Sunday’s gospel introduces a new, but to the modern reader, troubling, theme in Mark’s gospel. Jesus has already been baptised, and has gone into the wilderness to be tempted. He has called the first disciples and commenced his public ministry, preaching, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near”. Now he shows, in action rather than words, that the Kingdom is near by casting an “unclean spirit” out of a man.
Unclean spirits, spirits that are somehow outside of the dominion of God – or “demons” to give them the more familiar, and altogether more Buffy the Vampire Slayer, name – are major cast members in Mark, as they are in Matthew and Luke who draw on him. As we’ll see, their being “cast out” of people is one of the ways that the gospel shows us the nature of Jesus’ mission. More than that, they seem to know who Jesus is (in this passage, “the Holy One of God”). This is striking, since in Mark Jesus gives the impression of wanting to keep anything unique about his identity to himself. It is only on the cross that he is declared “Son of God” by the centurion.
Be that as it way, demons surely present modern readers with a problem. What are we to make of them? Aren’t they simply too alien to our ways of understanding the world for us to be able to get anything from the passages in which they occur? Don’t appeals to the demonic represent a more primitive way of understanding what we would now understand in terms of physical or mental illness, to be given a scientific explanation or remedy?
The temptation to dismiss this theme in the gospel as a relic from a pre-modern age is not only understandable, but often motivated by concern for the abuse that it continues to licence: demons and exorcism feature as concerns for a growing fringe of Christianity which does real damage to people, not least to those of us with mental illnesses. The idea that someone’s suffering is caused by, explained by, a non-natural being (possession of which might well be the result of personal sin) compounds the already difficult experience of illness. For those of us who rightly retreat from this view, this forces the question of how Christians can better understand mental illness.
Too often, though, the fundamentalist view that sees demons as a correct explanation of everyday suffering gets replaced by a liberal view that sees demons as simply an incorrect explanation of everyday suffering. The baby of Mark’s narrative gets thrown out with the bathwater of demonology and we lose a key theme of the gospel.
To get things right, we need to grasp how demons feature in Mark’s story. For Mark the world is a kind of battleground between God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who longs to set his people free – and the forces of chaos, tamed at the moment of creation. Jesus comes to decisively announce and make present the victory of God over those forces, to bring in the Kingdom of God. Like many of the prophets before him, his proclamation of the Kingdom is not simply a matter of words, but of actions, his great signs of power, or miracles. Amongst these, his exorcisms stand out as a practical demonstration that he has, as he will later put it, “bound the strong man”, that the Kingdom of God is triumphant over Satan. A cosmic battle is given expression in the relief of individual suffering.
Binding the Strong Man is the title of an excellent book by Chad Meyers which reads Mark’s gospel through a political lens. The political dimension of the Kingdom, the redemption of human community, sheds light on the need for speaking of the demonic in telling the story of the Kingdom’s coming. Like the demonic, the political ties in the global to the personal: the worldwide struggle against, say, racism, is played out in individual lives and suffering. It reminds us that we are caught up in things beyond our capacity to control, which pre-exist us, and from which we need redemption.
And that is as true today as it was in the first century.