SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, we bring before you the cries of a sorrowing world. In your mercy set us free from the chains that bind us, and defend us from everything that is evil, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus casts out a demon. Its name is “Legion.” I don’t believe the name refers simply to the fact that the man of Gerasene was possessed by many demons. Palestine was under Roman occupation and its “legions” were a regular part of the landscape. The “peace of Rome” was enforced by its legions and their choice instrument to that end was the cross-Rome’s ultimate symbol of terror. Augustus Caesar, the architect of Rome’s peace, would have agreed with NRA CEO, Wayne LaPierre’s slogan, namely, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Simply put, peace and security depend on the ability and the willingness to kill in order to preserve them. I suspect that the herd of swine into which Jesus sent the demons was being maintained to feed one of Rome’s legions. There wouldn’t have been much of a market for pork anywhere else in Israel. That would also explain why the locals wanted Jesus out of their territory. You don’t want to be seen in the company of a man who just threw the legion’s supper into the lake.
Biblical archeologist John Dominic Crossan discusses the phenomenon of demonic possession in one of his recent books. Pointing to the work of British anthropologist Mary Douglas, Crossan notes that “the physical body is a microcosm of the social body so that there is a dialectic between the personal and the social, the individual and the corporate, with regard to taboos and boundaries, with regard to the acceptable, the permissible, and the tolerable.” Crossan, John Dominic, The Historical Jesus-The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, (c. 1991 by John Dominic Crossan, Inc., pub. by HarperCollins) p. 313. That is to say, one cannot help seeing oneself as one is perceived by the society as a whole. Thus, it is a very different thing to live in the United States as a white person than as an African American descendant of slaves. For the former, the national monuments and landmarks under whose shadows we live, the historical narrative telling us who we are and the social conventions so deeply ingrained that we are hardly conscious of them reinforce our sense of value, identity and destiny. For the latter, these same things testify to a legacy of oppression; they are a reminder of marginalization; and they bar opportunity in every way forward. So, too, the presence of Roman legions in the occupied territories of Judea and Galilee were a constant reminder to the Jews of their servitude and powerlessness. There could hardly be a greater indignity for a Jew than being compelled to care for herds of unclean animals, meat that their ancestors refused to eat even at the cost of martyrdom. Internalizing-being possessed by-the loathing and contempt in which you are held by the dominant culture can’t help but make you a little crazy-perhaps crazy enough to live naked among the tombs or even to bloody yourself with stones as Mark’s account of this same story tells us. Mark 5:5.
Naming demons can be a dangerous business. But Jesus knows that exposure is the first step in exorcism. Once a demon is named, once it is brought out into the light and shown up for what it truly is, it begins to lose its power to enthrall and control. It is in that spirit that I introduce the above image. It is the cover of a magazine designed for young girls. I don’t know anything about its articles. I haven’t read them. I looked at the pictures, though. If you were to do the same you would find on every page beautiful, well dressed, immaculately manicured young ladies like the one on the front. What you won’t find in this magazine are pictures of girls even slightly plump, girls with braces, girls with acne, girls horribly scared by self-cutting, punishing their bodies for not looking like the ones in this publication. Nor will you find the emaciated bodies of girls who have starved themselves half to death in hopes of fitting into the outfits this magazine advertises. The message is clear: if you want to be beautiful, then you must look like this. Having raised two daughters of my own, I know only too well the toxic nature of this propaganda. Too many of our girls are starving and mutilating themselves in order to be considered beautiful, lovable and worthwhile because they have internalized our largely male fantasy driven standards of beauty. Let us name this demon “glamour.”
In addition to naming demons, exorcism requires that we tell them to “get the hell out of here.” If we want to speak the good news about Jesus to this generation, we need to speak a frank and uncompromising word against the voices screaming at our daughters and granddaughters that they are ugly and unlovable. Our girls, and everyone for that matter, need to know that neither Cosmo nor Victoria’s Secret have the last word on what is beautiful. Beauty is grounded in these words spoken at the baptismal font: “You are my beloved child.” No word to the contrary is to be countenanced, regardless the name of the devil speaking it.
Here is a bitter-sweet poem by Norman Dubie about some beautiful women formed by a community that values its members as an extension of itself. It is the beauty of sick and forsaken individuals caring for one another and finding therein a deeper, more profound and beautiful sense of self.
The Pennacesse Leper Colony for Women, Cape Cod: 1922
The island, you mustn’t say, had only rocks and scrub pine;
Was on a blue, bright day like a blemish in this landscape.
And Charlotte who is frail and the youngest of us collects
Sticks and branches to start our fires, cries as they burn
Because they resemble most what she has lost
Or has little of: long fingers, her toes,
And a left arm gone past the elbow, soon clear to her shoulder.
She has the mouth of sea perch. Five of our sisters wear
Green hoods. You are touched by all of this, but not by us.
To be touched by us, to be kissed! Sometimes
We see couples rowing in the distance in yellow coats.
Sometimes they fish with handlines; we offend
Everyone who is offended most
And by everything and everyone. The five goats love us, though,
And live in our dark houses. When they are
Full with milk they climb the steps and beg that
They be milked. Their teats brush the steps and leave thick
Yellow trails of fresh milk. We are all females here.
Even the ghosts. We must wash, of course, in salt water,
But it smarts or maybe even hurts us. Often with a rope
Around her waist Anne is lowered entirely into the water.
She splashes around and screams in pain. Her screams
Sometimes carry clear to the beaches on the Cape.
For us I say so often. For us we say. For us! We are
Human and not individual, we hold everything in common.
We are individual, you could pick us out in a crowd.
You did. This island is not our prison. We are not kept
In; not even by our skin.
Once Anne said she would love to be a Negro or a trout.
We live without you. Father, I don’t know why I have written
You all this; but be proud for I am living, and yet each day
I am less and less your flesh. Someday, eventually, you
Should only think of me as being a lightning bug on the lawn,
Or the Negro fishing at the pond, or the fat trout he wraps
In leaves that he is showing to someone. I’ll be
Most everything for you. And I’ll be gone.
Source: The Mercy Seat: Collected & New Poems 1967-2001 (c. 2001, Copper Canyon Press). Norman Dubie (b. 1945) is an American poet born in Barre, Vermont. He is the author of twenty-eight collections of poetry. Dubie is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry Magazine and the Modern Poetry Association and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award. He currently teaches in the graduate Creative Writing Program of Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. You can read more about Norman Dubie and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
 In 1905, Penikese (spelled by the poet “Pennacesse”) Island in Buzzard’s Bay off Cape Cod was designated as the site of the first (and only) leper colony in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Throughout its sixteen years of operation, thirty-six victims of Hansen’s disease, commonly referred to as leprosy, lived on the isolated island with a handful of caregivers. The onsite doctor, Frank Parker, M.D. and his wife, Marion, went to great lengths to make their patients comfortable. Their small staff provided good food, fresh air, exercise, entertainment and nursing. At that time, the disease bore the curse of stigma and social ostracism, largely due to public belief that it was highly contagious. The Penikese colony closed in 1922.