This week, we celebrated Juneteenth – the holiday that marks the day when the last slaves in America were actually freed. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued in the fall of 1862, effective January 1st of the following year, but of course in those days before 24-hour news, word traveled slow. So, plantation owners in Texas were able to keep their slaves ignorant of it for another two and a half years, until the end of the war when General Granger rode in to Galveston, Texas, to enforce the President’s proclamation on June 19, 1865. Then, finally, the last slaves were free.
It’s usually a holiday of picnics and celebration and a true “independance day” kind of spirit. But this year, on Juneteenth, there were two painful stories that got a lot of press. First was the chilling statistic, from a recent study documented in the book The New Jim Crow, that today there are more African-Americans in the corrections system, in prison or on probation or on parole, than were enslaved in 1850.
Second was the release of testimony from celebrity chef Paula Deen, who has built her own little culinary empire on her traditional Southern persona and butter-laden cooking. She was being sued by a former employee for creating a hostile environment with particular racial overtones – and so she was asked about the way she has spoken and about her attitudes. And she admitted to some incredibly offensive language, with a casual ease that suggested she really didn’t see the problem with it. She also recounted a story she had told regarding a Southern plantation–themed wedding, and the wait staff she would like to hire: all middle-aged black men, dressed in white with black bow ties, just like slaves, she said, because of their professionalism and class.
As much as we might like to reassure ourselves that this kind of thinking, of reminiscing for the good old days when nearly 4 million people were kept as property, is no longer present in 2013 when we have a black president and would mostly like to think we’ve gotten past this, somehow that kind of thinking endures. And occasionally it gets voiced, and comes out of the shadowy corners of our consciousness and can’t easily be ignored.
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Our gospel reading today, this story of the man possessed by many demons, is kind of a weird one. We read all these stories in the scriptures of possession by spirits and demons and who knows what, and they just don’t really fit into the way we understand the world anymore. Sometimes we read into them stories of mental and physical illness, stuff we now have the words for that they didn’t then.
But this one, of the man from the Gerasene, just feels different. His demons have a personality all their own. They speak for him, to argue with Jesus. In fact, they’ve taken over his whole identity, so that when Jesus asks his name he can only say, Legion, because there were many demons. Legion is an interesting word, because it has come to mean “many,” but always first and foremost it means a Roman legion, a military unit of the armies that were occupying that country. It is as if these demons were a foreign power, an invading force that has suppressed all of who this man is in the name of obedience and submission.
He has been so overcome by these demons that he has been forced out of his community, unable to live a normal life with his family and friends. He stays in the tombs, but even there he is chained and shackled. In Mark’s version of this story, he adds that “night and day, he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” The demons have so consumed his life that hurting himself seems like a reasonable thing to do – maybe the only way he can control his own body. His identity as a person, even his real name, has nearly disappeared under the stress of these demons that torment him.
But then Jesus comes. And even the demons are scared, because those forces of torment have no place in Jesus’ world. And he casts the demons out – so completely out that the man is immediately back to his right mind, clothed and healed. And even though he wants to follow Jesus, Jesus sends him home. Back to his community, back to his family, to be a whole person again. Part of his healing is his restoration to his community.
And that scares people. They have grown used to these demons. They’ve been around for years. And maybe the people cluck their tongues and remember what a nice boy he was, back before he fell in with the wrong crowd, and such a shame that was; and then he wails and clanks his chains and they turn away, not seeing anymore. Excuses are made, the demons are tolerated, and life goes on.
Except not when Jesus is around. Jesus comes in and sees the demons that have seized control over this man’s life, and Jesus says no. Those demons have no place here. We can no longer tolerate them, because these oppressive demonic forces have split families and severed communities and destroyed lives. And they are cast out.
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I discovered the other day that there’s a trail in my neighborhood, running along the railroad track at the south edge of campus, stuck between the tracks and all the weird little cul-de-sac streets that run into the railroad and can’t go any farther. I love these little edge places, where one minute you’re in the trees, and there’s birds singing all around, and you turn the corner and you’re squished between the train tracks and the industrial yard and the overgrown dumpsters at the back of an apartment complex, and then there’s a beautiful old train station under the overpass, across from a weird little house with 3 doors and porches on every side. I was walking yesterday and could just make out the announcers from the stadium on the other side of the tracks.
It is peaceful, mostly. It is an odd peace, carved out of what spaces are available between all the loud clanky things we’ve built. It’s not a quiet or serene peace, where we go to pretend civilization doesn’t exist for a little while, but it’s a peace claimed almost defiantly, in spite of all the loud and unpeaceful things around it.
It’s my favorite kind of peace, actually. It’s a peace that sees the world as it is, rusty overgrown parts and all, and says, I’m going to be beautiful here, anyway.
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Such is the peace that Jesus brings. Jesus lands in a town and sees the loudest and most violent, restless place, and says, there should be peace here. Here in the place where the demons are at their worst, with the people who are most consumed by their power, Jesus brings calm. Freedom. Sanity.
This is what Paul is thinking of when he writes to the Galatians about what it means to be in Christ. He has seen a world of conflict and persecution – and in fact had spread a good bit of that violence himself – and yet he can still speak of the redemption and freedom that Christ brings. He says, “there is no longer Jew or Greek,” not because that is true in his world at that time (because it was not), but because Jesus has brought a new vision, of little pockets of world in which that is true. He can say “there is no longer male and female” not because equality had come to his world – that will not be true on a large scale until perhaps even our lifetimes – but because Jesus’ followers had caught a vision of a community where that could be possible.
Paul can say “in Christ, there is no longer slave or free,” not because that is or has ever been true in the world around us, but because we as followers of Jesus are called to make it so. We are called to look around us to the places where people are in chains, crying out, and not turn away. To ask, what is it that torments you? To hear them, to see them, and do what we can to cast those demons out.
The demons of oppression and hatred and fear and ignorance are still alive and well in our world, much as we might like to ignore them. But we as followers of Christ have taken on his task of healing the wounds those demons have caused. We are called to see those demons and name them and cast them out, our own demons as well as the demons of others.
Because we have caught the vision of a world in which Christ’s way rules. A world in which the demons have been banished, peace has come, and there is no reason to fear.
With the Spirit’s blessing upon us and Christ’s peace within us, may we work for a world in which we may truly say, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, there is no longer black or white, straight or gay, immigrant or citizen, churchgoing or non-, convicted or never even accused of anything, because truly, we are all one in Christ Jesus.
May it be so.