Most readers of the Gospels are familiar with Jesus’ confrontations with demons. Throughout his ministry, Jesus encountered many individuals who were said to be possessed by unclean spirits; spirits who were in direct opposition to Jesus’ mission, but who ultimately could not stand against the power which Jesus thrust upon them. While these stories convey various levels of meaning, there is one in particular that suggests that Jesus’ political mission opposed the arrogant power of empire.
In the miracle story narrated in Mark 5:1-20, Jesus is confronted with an evil spirit that has possessed a man. When Jesus encounters this man, he asks for the name of the demon. The response the unclean spirit offers is “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
When I was writing my Ph.D. thesis on the Gospel of Mark, I became fascinated by this scene more than other ones in which Jesus cast out evil spirits because in none of the others does Jesus require the name of the demon against whom he is opposed. To me, what might be most striking and revealing in this story is the fact that the demon responds that its name is Legion.
While the explicit meaning of the name expresses the idea that the man was possessed by more than one spirit, in the hearing of Mark’s original audience there is something politically subversive in the use of the name.
The fact of the matter is that the name Legion is a direct slap at the supposed power of the Roman Empire; the Legions of military forces that enforced the infamous Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. This reference would not have been lost on the hearing of Mark’s original audience and they certainly would have picked up on the meaning.
Thus, while the miracle stands as a testimony to the power of Jesus over the demonic and the healing he offered to those possessed, it also functions in Mark’s story as a judgment against the imperial power that Rome executed through military strength.
If taken in this way, however, we must come to grips with the story as another of Jesus’ political stances against oppressive power, and not just as another story of how Jesus cast out a demon.
The story is a political act of defiance that declares divine judgment on any government power that seeks to dominate the world through the use of force. Such force is viewed as demonic and in direct opposition to God’s plan and values. By casting the Legion into the swine Jesus exposes the ungodly nature and ultimate end of imperial force.
Much like the Roman Empire, America in the last years has taken the low road in foreign policy by implementing a war-first strategy that is in direct opposition to the will and purpose of God as revealed in the message and ministry of Jesus.
Like Rome, American imperialism has sought to dictate values to the world. While our nation still continues to do much good in the world, and some of the values we cherish are ones we ought to be promoting globally, the way in which these are broadcast to friends and foes is vitally important.
The message of Jesus cannot be clearer on this issue. He stood against the use of evil power, and instead, he preached divine power that does not trust in military might as a tool to bring peace to the world. Jesus understood rightly that violence produces more violence and war produces more war.
Indeed, picking up on Jesus’ antithesis of the Mosaic Law of Retaliation, Gandhi, the great leader of India’s liberation from British Imperial power, and one of the more faithful followers of the teachings of Jesus, declared, “An eye for an eye and the whole world is blind.” Gandhi, like Jesus, understood that divine power, which is the power of non-retaliation and non-violence, was the only power that could and would bring peace.
If we claim to be Christian, and by that confession we claim to follow Jesus as the One who speaks for God, then we must accept that Jesus’ life and message is normative for our existence. This means that we cannot support the power of force as a way to handle our differences and conflicts, whether individually or collectively.
To choose the path of war and violence is to side not with God, but with the demonic. Yet, to choose the power of non-retaliation and non-violence is to choose the more faithful endeavor to create peace in the world through the use of the divine power of love and forgiveness.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher
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Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.