One of the most important and revelatory developments in American society in the last few years has been the new perspective society has adopted regarding deep seated systematic forms of prejudice and oppression. Whether it has been the Me Too movement that brought to the forefront the tragic and even violent level of gender inequality that has pervasively existed in our culture for centuries, or the explosion of protest that erupted after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 that focused the entire nation’s eyes on the historic, longterm presence of police brutality and oppression that had been suffered by the African-American community, Americans can no longer ignore the suffering that exists in our society.
Unfortunately, many in our culture and in our church have reacted with an instinctive defensiveness to such revelations, often desiring to shield themselves from the shame of their own communal complicity with the oppression of our society. The fruit of this is often denial of, or rationalizations for, the presence of these injustices, as opposed to repentance, compassion, or corrective action.
Many others in the church, however, have sought a more gospel-based response to the presence of systematic suffering, especially that which has existed in the margins of society. According to the behavior of Jesus, how are we to learn to react to the cries for justice gaining volume in our society, while understanding how the injustice that is being protested is not a new evil in our culture but one that has existed for centuries?
I believe we can find an answer to this question in the gospel story of Jesus’ interactions with, and deliverance of, the Gerasene demoniac, which reveals the way Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven itself responds to the cries of the marginalized. It is in the actions of Christ in this encounter that we see Jesus as the deliverer that shines the light of the Kingdom into hidden places to free us from oppression and suffering.
The story, as it appears in the fifth chapter of Mark, begins with Jesus arriving by boat to the area known as the Gerasenes, where he is immediately approached by a man suffering under the torment of demons. The opening verses reveal how the suffering that Jesus is confronted with here has correlations to the current cries for mercy we hear today from those suffering under long term systematic racial prejudice and any other type of institutionalized injustice. The passage reads as follows:
“They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.” (Mark 5:1-5)
What may strike us first is the degree of suffering that this man was in. Not only is the visceral description of him cutting himself with stones descriptive of his suffering, but we see that he was at a climactic point in his suffering, where no one could bind him anymore. We see here a long term suffering that has reached its pinnacle and will no longer remain in the margins and the shadows of the graveyard.
It is this location of the tombs that shows us a disturbing connection between the condition of this suffering man and the wounds of systematic injustice that have long festered in our own country. When we see how this man was sequestered in the graveyard, we see a society attempting to silence the cries of his suffering.
In his commentary on this section of Mark, R. Alan Cole states how it was “probably part of his ‘treatment’ to drive him away from inhabited areas, to find in graveyards on desolate hillsides his ‘isolation block’” (156). Instead of trying to save this man from the torment of demonic oppression, the society around him tried to push him out far enough that he could be isolated and forgotten, but the gospel is clear that suffering of this magnitude is impossible to truly hide or ignore as it is written that the whole area could not help but hear him as he would cry out at night while cutting himself with stones.
In the society around him, his suffering was known and recognized, but at this point had become an accepted part of life in the area. We will see, however, that Jesus does not accept suffering as an acceptable aspect of the status quo, for Jesus’ immediate response to seeing this man was to deliver him from his bondage, tearing down that which oppressed him by commanding, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
The immediacy of Jesus’ actions is important in understanding Jesus’ view of suffering. Jesus does not question the man at length to determine whether he deserves deliverance or whose fault it is that he is suffering. Instead, we see Jesus’ uncompromising view of suffering. He is here to confront it openly and defeat it through the manifest power of the Kingdom of Heaven.
As Americans we have come into a clearer and clearer understanding in recent years of the litany of injustices that litter the history of our country’s genesis. And we are more and more confronted with the present suffering that has stemmed from these injustices. If we are to follow Jesus, we are not to respond to the appearance of true and profound suffering with rationalizations for its existence but to seek, like Jesus, to deliver those who are suffering and in pain.
To portray Jesus as intentionally seeking to deliver this man out of suffering is worth considering. There is no clear reason as to why Jesus is even in this area of the country at all. As N.T. Wright explains, this area of the Gerasenes “had never really been Jewish territory . . . it wasn’t Jewish land, and the people weren’t Jews. Why if they had been, would they have been keeping pigs?” (55).
Just being in this non-Jewish area shows that Jesus is off the beaten track here, and this area near the graveyard was even more of a strange place to find him traveling. Wright goes on to say how “Graveyards were also considered places of contamination. For a Jew [at the time], contact with the dead, or with graves, made you unclean” (55). When we look at the setting of this chapter we see Jesus in the most out of the way, fringe zone of a gentile area, a place where we have no reason to expect to see him. Yet, where we see suffering, we often see Jesus. Jesus’ arrival in the Gerasenes shows us how he breaks into the marginalized areas of our societies where those who are suffering have been left to languish. And when he breaks into these areas, he does so with the light of the Kingdom, the light that the darkness cannot overcome.
Knowing that Jesus is a deliverer and savior to those who suffer in the margins, we know that as followers of Jesus we are called to be the same. We are called to carry the light of the Kingdom into the darkened corners of society, and to move with Jesus as he delivers the power of the Kingdom to those crying out for justice and mercy. We are not called to make rationalizations for the existence of suffering. We are not called to defend ourselves from the shame of complicity with the status quo, but to instead throw off the pretense of innocence, repent, and join Jesus in his redeeming work.
When our society has shown with heartbreaking evidence that racial prejudice, gender inequality, and economic oppression have been allowed to exist with oppressive power in our country, we are called not to ignore the cries for justice, but to move into it with Jesus, the light that shines in the darkness.