illustrate that ambiguity.

Detroit’s first First Couple weren’t the only ones to see the Nain Rouge in those early days. One farmer claimed to have seen him on the roof of his barn, frightening the horses. Impish behavior, oui. But quite unworthy of a harbinger of doom, non?

But as time went on, the Nain Rouge found Detroit to be an excellent location for indulging in whatever his hobby was. In 1763, he was spotted the day before the Battle of the Bloody Run. In 1805, the city burned, and the Nain Rouge was seen dancing in the flames (although other reports say he was simply out for a stroll in the city the day before the fire). During the War of 1812, Gen. William Hull claimed that the Nain Rouge was grinning at him as he surrendered the city to the British in 1813.

William_HullGen. Hull was later executed for military incompetence.
(Who surrenders to the British? Geez.)

In the 20th century, the Nain Rouge made an appearance just before the ’67 Uprising, during which much of the city burned again. (Somehow he seems to have missed the ’43 riots—or no one noticed him, poor fellow.) In 1976, he was spotted by two utility workers who were eating their lunch in their truck. Seeing what they thought was a child near the top of a nearby utility pole, they ran out of the truck and called for the child to come down. He leaped from the very top of the pole to the ground and ran away. Presumably at some point they were able to see that it was, in fact, the Nain Rouge and not some kid we should’ve been sending to the Olympics. The next day there was a severe ice storm. Bad, but hardly worth a Nain Rouge sighting. It’s Michigan, after all. We get ice storms. Nearly every winter.

Later “sightings” are completely dubious (assuming earlier sightings aren’t). In recent decades, one couple claimed they saw the Nain Rouge trying to break into a car downtown one night. The couple were, at the time, leaving a bar. He was supposedly seen by some Wings fans leaving Lafayette Coney in the wee hours of the morning, yelling “Awooo!” and smelling particularly foul. The Wings fans tossed him some change and left, only making the (improbable) connection later. Another person claimed to have seen him outside Dutch Girl Donuts muttering something like “cruller” under his breath. He’s also been reported trying to volunteer for “Angel’s Night” (better known as Devil’s Night), busking at Eastern Market, and one local claimed it was the Nain Rouge who went around tagging TRTL in the ’00s.

He’s up to no good, that’s for sure.

These days, the Nain Rouge is better known as the unwelcome guest of dishonor at the annual Marche du Nain Rouge, a huge party celebrating Detroit’s history and possibilities.

So what is this thing, this Nain Rouge? A demon, a cryptid, a figment of imagination?

In older texts, he’s been linked to a mythical creature from Normandy (where Detroit’s first settlers also came from), the lutin. Remember the story of the farmer’s frightened horses? That sort of impish behavior is typical of a lutin, but the lutin also tended to be helpful to French farmers, doing silly but apparently useful things like stirring their food to make it taste better or pinching their children’s toes when they misbehaved. They also braided people’s hair and horses’ manes. The Nain Rouge seems hardly like a lutin to me, although it could be a category French immigrants from Normandy might have used to interpret or recount strange experiences.

Also, according to that Wikipedia page, they abhor salt, and Detroit is located atop extensive salt mines.

Being Catholic, they also might have used the category of demon, especially when (a) dealing with what seemed an evil presence, or (b) trying to evangelize (or “evangelize”) the locals—the Native Americans, mostly Wyandot and Huron in Detroit at the time. Old stories even claim that the Native Americans warned their new friends to beware of the “demon of the strait.” It seems unlikely the Hurons or Wyandots would have used the word “demon” (or “démon“), unless perhaps they were speaking in French and it was the only French equivalent they could find for whatever it was they were trying to describe. Some have proposed that, at least in the Native Americans’ eyes, anything like the Nain Rouge would be a land spirit, and his appearances before tragic events should be appreciated as friendly warnings.

I’m inclined to believe that the Nain Rouge is a melding of these myths, perhaps reflecting the collision of different cultures in the area. I would love, some day, to do the kind of cultural analysis of this that my late academic advisor, Alex García-Rivera, did in his book on St. Martín de Porres. (Seriously, read that book.) At any rate, it has been suggested that the Nain Rouge was a manifestation of racism against the “Red Man,” or Native Americans. The recent “sightings” in which the supposed nain was seen busking, breaking into a car, or mumbling by a Dutch Girl could reinforce that theory—the racism being transferred to African Americans and the homeless poor. It’s hard to tell from anonymous email accounts (see the link to Model D below to read them).

Detroit is not defenseless against its demon, however. Historically, the Nain Rouge was seen being chased by the spirit of early Detroit resident Pierre Livernois, a.k.a. the “Spirit of Detroit.” The statue known as the “Spirit of Detroit,” located in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building (a.k.a. city hall), was never actually named, but, given his popular name, can be identified with Livernois, shining the light of God on a family (meant to represent all human relations). Maybe the Nain Rouge is now warded off by this statue. It was dedicated in 1958, but there wasn’t email back then, and Detroit is rather large; it could be the nain didn’t stumble upon it till much later, when, let’s say, he was so scared he ran up a utility pole.

When Livernois isn’t busy chasing the Red Dwarf, he enjoys rooting for the local sports teams:

Seems the Nain Rouge has gotten the upper hand in the Stanley Cup playoffs the past few years…

Read more about the Nain Rouge:

http://www.modeldmedia.com/features/seeingred.aspx

http://www.michigansotherside.com/articles/TheNainRouge.htm

http://archive.org/details/legendsofledtr00hamluoft

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nain_Rouge