Last Sunday’s Gospel appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, and it always follows the miracle of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The area where the boat fetched up was part of the Decapolis, a federation of 10 cities inhabited by Gentiles.
One could blame the storm for putting the boat off-course and bringing Jesus and the disciples to a dreary, dark place that is home to a demoniac. Or, one could believe that Jesus knew exactly where they were going because there was something He needed to do there.
Whichever, the group is met by a man given no actual name other than a demoniac, a person inhabited by demons. Since as recently as the 19th century, many illnesses were blamed on some form of possession, we might assume that the man was schizophrenic, had bi-polar disease, or suffered from any of a number of neurobiological diseases that made him a pariah in his country.
In each version, though, the man recognizes Jesus as someone who has authority over him. He begs Jesus to send the demons into the herd of swine in a nearby field. Jesus does, and the swine rush down like lemmings into the sea and drown.
The man, now restored to sanity, asks Jesus to let him follow him. But Jesus tells the man to go back to the towns and tell everyone what God has done for him.
Now, I want you to imagine what the disciples might have been thinking and feeling through all this. They’ve just come off a boat that was rolled about by a storm-tossed sea while their leader slept. They were sure they were all going to die. After interrupting Jesus’s rest, he calmed the sea before their eyes.
Then he brings them to a dark, barren cemetery where a madman runs around breaking stones on his head among the tombs. Why would Jesus bring them to such a dark place? They had somewhat of a triumph at the Sermon on the Mount; then they almost perish in the sea, and then they find themselves at risk of being attacked by demons.
The man isn’t Jewish, so why care about him? Moreover, there’s a herd of swine waiting in the wings, and swine are anathema to the Jews. Would they have felt any more comfortable wandering around Gentile cities evangelizing to people who they sometimes felt were enemies?
I’ve heard one or the other of these versions of this Gospel probably hundreds of times, and only came away happy for the man and sad for the pigs. I don’t know what blocked my understanding, but it is only after studying this Scripture, and reflecting on the patterns in my own life, that I see in a new way the patterns Jesus used to teach us that He always goes to the dark places to find us and to heal us and to send us out to others in dark places to witness and to help.
Following Jesus does involve going to dark places; there’s just no avoiding that. But the miracle for us is finding that there is light even in dark places, and sometimes, we are the light.
Last September, I spent two weeks in a fairly prosperous small city in Georgia. I had booked a suite at an extended-stay hotel. The pictures were beautiful and the price was reasonable. I couldn’t wait to get there. When I did, I found myself in a rather dirty, small, dark room containing chipped furniture, a stove that didn’t work, and a plague of neon green grasshoppers that allowed me to share their space.
I quickly learned that the “extended-stay” description really meant a housing project for homeless people. This little community was made up of mostly women with young children, many of whom had been forced out of public housing by the city, which had sold the buildings they’d lived in to developers who were creating fancy new condos to attract the affluent.
I didn’t know this when I arrived, hot and tired, at 7 o’clock at night. My first introduction was when two young boys playing in the parking lot offered to help me unload my car. My second introduction was when their mothers and other women came to check out the newbie, assuming I was homeless too.
Over the course of two weeks I became embraced by this community, consulted and accepted. Each woman eventually confided her story to me. Though I feared scornful responses, I offered to pray with them, and you might have thought I had offered to pay their rent.
Fast forward to the past week of my life, when I attended the Poor People’s Campaign’s Moral Congress in Washington, DC, led by the Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.
I became aware of Dr. Barber of North Carolina about five years ago when, as the head of the NAACP in that state, he started the Moral Monday rallies in Raleigh. In the time since, I read his memoir, learned about the bone disease that attacked him as a young pastor and father, and began to subscribe to his newsletter. I heard him preach for the first time last year, when he was one of the many speakers at the day-long event in Memphis commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Dr. Theoharis is the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. In 2017, she and Dr. Barber rebooted the Poor People’s Campaign, which King had created shortly before his murder.
Dr. Barber had been told that he’d never walk again. He walks, though it appears with great pain. He cannot move his head left or right, but has to move his whole body. This condition gives an added authority and power to what he has to say, because you know he has been in dark places and that Jesus came to find him.
