The biblical texts related to unclean or evil spirits, like a recent lectionary gospel passage from Mark 1:21-28, are often avoided.
Yet, it’s important for us to spend some time discussing and reflecting on these passages because we are not comfortable with the idea that there are unclean spirits or evil spirits that not only could change our lives emotionally and mentally but could cause us to physically convulse, are we?
This is not a term or situation we are familiar with, but it is something that we confront and encounter as we read the gospel accounts of Jesus and his ministry.
Modern interpretations lean toward the understanding that someone with unclean spirits would be the equivalent today to someone who struggles with mental illness, or perhaps some sort of physical disability that cannot be overcome with mere focus and attention but needs a miraculous healer like Jesus.
In too many cases, this interpretation has become dangerous because pastors and teachers will tell people who struggle with mental or physical illness they just need to pray and ask God for healing and not pursue any kind of medication or therapy offered by science.
The Healer can heal everything and no matter what kind of mental illness or mental health issues you struggle with, you just have to pray more and believe more and you will be healed. This is spiritual abuse.
For 15 months, I led a weekly chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter in Columbia, South Carolina. The number of people who I encountered who were struggling with mental illness was astounding.
I have to admit my encounters with people with mental illness up to this point had mostly been with people who have done the good and important work of recognizing the struggle they have, naming that and seeking good and whole care from experts.
This was not the case at Transitions. I encountered people who were struggling desperately for their lives and their souls.
I encountered people who didn’t have the money to fill their prescriptions, people who didn’t have the healthcare options to seek help and people who had completely given up.
I encountered these people at Transitions because that’s exactly what happens to people who have struggles we don’t understand.
They end up on the outskirts of society, away from the public eye and apart from our awareness. This was true in Jesus’ day and time as well.
And in limiting our understanding of those who are in need of Jesus’ healing and hope, we are not creating sanctuary in our communities of faith.
Instead, we are creating a place where our assumptions are reinforced and where people have to come put together rather than their real and broken selves. This is spiritual abuse.
Jesus welcomed all. Jesus did not shy away from the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus spoke to the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus healed the man with the unclean spirit.
What are we going to do as we have come into contact with the gospel truth that Jesus Christ has the power to call out unclean spirits? What are we going to do with this account of someone who is so vulnerable and in need?
Are we going to keep studying and learning more about the power of Creator God in the form of a human or are we going to continue to engage in spiritual abuse that shames and blames people who are struggling with mental illness?
People are struggling for survival. Children of God are desperately searching for hope and healing. The choice is up to you.
Merianna Harrelson is pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in West Columbia, South Carolina, and editor-in-chief of Harrelson Press Publishing. A version of this article first appeared on Harrelson’s website. It is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @MeriannaNeely.
Pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, South Carolina, and editor-in-chief of Harrelson Press Publishing.