The Demonic and today
Earlier in the Gospel of Mark, and throughout many places in the Gospels, there is mention of those who are demon possessed. Today we are tempted not to think much of it. Perhaps, we may reason, this was just an ancient attempt at understanding mental as well as physical ailments. Demonic possession, after all, seems the sort of thing they make scary movies about. Certainly not something to be taken seriously in our day to day life. Perhaps there were, and even are still, demonically possessed individuals, but I have never encountered them and don’t really need to worry about that.
Perhaps. But perhaps not. Early modern thinker S∅ren Kierkegaard believed that the demonic was particularly acute in our modern society. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard opens his section on “Anxiety about the good” in his fourth chapter noting our modern reluctance to even mention anything about the demonic. According to Kierkegaard, the plight of the demonic (whether that is the man or the demons within the man) is that he is so bound to sin, that he is no longer anxious about it. Rather, he is anxious about the good. Yet, by that same anxiety, the demonic is drawn and revealed by the good. It is the demoniac that approaches Jesus, not the other way around. Kierkegaard is not dismissing the real possibility of demonic possession (in fact he prefers such a reading), but is noting that should not be the primary focus.
What really strikes me, and has struck most readers of Kierkegaard, is that the man who is in this pitiful state, who has gone as far down as possible, asks Jesus to leave him alone. This man who is tortured day and night (or the demons who torture themselves day and night) asks Jesus not to torture him. This is the dichotomy Kierkegaard points out. The demonic is simultaneously drawn to the good and repulsed by it. The man his lowest can see the goodness exuding out of Jesus, yet is so bound to sin he wants to be left alone. He is incapable of asking for help, yet he so desperately needs it. He is more victim than condemned at this point. It is precisely in this binding to sin that we see the full destructive power of sin. Sin is not something to beat ourselves up about. Rather, Sin is the ultimate enemy. The devil wishes he were as powerful and destructive as sin, yet he is just another victim of it.
The name to which the man responds is legion. Whether this also means he is possessed by a legion of demons is again not the point. He is not the only one in such a sorry state.
The drug addict, cannot save himself from his addiction. The bully at school is not being a bully for its own sake, but (in most all cases) responding to her or his own trouble at home. The plight of loneliness in our modern culture is brought about by chemical changes wrought on our psyche through technology our minds never evolved to truly handle or understand. We are legion indeed. And only Christ can save us, whether we want it or not.
The passage ends with Jesus insisting on the secret again, but just before that, the town’s people come to see this man. The great shock was not the pigs running off the cliff. What prompts the crowd’s actions is seeing the man, the former crazed man, sitting, fully clothed at the feet of Jesus. Kierkegaard notes that this is primary failing of our society. We fail to see ourselves in the plight of the demoniac.
Rather than seeing the man rescued from sin and fully restored and rejoice, the people become afraid and ask Jesus to leave. If Jesus can cause such a radical change for that man, what kind of change does that mean for us? And so many of us go to a church building, drawn to the goodness in Christ, but we’ve segmented this part of our lives off so much that we may as well have rejected it. We depart from the presence of the holy unchanged, unbothered, and unconcerned. The Good (that is Christ) is calling us to genuine freedom and we abandon it for the comfort of daily routine.