For the past two years, he and Dr. Theoharis have traveled to some of the darkest places in the country and listened to the poor and documented their stories and allowed themselves to be arrested in direct action campaigns. Out of their travels came “The Souls of Poor Folks,” an evidence-based document that refutes the myth that poor people are to blame for their situations.
When I received an e-mail in April announcing the Poor People’s Moral Congress that would take place in June in Washington, DC, I knew I had to be there.
Dr. Barber stresses that the Poor People’s Campaign is not an organization, but a moral fusion of coalitions that deal with several intersecting problems in this country that lead to poverty: systemic racism; poor housing, health care, and education; ecological devastation, and the war economy.
For three days, I listened and discussed the fact that it is governments, through immoral policies and budgets, that is responsible for poverty and what we the people can do to demand that our country heed the cries of its people.
According to our own Founding Fathers’ documents, the role of government is to help its citizens secure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet almost from the beginning, politicians of all parties have catered to the wealthy and preached the myth of scarcity, hoping we would believe that there is not enough money to help our citizens in this, a land of abundance and riches.
Here are statistics from the “Souls of Poor Folks”:
- 140 million people live in poverty or low wealth, meaning they are one emergency away from poverty.
- 74 million of these people are women; 65 million are men; 39 million are children; 21 million are over the age of 65.
- 1 million are indigenous people; 8 million are Asian; 26 million are African-Americans; 38 million are Latinx; 66 million are white.
They constitute 43.5% of the entire US population, so nearly half of the population of these united states live in poverty or low wealth. Can we really believe that almost half of the citizens of this country have made themselves poor?
“Any nation that ignores almost half of its population is morally indefensible,” said Dr. Barber. A budget is a moral document, reflecting the values of the budget maker. In the US budget, every year, 53 cents of every discretionary dollar goes to the Department of Defense. Most of that DoD money goes to trans-national corporations that keep the war machine going. So little of it goes to the troops whose are on the ground that there are many veterans’ families who need to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. Is this for real? Is this the country we want to live in?
I spent four days this week talking to, listening to, and interviewing those among the 1,000 people who came from 40 states, including Hawaii, to attend the Poor People’s Campaign. We were black, we were brown, we were white, we were indigenous, we were Latinx, both documented and undocumented; we were Christian, we were Muslim, we were Jewish, we were agnostics; we were gay, we were transgender, we were straight; we were infants, we were toddlers, we were teens, we were middle-aged, we were seniors; we used skateboards and bicycles, canes and zimmer frames and wheelchairs. We were homeless or formerly homeless, we were union organizers, we were activists, we were faith leaders.
In other words, we were a perfect microcosm of this country. We sang together, we ate together, we played together, we laughed together, and we wept together. We watched four of our number testify to the House Budget Subcommittee on their experiences, a meeting to which the House Speaker made a special and rare appearance. I heard good questions and responses from some of the representatives; I also heard appalling statements from white men that they knew all about poverty but they had pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. One man practically bragged that his district includes one of the poorest cities in the nation, Johnstown, PA. And we all were asking ourselves, But what are you doing about it? What if our government’s priorities deny people the bootstraps by which to pull themselves up?
We met with nine Presidential candidates to ask whether they would pledge to ask that just one of the primary debates be dedicated to talking about poverty.
One of the most humbling and inspiring things about my week was that the many women I spoke to, all of whom had been homeless, now devote their lives to helping other homeless people. They talk about what they do now with great joy and vigor.
I would have loved to follow Dr. Barber and Dr. Theoharis. But God told me She had other plans for me and bid me come home and share my experience, just as Jesus told the “demoniac” in the cemetery to do.
When Jesus asked the unfortunate man what his name was, he said, Legion. A legion was a Roman military unit, numbering between 4,000 and 6,000 men, and representing Caesar. I would like to suggest that casting the Legion into the herd of swine was prophetic and metaphorical, Jesus’s way of saying that Caesar’s power was crumbling now that He was bringing the world a new vision of God’s commonwealth, God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
So the question is, do we follow Jesus or do we follow Caesar? Was Jesus speaking to the crowd or to Caesar when He said, “When you saw me hungry, did you feed me? When you saw me naked, did you clothe me? When you saw me in prison, did you visit me?”
Since I just experienced sharing with a thousand of my fellow human beings, sharing information, sharing concern, being hugged for no other reason than that I was there, holding hands, breaking bread, praying over and being prayed for, I have to believe that Jesus was talking about Caesar.