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Jesus and Empire: White Silence is Violence

Hey #ACPNotCancelled!

This week as part of our Wellness Wednesday series I am going to continue talking about the crisis of white supremacy, police brutality, and the black struggle against systems of injustice. I realize that for the most part this blog has been highlighting ideas for self-care amidst COVID-19, and while I still believe in that mission I believe that naming and struggling with the legacy of western white supremacy, though difficult, is one way we as a church can begin doing the work to care for those crushed by systemic injustice and empire. I write this thinking specifically of George Floyd, Adama Traore, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and the many other black people in America, France and all over the world who have been victims at the hands of white supremacy, and will be engaging with this topic through a discussion of Mark 5:1-20 (read it before continuing with this post).

Though different than how many of us have been taught to engage with the Bible, there are undeniable themes of anti-imperial fighting all over scripture, but especially within the Gospel of Mark. Victor and I have for the past 7 or 8 weeks, been leading our young adults in a weekly Bible-study of the book of Mark, and this past week we talked about Mark 5:1-20. Specifically, we talked about how this story of Jesus casting out Legion can be read both as a story about demon possession, AND as a metaphor for Jesus’ struggle against imperial systems. Reading this story as anti-imperial may seem new or fringe because it’s not how many Christians were taught to engage with the Bible, but in reality, Biblical scholars have been making these moves for hundreds of years.[1] I believe this story of Jesus’s encounter with Legion, the Demoniac, and the locals serves as an example of the ways white supremacy and empire infects society and how white Christians have a choice to react with distain or solidarity. I will display this through first briefly showing the particularities of Mark 5:1-20 as an anti-imperial text. Then I will talk about the parallels between this text and the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement.

Throughout the book of Mark, the author is grappling with Jesus as a man who transgresses boundaries (1:40-3:6), challenges systems (3:7-35), provides for the needy (6:30-8:21), and shows us glimpses of the future (4:30-32; 13:1-37). While there are many themes throughout Mark, Mark 5:1-20 is a little unusual because while many of the other stories about Jesus in this book are extraordinarily brief, this one more extended and contains many illusions to Jesus’ struggle against imperial systems, marking it as particularly important. The most prominent example of this notion in Mark 5 is the use of the word “Legion” to name the demon who controls the demoniac. The use of this word may seem insignificant, or to only be a way of expressing numerousness. However, the word “legion” didn’t actually exist in Aramaic or Greek before the Roman’s introduced it as a specifically military term, so its use in this context carries implications that we may be unfamiliar with.[2] Biblical scholar Hans Leander puts it this way,

"In contemporary English, of course, “legion” is a dead metaphor. The phrase “they are legion” simply refers to a very large or uncountable number of something. If anything, the expression signals acquaintance with biblical metaphors. Needless to say, Mark’s audience would have heard it differently. In order to help modern readers hear what Mark’s audience heard, Joshua Garroway (2009, 61) gives an analogy comparing how a similar story would be understood if it appeared in Iraq at the time of the U.S. occupation. When asked for his name, the demoniac would then answer (in Arabic): “ism. ‘Marines’ li‘annan. kath.r.n” (“my name is ‘Marines,’ for we are many”)."[3]

This framing from Garroway can really help us to understand why this story was obviously political and anti-imperial to the first century audience because it contextualizes how particular this word choice actually is. Of course, the anti-imperial parts of this passage go much further than just this one word, but for the sake of time I want to now shift to a more interpretative mode.

Looking back to the story, after the man is cleansed of the demons Mark tells us in 5:15, “[The locals] came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had the legion; and they were afraid.” And in 5:17 the locals are hostile toward Jesus by asking him to leave their region. These verses baffle me. Why would it be that the locals were afraid of the former demoniac AFTER he is “clothed and in his right mind”, and why would they want the liberator to leave? While we will never know for sure why the locals were upset, I suspect it is because in the liberation of the demoniac and subsequent killing of the swine (a type of destruction of property), upset the status quo and economy in ways that made locals uncomfortable. The locals proved in this moment that they were more concerned with their profits (represented in the swine) and their comfort (in their fear of the cured demoniac) than in liberation and freedom from empire (represented the demoniac’s freedom from Legion).

