And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.- Mark 5:2-5
Every Friday we set aside a period in the afternoon to study the gospel of Mark together and its application to our ministry in the streets. Our last reading was on the above text. The story is a strange and detailed event of a demon possession and exorcism. Modern Christians have differing views on evil spirits and demonic possessions. Some might believe that the demon-possessed people in the gospel narratives were actually mentally-ill people and others might believe that there are real evil spirits who possess people. The differences of opinion are on how evil manifests itself but we all agree that the forces that isolate and destroy an individual are evil and must be removed. In other words, all forces that contribute to the self-destruction of any human being can be considered as evil spirits. In our work, we encounter evil spirits on a daily basis.
The possessed individual in the gospel was marginalized emotionally and spiritually from his community. His isolation was imposed by the community, as well as by his personal actions of violence. In isolation, he was destroying the only thing left for him to destroy, which was his own body. The gospel tells us that he cut himself with rocks. He was on the path to death. Henceforth, the cemetery was the only suitable place to keep him; away from society and abandoned to his own self-destructive habits. No one cared, perhaps no one knew how to care for him, except for Jesus. He went looking for this man. Jesus did not need to be there. There were no Jewish people there because they kept swine in this place. The only reason Jesus was there was because of this abandoned demon possessed maniac.
This story resonated with us. Our children and teens are like the demon possessed man. Society sees them as lost causes and they don’t see any hope in them. People are generally afraid of them and the children don’t make it any easier. They further contribute to their personal isolation and marginalization by their aggressive attitudes. They react against the rejection they sense. The old center of São Paulo is the metaphorical cemetery of this city. We are surrounded by old abandoned buildings left to decay. No important businesses are found here. Money is invested elsewhere in the city while the old center is left to die a slow death. However, this is the place where the children and teens find solace and refuge in drugs and other self-destructive habits…
The thing that stood out for us in this gospel narrative was the idea of space. The evil spirits needed available space to strive. They pleaded with Jesus not to send them away from the region because there was still space for them there. They asked to be sent to the herd of swine. Initially, I always found this part a little confusing and disturbing. Why did the poor pigs have to suffer? They were innocent animals. However, I believe that there is deeper significance to this story. In the Bible, pigs are unclean, ritually unclean. When we take into consideration this symbolic meaning of the pigs, then we are able to see that this story was a criticism of the society as well. There was an unclean presence in the society which still provided room for the evil spirits to strive. This unclean presence is not a mystery as it was clearly revealed in the general attitude of the people. They were more concerned about their financial loss than about the person of Jesus. They did not care if Jesus overcame an apparently violent and dangerous man. They did not care if this man was cured. They just cared about their financial loss. They valued things over people. In doing so, they created room for evil and destructive spirits to dwell in their city.
Destructive evil spirits need space to function.
We just experienced a sad incident a couple days ago. One of the boys with whom we have had a longstanding relationship suddenly turned aggressive and violent towards us. His name is João. He has been in the streets since he was ten years old. He was one of the first boys whom we met when we returned to this work. He was always a docile boy and never without a smile. However, last week, while we were helping a older teen get some legal help, João started attacking us for no apparent reason. We were a little taken aback at first and thought that he was joking. Unfortunately it was not a joke. We think that it was due to jealousy. João did not want this other teenager to receive any help. The situation got out of hand and caused a small crowd of onlookers to gather. We managed to get away from João’s aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, his attitude did not change the next day. He continued to fluctuate from the old João to this new raging maniac. Finally, we had to take a stand and cut all ties with João until he learns to respect us once again. It was particularly hard for our team leader who has worked with João for almost five years.
What made João change? Well, it wasn’t just the case of the “the devil made me do it”. Even though he never engaged in any criminal activities, he constantly sniffed paint thinner. His self destructive behavior provided the space for further isolation and destructive behavior. There was room for evil spirits to dwell in him and he couldn’t handle the fact that someone else in his situation was getting help. Evil spirits or destructive behaviors don’t just happen. We give them space to strive. One self destructive behavior opens the door to another and it becomes a downward spiral to complete isolation and despair.
Where is the gospel in this situation? We hope that it lies in the discipline that we have imposed on João. He needs a wake up call. He needs to see that he needs help to evacuate these evil spirits in his life. We have not rejected João. We have rejected the spirit which is destroying his soul. How do we proceed from here? Well, when the people in the gospel narrative rejected Jesus, Jesus left the man whom He healed to be His witness. We are the witnesses in this situation. Jesus redeemed us from our self destructiveness and now we can testify that His grace is able to do the same for João. We will patiently wait for João just like Jesus patiently waited for us to receive His healing.