Through the work of prison ministry, I read letter after letter from men in prison who describe encounters with the devil and evil spirits, haunting and taunting them. Behind the walls of prisons, demons are something known and feared.
These men have been made out to be enemies of the state, bearers of evil that must be excluded in order for society to flourish.
For me, this time of year presents a discomforting atmosphere when it comes to the presence of evil. In celebration of Halloween, houses here in Chicago have been adorned in spiders, skeletons and every class of creepy, colorful demon.
My family joins in on the communal act of trick-or-treating — an activity whereby previously-unknown neighbors emerge from their hideaways to offer a cheerful greeting and sweet snacks for kids dressed as superheroes and werewolves and jungle animals and La Santa Muerte. It is a confusing confrontation of whimsically liberative community-building and demonic celebration.
Jesus was fond of confusing confrontations, especially when evil was involved. But his mission of liberation was drastically more radical and life-giving than a few pieces of candy. Jesus challenges the notion that certain people are enemies of society and instead brazenly ushers in a world where all people are worthy of life and salvation in relationship.
There is one particularly eerie, confusing Gospel story calling us to imagine this world. Jesus heals a man allegedly possessed by evil spirits and commands the spirits into a herd of pigs who then drown themselves in the sea — a story commonly known as Jesus’ healing of the “Gerasene demoniac.” It is a story so full of strange details that it doesn’t even feature in our Sunday lectionary cycle. Yet within it is a powerful rejection of the societal instinct to decide who is or isn’t worthy of community.
In the Gospel of Mark’s account, the story begins with a description of isolation strikingly consonant with the experience of prisons in the United States:
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: 4-5)
Indeed, the likeness between prison and death is not lost on those who are closest to it. Underground Ministries, a leader in the faith-based movement to interrupt the damage caused by incarceration, refers to “the tombs of mass incarceration” built by societal sins, namely white supremacy.
In this story, our protagonist was judged and deemed too dangerous to live near the community. In Luke’s Gospel, he was also without clothing: stripped of dignity, ostracized and feared. A hopeless cause, less than human. A monster.
Then he encountered Jesus, and everything changed. Jesus was not afraid of him but saw him, held him closely and set him on a road to healing within the community.
We don’t know factually what the man’s ailment was. We do know that in the time of the Gospels’ writing, psychological ailments were often attributed to demonic possession.
Even if we take the story literally, we can draw parallels to the way certain conditions lead to behaviors that are seen as criminal, rather than as symptoms of an underlying cause.
More than 40% of individuals confined in state prisons have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. An estimated 65% have substance abuse disorders. 80% of people behind bars come from low-income communities and 67% are non-White.
Even though these underlying factors increase the chances of imprisonment, none of them should be equated with demonic possession. Yet we can’t ignore the historical precedent for doing so, especially in the case of race. The severe racial bias that persists to this day in the legal system makes clear that the evil delusion that Blackness is some kind of incurable disease, that Blackness is dangerous, is alive and well in our institutions and public subconscious.
Lucky for us on the outside, Jesus’ offer of liberation is not only offered to those in chains, but also to those who chain. But if we are anything like the community featured in this Gospel story, we will not be so quick to accept liberation for either party.
The people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. … Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region. (Mark 5: 14-15, 17)
In the United States, our popular refusal to seriously consider a society without prisons is perhaps underwritten by our desire to maintain the status quo. In Christian terms, we prefer to keep Jesus’ fullest intention at bay. We seek a kingdom built for some of us.
Yet there are prophets among us. Danielle Sered, founder of Common Justice, represents Jesus’ challenge in the way she formulates her own question: What if the question is not: who is dangerous and how should we punish them? But rather: who are we incapable of holding safely in our communities, and what would it take to be able to hold them? (Danielle Sered, “Until We Reckon,” 86-87)
We have made room for popular celebrations featuring demons and spirits. It is time we name the true evils among us and cast away our collective demons, opening the way to liberation for all of us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily Cortina is a mother raising three bilingual, bicultural children alongside her Mexican husband. She is an advocate for transformative and restorative justice and believes strongly in parishes as mostly untapped sources of radical community. She works at Kolbe House Jail Ministry in Chicago, Illinois.