You may now be asking, what does this mean for us, and how is this connected to Black Lives Matter? Using a bit of biblical imagination, I can see how one large expression of Legion (a demonic, systemic evil or empire) is the evil of white supremacy in America, France, and all over the western world. These systems are so entrenched in our daily lives that they operate in an almost spiritual way, quietly controlling our society and behavior in seemingly uncontrollable/unstoppable ways. In many ways, the systems that allow police and white vigilantes to kill black people in cold blood is like Legion living among the tombs. The evil systems that perpetuate violence against black bodies are cast out from the public square, but allowed to thrive on the margins, where those in power don’t have to acknowledge their very real existence. And in many ways, white Christians/white people are like the locals who are okay with the violent expressions of empire/white supremacy as long as they are resigned to the outskirts, as long as they don’t have to think about them too much. However, as soon as there is liberation from violence which involved the killing of about 2000 swine (a tremendous economic impact) they wanted the liberator to leave. The locals were more concerned with their status-quo life and economic posterity than they were with the liberation of the demoniac from the grips of imperial control. Furthermore, after his liberation the former demoniac wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him no, because (and this is unusual in Mark[4]) Jesus wants him to go tell everyone about the freedom he received.

So, my question to myself, and other white people at ACP is who are we going to be in this story? I would argue that white people are conditioned to be like the locals who rejected the liberation of the demoniac because it upset the status-quo and disrupted the economic system. Before being kicked out of the town, Jesus commissions the man to “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you…” So even though Jesus leaves, the locals continue to have a choice about who to listen to, the man who talk of liberation from violence and control, or the stories that seek to maintain the status quo. In the same way, I believe white Christians also have that choice now with their response to Black Lives Matter, political upheaval and disruption of the status quo for the sake of black liberation from white supremacy. Even if you started with a critical response to protests and riots, you still have the choice to listen to people who are being oppressed or to listen to those more concerned with the status-quo. Listen to the stories of black and brown people through reading books, watching documentaries, and educating yourself about the problem of white supremacy and racism. What you shouldn’t do (though it’s an understandable impulse) is bring your questions to your black friends. This inadvertently continues a legacy of oppression by forcing black people to educate you about your problem. There are plenty of resources to allow white people to educate themselves (see my post from last week) but more than anything else, even if your knee-jerk reaction is to condemn this movement, take a moment to step back and ask yourself what you are really defending, and is that worth the price of black lives?

Body

There is a protest happening this Saturday at the American Embassy starting at 15h. Though I certainly understand that COVID is still a very real issue, and do not think anyone should be going to this event who doesn’t want to be there, there is great power in solidarity and protest. If you feel so inclined, attending a protest like this can be a very concrete way to make a stand for justice and demand action. To learn more about this event you can follow this event page on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/events/2216884348458356/.

If you are white and plan on attending this event, wonderful, but please remember that as a white person in this fight you are there to support NOT to lead. White allies are GUESTS at a black event, solidarity is appreciated and necessary, but just be mindful if you are white to LISTEN more than you speak. If you would like additional guidance for how to be a white ally see this article from Vox about the subject.

Mind

Even if you cannot attend a protest there are still many tangible ways you can (and should) be supporting the movement against white supremacy, violence, and control of black bodies. Here is an article about some really good ways to be an ally when you’re not at a protest.

Soul

If you are white, take some time this week to really look within yourself and uncover the ways that you benefit from white supremacy. If even the thought of this makes you bristle or defensive, acknowledge that feeling, and then examine why you feel that way. Remember the lesson from Mark 5, the locals were entrenched to believe that the status quo was more important than the upheaval of systems of domination, control, and empire. After examining your relationship with white supremacy, move to a time of repentance for your complicity with these systems. Acknowledging that you didn’t invent them yourself, but by not working to be an anti-racist you have been complicit in their existence and furtherance in the world. This is something that is really hard for me to do too, so I understand how uncomfortable it can be, but also that it is a vital step that I continually need to take in order to actively be an anti-racist. It is uncomfortable work, it is hard work, but it is necessary work.







[1] Leander, Hans. Discourses of Empire: The Gospel of Mark from a Postcolonial Perspective, Society of Biblical Literature, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 202. [2] Ibid, pp. 204. [3] Ibid, pp. 205. [4] In Mark, Jesus almost always tells those he has healed not to talk about what happened. While the reasons for this are a matter of some debate, Jesus’ explicit command for the former demoniac to tell his friends is notable.

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