Jesus and the multiple personality schizophrenic
Mark 5: 1 - 20
The Lake of Galilee is 13 miles long and 8 miles at its widest. At the point Jesus crossed it is about 5 miles and on its eastern side there was a city called Gerasa which today is called Jerash and is about 14 miles from Amman, Jordan‘s capital. Jesus and his disciples made it to dry land after the calming of the storm. It was evening. This was an eerie place. There was limestone caves all around and these were used as tombs. There was a steep slope so that animals could lose their footholds. People in those days believed that evil spirits inhabited these desolate and unclean places and that it was dangerous to be there.
A particularly troubled human being lived there. This was his own asylum. He was not fit for human society. He shrieked and cried out sometimes all night. Sometimes he directed his physical violence against himself, self-harming, as we say today. People may scoff at this story and its language about demons, but the mental condition of this man is something that is still present in human lives. We just don’t see it much. We have hospitals for such people who are kept locked up, drugged and out of sight. Let’s not think though that in the 21st century we are so superior because, in fact, the severest forms of mental illness still exist among us. Indeed, due to use of recreational drugs, there is an increase in some forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia. There’s a lot of self-harm and attempted suicide, especially among drug-takers.
We have people who live under bridges and highway overpasses or deep in the bowels of the underground in Britain today. They are mostly men, unkempt, unshaven, ragged, frightening. In The Military Cemetery in Newark, USA, a man called John lives. He was a Vietnam Veteran – his spirit broken and his mind ravaged by the unspeakable horrors he saw during that war. He lives in Military Park by day, taking special delight in wandering to frighten the patrons taking in an afternoon event. He speaks to people saying, “I can change the weather!” In Vietnam I was abducted by aliens. They took me to their space pod where they inserted radio receivers in my brain and here in my elbow, and there in my knee. At first, it frightened me, but I have learned how to use them. If I move very carefully, I can actually pick up a signal, like so and . . . voila! – I can change the weather.”
How did the Gerasene demoniac man become so mentally ill? Some psychiatrists say that multiple personality and schizophrenia are two different things. Multiple personality is something acquired or created by someone and schizophrenia is a condition of birth or inheritance. It is possible that this man became mad as a result of childhood trauma or excessive suffering or grief in later life. He may have been normal once. Maybe he lost his family in some tragedy. Maybe the Roman soldiers who billeted in that area from time to time did him or his family some serious harm. He may have had a latent schizophrenic condition that appeared in later life. Maybe he had dabbled in spiritualism. Maybe he had been a clairvoyant, a fortune-teller, a medium. Those harmful practices had overtaken him and his sanity.
He came and bowed down at Jesus’ feet. This is interesting; he was not completely mad although his ramblings and ravings were mad. It seems as if Jesus had immediately tried to exorcise the man but had not been successful. Christian healing today often requires repeat ministry - even over a period of time. This man though mad had spiritual perception. Instinctively rather than intellectually, he recognised Jesus and called Him ‘Son of the most high God’. He also said, ‘Swear to me that you won’t torture me?’ Why did he say that? It is possible that he had in his earlier life been severely tortured, possibly by the Romans. That may indeed have been the cause of his insanity. How did he recognise Jesus? Maybe he had indeed been a spiritualistic medium who intuited Jesus’ special personality.
Jesus tried again to exorcise him by asking for his name. It was and is an aspect of exorcism to identify and name that which is in possession of the mind of a human person. He said his name was Legion. There is a definite Roman army connection. A Roman legion was 6,000 soldiers. Maybe he recalled seeing these soldiers march past to the east or returning home. This word or name, for him, meant terror and destruction. Maybe he had been a Roman soldier and had inflicted torture on others. Maybe he had post-traumatic stress disorder. Although Jews were strict monotheists they did believe in spirits. Consulting such spirits was forbidden in Judaism and it has always been forbidden in Christianity. It is a dangerous world. It damages those who get involved. It is best for sanity’s sake to have nothing to do with it all. But this man had lost his sanity. Still - this naming did not succeed either.
William Barclay again provides a rational but suspect explanation of what happened next. The man felt his inner demons asking not to be destroyed but to be sent into a herd of pigs grazing on the slopes nearby. As the man’s shouting grew louder the pigs panicked and took flight with fright, lost their footing and careered or possibly fell over an edge and into the lake and were drowned. Seeing this animal suicide convinced the man that he was rid of his demons and so he was healed. This is an explanation for the otherwise incomprehensible catastrophe for the owners of the death of 2,000 pigs. One human being’s life is worth more than the lives of many pigs. To the Jews, pigs were unclean animals and they did not and do not eat pork.
Mass animal suicide can be compared today to that of wildebeests in the Serengeti in Tanzania and lemmings in the Arctic and Norway. The request of the inner demons not to be sent out of the area reflects the man’s sense of security in his place of suffering. Some long term prisoners cannot face freedom and seek to go back to prison. Some mentally ill people prefer the security of a hospital than to live in the community left to themselves to take their drugs. Some such people released back into community have committed appalling murders. What spiritual dynamics took place in the transfer of this man’s demons to a herd of pigs and thence to their destruction? In another part of the Gospels Jesus says that once demons have been exorcised they seek other victims. Sometimes, he says, they return to the person they had previously inhabited. Some recovering alcoholics return to taking alcohol. Some recovered drug addicts take up drugs again. Some people who go on severe diets, do lose weight for a time, but then put it back on again, becoming heavier than they were before. Today, we don’t use the language of demons but our human condition is the same. We struggle and battle to over come our own mental, spiritual, emotional and addictive problems.
Jesus gave these demons permission to go to the pigs. What else could he have done? This seems to have been essential to the healing. The demons having destroyed the pigs, would remain hovering in that area which is what they asked for. No humans were harmed in the telling of this story, except the owners of the pigs, of course, who lost financially. I cannot describe this meaningfully in any contemporary psychiatric terms. I think, however, if we remember that this region of the Gerasenes had a pagan spiritualistic culture. It was not subject to Judaism’s saving spiritual laws and this was its first encounter with Christianity. Think of Jamaica and Haiti - cultures with strong spiritualistic and voodoo elements - continuing today. Think of parts of Africa before Christianity arrived there, subject to ancestor worship, witch doctors, mediums and fake healers. It is a confusing environment.
Jesus brought order out of this chaos. At the third attempt, the man was healed and there he was sitting peacefully it says ‘in his right mind’. Meanwhile a near riot broke out as people left the town to come and see what had happened. They were not happy. They preferred their paganism and their spiritualism. They were afraid what Jesus would do next. Maybe he would go through their pubs and brothels and booths and wreck their livelihoods. Jesus agreed to leave them. The now sane man asked to become a disciple. Jesus said he could do more good testifying for the rest of his life that Jesus of Nazareth had healed him. No doubt, in time, a Christian church was formed there.
Today all the talk is of the wiring in the brain being wrongly rooted or damaged or both - and so some suffer from mental illness. Lots of people do and more and more are dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia in later years either as victims or as carers.
I believe that praying for and trusting in the Risen Jesus Christ for peace in such circumstances is helpful and beneficial. I believe that the Lord Jesus is the Lord of our subconscious and of that unseen basis to our life and personality which we call the mind. I believe that Jesus is there for us today as he was for this stricken human being on whom he had effective compassion.