There are a number of men in our group with experience of security and insight into military history, so this story made some interesting connections. We speculated about the identity of the man and the possible reasons for his violent behaviour. One guy wondered whether the man might be a retired soldier with experience of war. If this was the case then his behaviour might accord with the actions of someone suffering PTSD.
He recalled a story of a famous and much decorated military hero who returned to the North Down area after the Second World War. His behaviour became increasingly erratic and violent until it was difficult for his military colleagues to be in his company. And tragically, he eventually took his own life.
Could it be that this man, living among the dead in the Gerasene region, was a man schooled in the work of death and violence? Had this man seen war and its aftermath? Were the enduring scars of those experiences impossible to hide in peacetime, so much so that to calm his mind he resorted to self-harm (5:5). Day and night he cries in pain and cuts himself because of the damage violence has done to his spirit. In that sense he is possessed by the spirits of war and aggression and cruelty.
I’m not particularly concerned with whether or not this man is physically possessed or controlled by animate, personal spirits, or whether the spirit of violence and militarism has damaged his own spirit, I’m not sure the story is even all that concerned with the answer to that question.
Whichever approach you take to that issue, the damage to the man is irrefutable. And it also makes sense of another element of the story. The man spies Jesus and runs towards him and throws himself at Jesus feet (5:6). We could be forgiven for imagining this is an act of worship and honour, but I think it’s more likely an act born of terror (a common emotion in the story). Jesus makes a play to bind this strong spirit and heal the man, and the man reveals his understanding of the world he has been conditioned into. “Please don’t torture me!” he says. For this is how victories are won in his world, through the application of cruel and unusual treatment, more harsh and more violent.
How hurt must Jesus have been by this encounter? To see what violence and aggression and war had done to the spirit of this man; but also to think that someone could imagine he would use the same weapons as perhaps this man had once wielded. Weapons that depended, ultimately, on the ability to imagine that the person in your rifle sight, or the person tied before you in the cell was not a real person.
How appropriate then that instead of actions that rely on the ability to dehumanise the individual before him, to strip him of all personality before inflicting violence, Jesus asks him his name.
What could be more beautiful, but at the same time more subversive of the culture? To Jesus he is not just a man who lives among the tombs, crying with rage and pain and confusion, chained until he can find the strength and determination to break them, inflicting damage on himself.
He has a name, albeit one that reflects his life choices and his previous role in the world, until his violence could not be controlled and directed, and his handlers had abandoned him to the tombs.
There was, perhaps, no more powerful statement than this, that Jesus was not here to torture. That his kingdom was to be won not by the traditional means of might and power but by something far more grace-full.